Va. woman puts early work by pop artist Roy Lichtenstein up for auction

Enid Liess, with
Enid Liess, with "The Statesman" by Roy Lichtenstein. (Courtesy Quinn's Auction Galleries)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 3, 2010; 12:26 AM

As a young girl, Enid Liess rode the "L" to the Art Institute of Chicago every week for classes. Afterward, she wandered through the museum for hours.

Her eye was trained early to recognize good paintings, and she knew what she liked. When she was redecorating her Milwaukee apartment in the 1960s, she went to an art auction at her temple and saw a work that spoke to her.

"If you want me, I can tell the story in a free-flow way," said Liess one recent morning, 45 years after that auction.

"At Temple Sinai they hired a young man who knew the local art scene but not the national scene," she said. "I saw this painting and I loved it. It was whimiscal, and I loved the earth tones." Liess, 74, is small and trim, wearing a bright magenta sweater with a dainty bow at the waist over a black shirt and black slacks. "My husband had said I could buy up to $25. I was bidding and my friend jumped up and said $25.50. I could have bopped her."

The bidding eventually escalated to $27.50, split between the two friends, and Liess received the painting as a housewarming gift.

What she bought for her contribution of $12.50 was "The Statesman," painted by Roy Lichtenstein in 1951. Liess, who was not familiar with the then little-known artist, hung it above a nonworking fireplace in their apartment.

As it happened, Liess continued her art education, attending lectures and devotedly reading the stories on art in Time magazine. She made a binder of the articles and kept them for years. "Two or three weeks later in Time, there was a spread on pop artists. They included Roy Lichtenstein. I said to my husband, 'This is the same man.' Then Life magazine right after did a one-man spread, titled 'Is This the Worst Artist in America?' I took the painting to the Milwaukee Art Museum and then confirmed my artist and Lichtenstein were the same."

Lichtenstein was one of the seminal artists of the pop movement, his most famous work recognizable by its signature comic-strip style and platoons of dots. "The Statesman" depicts a man with a five-sided face, a cap tilted to the side, arms squared and raised. He's wearing a jacket that has enormous blotches for buttons on one side and looks slightly colonial. "I realized it had some value. His work had staying power. But I had no intention of doing anything with it but giving it to my children when I died," Liess said.

Liess kept the painting in a prominent place after she moved from Milwaukee to Northern Virginia in 1968 with her husband and their two children. Liess worked as a teacher and school administrator for 37 years. The couple lived modestly, putting aside funds for annual family vacations, continuing to take adult education classes in art and music and buying art that caught their eyes.

Eight years ago, a disaster befell the family. Liess's son-in-law became too ill to work. With financial help from her in-laws, Liess's daughter continued to run the Atlanta party store the couple co-owned. However, the in-laws had invested with Bernie Madoff and ultimately lost almost everything. Liess's daughter was forced to close the store and start a home-based business.

To help, Liess, then 72, went back to work part time at a day-care center at the Jewish Community Center in Fairfax County, then did Census Bureau canvassing, and then office work.

This year, a second upheaval. In February, Liess discovered she had breast cancer. Most of this year, she has been recovering from surgery and undergoing rigorous treatments. She finished radiation three weeks ago.

During the summer she made up her mind to sell the Lichtenstein. She called Matt Quinn, at Quinn's Auction Galleries, who looked at it and recognized an early gem. The Roy Lichtenstein Foundation authenticated the painting, for which it has a black-and-white photograph and the artist's sketch.

"I was surprised and delighted that a work so close to home had bubbled up," said Jack Cowart, executive director of the foundation. The pre-pop painting had some signs of the style that made Lichtenstein famous. "He has this continuity of being very engaged, amused and curious about a number of things," Cowart said.

The 60-year-old painting had been out of sight for almost five decades, only moving from New York's John Heller Gallery to Temple Sinai to Jerry and Enid Liess.

So "The Statesman" is up for auction once more, this time on Saturday morning - Lot 56 at Quinn's Auction Galleries in Falls Church. The opening bid is $40,000.

"I have very mixed feelings. I'm a person who primarily does not care about things. Artwork is what I have picked to engage my being," said Liess, sitting in the auction gallery, her voice strong and steadfast. "But there is nothing I wouldn't do for the children."

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