Roy Lichtenstein: History in the Making, 1948–1960 is the first major museum exhibition to investigate the early work of one of the most celebrated American artists of the twentieth century. It tells the overlooked story of Lichtenstein’s early career and establishes a deeper understanding of postwar American art.
The unprecedented exhibition features loans from museum and private collections, presenting about 90 works from the artist’s fruitful formative years. Many of the paintings, drawings, sculptures, and prints will be on public view for the first time.
“Before the Dot”
Roy Lichtenstein: History in the Making examines the period before the dot; that is, Lichtenstein’s signature use of Benday dots in his Pop paintings. The exhibition reveals how Pop art emerged in dialogue with European modernism, American history painting, and a diversity of vernacular sources.
Born in 1923 in New York City, Lichtenstein enrolled in 1941 at the Ohio State University in Columbus, where the progressive curriculum and a focus on visual perception influenced his irreverent response to American history and culture. The artist’s studies were interrupted when he served in the Army during World War II, allowing him to see some of the great European masterpieces in person. After he returned to Ohio, Lichtenstein quickly synthesized modern art styles to create an innovative and personalized body of work. By the early 1950s, he was exhibiting regularly in New York and received considerable critical attention.
Before 1960, Lichtenstein’s art was filled with characteristic humor and evoked many of the themes that would become synonymous with his later career. He appropriated from earlier art and showed an avid interest in popular culture—important harbingers of his better-known work in the following decades. He was inspired by fairy tales, caricature, and folk and children’s art. He drew on various forms of Americana, including representations of cowboys and Native Americans encountered in nineteenth-century paintings of the Great Plains, and the Disney cartoon characters Bugs Bunny, Donald Duck, and Mickey Mouse. These and other vernacular inspirations are the essential but little-known precursors to the artist’s appropriations of popular culture and his famous sourcing of comic books, advertisements, and newspapers later on.
The exhibition will also tell the story of Lichtenstein’s brief but instrumental flirtation with abstraction in 1959 and 1960. Coinciding with the mainstreaming of Abstract Expressionism, these paintings illustrate how the artist was inspired to engage with the movement’s pervasive influence, but not without inserting his characteristic humor and wit.
Roy Lichtenstein: History in the Making, 1948–1960 is co-organized by the Colby College Museum of Art and the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. Support for this exhibition and its national tour is provided by the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation. Additional catalogue support is provided by the Wyeth Foundation for American Art.