Before The Dots: Exploring Roy Lichtenstein’s Early Years at the Parrish

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Roy Lichtenstein, Self-Portrait at an Easel, c. 1951–1952. Oil on canvas, 34 1/16 x 30 1/8 inches (86.5 x 76.5 cm). Private collection. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein.

By Cailin Riley

Both inside and outside of the art world, Roy Lichtenstein is a household name, widely recognized as one of the pioneers of Pop Art. The prevailing narrative has been that Lichtenstein came out of nowhere when he burst onto the Pop Art scene in 1961, rising to prominence along with other household names like Andy Warhol. But the truth is that Lichtenstein was a well-established artist with an impressive body of work long before delving into the art form that would make him famous.

For the first time, an exhibition exclusively devoted to examining that early part of his career has been put together, and it’s coming to the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill.

“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, and was curated by Marshall N. Price and Beth Finch. The exhibition will be at the Parrish starting on August 1, running through October 24. It opened to a limited audience at the Colby College Museum of Art, will travel to the Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio, and to the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. The show, organized with the authorization of the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation, with loans from museums and private collections, features more than 80 works, including paintings, drawings, sculptures and prints, many of which have never been viewed by the public.

The value in examining and celebrating Lichtenstein’s lesser known work is multi-faceted. For starters, it was extremely foundational to his later Pop Art work.

Roy Lichtenstein, “Washington Crossing the Delaware II,” 1951. Oil on canvas, 24 1/2″ x 30 1/8″. The Roy Lichtenstein Foundation Collection, New York. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein.

“While the early work looks very different from his Pop Art from a formal perspective, it nevertheless contains many of the hallmarks of his later oeuvre,” said Price, who is the chief curator at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. “These include an interest in history, myth, archetypes and popular culture. It was also a moment in which the artist developed techniques and methods that would be instrumental in later years, including the appropriation of existing images.”

The exhibition represents the first time that both the subjects and techniques that became vital to Lichtenstein’s Pop Art work have been looked at in a comprehensive way, Price said, adding that studying Lichtenstein’s early work also provides a window into the “nuanced and critical way in which it relates to American post-war culture.”

“It is no coincidence that just several years after the U.S. emerges victorious from World War II and ascends to the world stage, Lichtenstein is appropriating 19th century images of American history that glorified Manifest Destiny and other imperialist notions,” Price said. “It was a ‘rah-rah’ moment for the country and the artist was rendering these scenes with a critical and humorous eye, effectively questioning some of these histories.”

Alicia G. Longwell, the chief curator at the Parrish, echoed that sentiment.

“[Lichtenstein] already saw those ironies and particularly in what curators call Mythic America,” she said. “Already I think he must have known he was going to be a little outside of particular definitions.”

Roy Lichtenstein, “Ten Dollar Bill (Ten Dollars),” 1956. Lithograph on wove paper, edition 4/25; 16 7/8″ x 22 5/8″. Collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. The Roy
Lichtenstein Study Collection; gift of the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein.

Trying to create that bridge between Lichtenstein’s earlier work and his well known Pop Art period was part of the inspiration for creating the exhibit, according to Finch, the chief curator of the Colby College Museum of Art, who said the artist’s pre-pop work is extensive, but was largely unknown or misunderstood.

“The Lichtenstein Foundation has located more than 600 works made by Lichtenstein prior to 1961, when he seemingly became an overnight sensation as a Pop Artist,” she said. “So there was this treasure trove of works in a wide range of mediums to consider and research, and one of these works, the painting ‘Cowboy (Red),’ is in the Colby collection.”

The true story of Lichtenstein’s journey as an artist runs counter to the narrative that he became a star overnight. His trajectory was more gradual, the curators said, and began in Columbus, Ohio. Lichtenstein, who was born in New York in 1923 and raised in Manhattan, later enrolled at Ohio State University before being drafted into the U.S. Army to serve in Europe in World War II. He finished his undergraduate degree in 1946, and then earned his master’s in fine arts in 1949, while also beginning a teaching stint at the university. He remained in Ohio throughout much of the 1950s, and ultimately returned to the New York City area when he took a teaching position at Rutgers University in 1960.

The exhibition focuses on work done in that earlier time period. Within that collection of nearly 100 early works, there are a few that stand out for Price. In 1951, Lichtenstein created a series of history paintings appropriated from earlier 19th century paintings, including two versions of “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” Notably, Lichtenstein created those works roughly 100 years after the original paintings by Emanuel Leutze, which are familiar to anyone who has ever opened a U.S. history textbook.

Roy Lichtenstein, “Bugs Bunny,” c.1958. Brush and india ink on paper, 20 1/8″ x 26 1/8″. Private collection. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein.

“In Lichtenstein’s hands, this grand and foundational American narrative is rendered in modest scale with a naïve, almost childlike touch that recalls folk art,” Price said. “Beyond its formal qualities, however, it reveals an artist who was thinking critically about historical narratives at a moment when these very narratives were being celebrated and retold in the context of American triumphalism after the war.”

Price said he was also intrigued by a group of abstract paintings Lichtenstein created in the late 1950s, just before he turned to Pop Art. Price explained that because Lichtenstein came of age in the 1950s, when Abstract Expressionism was at its height, he felt “obligated to engage with it in some way.” Lichtenstein found a unique way of doing that, which would become key to his development as a Pop Artist.

“He developed a painting technique late in the decade, as Abstract Expressionism was waning, of applying several colors simultaneously using a rag,” Price said. “This effectively removed the personal touch of the artist’s hand, the very thing that was at the heart of Abstract Expressionism’s emphasis on subjectivity. In doing so, he was essentially creating a parody of the brushstroke, a form that became an integral part of his Pop vocabulary for the rest of his life.”

Longwell, Price and Finch believe there is something for everyone who takes in the exhibit, regardless of how familiar they are with Lichtenstein and Pop Art.

“Whether you know Roy Lichtenstein’s art well or you are discovering it for the first time, we believe that the exhibition captures Lichtenstein’s playfulness, inventiveness, and satirical eye, the qualities and talents that made him famous,” Finch said. “We want visitors to understand that the roots of Pop art are deeper, more fundamental, and more complex than they might otherwise think.”

For Longwell and the rest of the Parrish community, it is also another chance to highlight an artist with roots in the area and with a strong and long-term connection to the museum. Roy Lichtenstein and his wife, Dorothy, started coming to Southampton in the last 1960s, and purchased a carriage house there in 1969.

“He was very much a hometown person for us,” she said. “The Parrish had a retrospective on his work as early as 1982. For us, this rounds out the story of this incredible artist and his incredible life and career.”

“Roy Lichtenstein: History in the Making, 1948–1960” opens with a members’ preview on Sunday, August 1, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. In addition, on Saturday, August 7, from 10 to 11:30 a.m., chief curator Alicia Gl. Longwell will offer a Giving Circles private tour of the exhibition followed by refreshments on the terrace. Advanced registration required. For more information, visit parrishart.org or call 631-283-2118. The show remains on view through October 24 at the Parrish Art Museum, 279 Montauk Highway, Water Mill.

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