Nudes and nearly nine-digit comic paintings are not the only sectors of Lichtenstein’s market commanding attention, as another recent auction result signaled. At its marquee virtual sale last month, Sotheby’s sold his White Brushstroke I (1965) firmly within its pre-sale estimate, for $25.4 million. In this work, an undulating white brushstroke fills the canvas, with precise splatters dripping down the Ben-Day dotted blue background. Lichtenstein painstakingly painted a brushstroke without a literal brushstroke in sight.
In 1965, Abstract Expressionism was still in many ways the dominant style of art. Lichtenstein used the movement’s most iconic formal feature—the expressive, fervent, dynamic brushstroke—and sterilized it. He contained it within precise borders and positioned it on a comic book backdrop. It’s a clever work, and it provokes big questions: What is and isn’t art? How is art made? Who gets to call themselves an artist?
Unlike Lichtenstein’s comic girls from around the same time, the brushstroke works—of which there are just 15—sell at a lower price point. The result for White Brushstroke I made it his 12th biggest auction result, more than double the next most expensive brushstroke painting. Celis noted that there are works from the 1960s like the brushstrokes that have great historical value despite being too conceptual for some collectors’ tastes, especially when they’re in the market for a quintessential Lichtenstein. “The brushstroke is almost more Duchampian than Warholian,” she said, “not that the goal is to be Warholian.”
But for some collectors, the goal is to collect “Warholian” art, to own the works that have come to represent a movement. “The auction market always liked the side of Roy which is very flashy and sensual,” said Bertozzi Castelli, “and I think Roy always kind of knew that.” The crying-a-single-tear comic girls of the early 1960s are flashy and sensual, but they also mark the beginning of an artistic revolution.
In his work, Lichtenstein was always appropriating the iconic: iconic images and iconic art movements. Lichtenstein’s girls, Warhol’s soup cans, Oldenburg’s larger-than-life sculptures—these are the icons of Pop art, and that’s what fuels their markets. As Lichtenstein told
Seiberling in the 1964 Life
profile: “I take a cliché and try to organize its forms to make it monumental.”