Lichtenstein grew up in New York City in the 1930s, the heyday of art deco, so the sleek lines and decorative panels of landmarks such as the Chrysler Building 1930 and the Empire State Building1931 were familiar to him. When in 1966 he was commissioned to design a poster for the city’s Lincoln Center, he turned his focus backwards 30 years to use an outmoded architectural art deco style as the basis for the poster.
This was the starting point for a series of paintings and sculptures that he called his Modern series. While much of his art derives from specific sources, these works refer to a design style. Lichtenstein was fascinated with art deco’s merging of ornamentation and mass production, but he also humorously described it as ‘Cubism for the home’: he felt that it had domesticated Picasso’s radical reshaping of our perception.
‘The geometric logic of art deco [seemed] too easily to fit the instruments, the T-squares and compasses, of the designers and architects,’ he said. ‘I saw in it a too-rational quality that had an absurd twist.’ The artist played around with modern motifs as a pure exercise on style. For example, Modern Painting Triptych 1967 explores a modular geometric pattern that can be repeated sequentially to create a decorative panel.
The brass sculptures Modern Sculpture 1967 and Modern Sculpture with Velvet Rope 1968 are also original compositions where the artist paraphrases architectural details and furnishings, such as doorways and railings, commonly found in the interiors of New York skyscrapers, film theatres or auditoriums such as Radio City Music Hall. Lichtenstein clearly enjoyed the absence of a specific model, which allowed him to improvise freely in an abstract, almost musical manner. He was a jazz fan and amateur musician, who studied saxophone in his last years.