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‘Roy Lichtenstein: History in the Making, 1948-1960’ Review: Before His Career Popped

The Wall Street Journal:

An exhibition vividly portrays the artist’s formation without suggesting success was foreordained

Roy Lichtenstein, ‘Washington Crossing the Delaware II,’ (1951) ESTATE OF ROY LICHTENSTEIN
Roy Lichtenstein, ‘Washington Crossing the Delaware II,’ (1951) ESTATE OF ROY LICHTENSTEIN

When scholars examine a famous artist’s early work, the temptation is to search for portents—to find in classroom studies any nascent motifs that point to future prowess and foretell mastery as inevitable.

One of the refreshing aspects of “Roy Lichtenstein: History in the Making, 1948-1960” at the Parrish Art Museum is that the curators haven’t surrounded this period with an aura of destiny. One walks through the three rooms and sees the artist testing out a bewildering variety of styles and subjects without ever settling on one. Not until 1960, when he was in his late 30s, did he discover the formula—figures lifted from American comic books, outlined in black, filled in with bright primary colors and abstracted by Ben-day dots—that became a defining signature of Pop Art.

Roy Lichtenstein, ‘Untitled’ (c. 1955) PHOTO: ESTATE OF ROY LICHTENSTEIN

Until then, as the show succinctly documents, Lichtenstein roamed blithely through the annals of art and illustration. He painted tank-like figures that recall the Surrealism of Max Ernst and the eccentric classicism of John Graham (“The Diver,” c. 1948-49). He made tapered sculptures in wood and metal that invoke African and Northwest American Indian art (“King,” c. 1951). He satirized U.S. history painting (“Washington Crossing the Delaware,” c. 1951) by flattening the heroic figures of Emanuel Leutze’s panoramic canvas in the manner of Picasso’s “Three Musicians.”

Elements of his later style are visible but not yet synthesized. Images of cartoon animals from about 1958—installed in a section of the show titled “Glimmers of Pop”—lack the flat-toned audacity of his post-1960 paintings. A brush-and-ink drawing of a reclining Bugs Bunny renders his buck-toothed head as if he were a hallucination or perhaps one of De Kooning’s “Woman” paintings. Two drawings of Mickey Mouse are more disturbing than droll.

Roy Lichtenstein, ‘Bugs Bunny’ (c. 1958) PHOTO: ESTATE OF ROY LICHTENSTEIN
Roy Lichtenstein, ‘Bugs Bunny’ (c. 1958)
PHOTO: ESTATE OF ROY LICHTENSTEIN

Several of these works were in the 1994 and 2012 traveling retrospectives. But many more of the approximately 90 paintings, drawings, sculptures, watercolors and prints have not been seen before. Elizabeth Finch, chief curator at the Colby College Museum of Art, and Marshall N. Price, chief curator of modern and contemporary art at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, are the co-organizers of the show and editors of the superb catalog. The exhibition will travel to both places, as well as to the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio; it has been ably installed here by Alicia G. Longwell, chief curator at the Parrish.

Lichtenstein (1923-1997) was a well-trained artist. Born in New York, he studied art at Ohio State University where—after three years in the U.S. Army during and after World War II—he then resumed his studies and earned a master of fine arts degree in 1949. He often credited a teacher there, Hoyt L. Sherman, as an influence on his entire career. The 1950s were less fulfilling. He worked as a draftsman for a window decorator in Cleveland and taught art in upstate New York and in New Jersey.

The upbeat, impish side of Lichtenstein was irrepressible, however, and pervades the show. Exposed to Modernism in New York and during his military service in Europe, he used the Cubism of Picasso and the whimsy of Miró to parody whatever caught his fancy, from French classical painting to the Charge of the Light Brigade.

The absence of anything religious, mystical, risqué or polemical is also striking. There are no pure landscapes or nudes. Figures are set in the American West and Midwest rather than Lichtenstein’s birthplace in the urbanized East. There are no city scenes, although the social realist painter Reginald Marsh was one of his teachers during his New York youth.

Lichtenstein demonstrated more curiosity about engineering than spiritualism. A series from the mid-’50s depicts in a Cubist fashion the gears and levers of various machines: “Shaper Feed Mechanism,” “Motion Picture Projector,” “Device With Crank,” “Ratchet and Pawl Mechanism.” A woodblock print titled “The Heavier-Than-Air Machine” (1953) may have Ohio associations. Columbus isn’t far from Dayton, where the Wright brothers had their headquarters.

Roy Lichtenstein, ‘Mechanism, Cross Section’ (c. 1954) PHOTO: ESTATE OF ROY LICHTENSTEIN
Roy Lichtenstein, ‘Mechanism, Cross Section’ (c. 1954)
PHOTO: ESTATE OF ROY LICHTENSTEIN

Lichtenstein’s Abstract Expressionist phase (mid-’50s) was brief and devoid of angst. His apparently unique technique for applying multiple stripes of color simultaneously with a rag did not result in great paintings, but it did, as the curators note, presage his later brushstroke sculptures, one of which stands in front of the Parrish.

After his emergence as a Pop Art star, Lichtenstein told an interviewer in 1963: “I have always had this interest in a purely American mythological subject matter.” The sentiment is confirmed here by a drawing from the early ’40s of Paul Bunyan cutting down a tree, as well as by the cowboys and Indians who appeared regularly during the ’50s when he was mocking 19th-century Western painters such as Alfred Jacob Miller.

Not that Lichtenstein ever seemed less than optimistic about his country or himself. Despite the diverse and sometimes incongruous art on display here, everything in the show exudes a buoyant confidence, as if this most light-hearted of the Pop artists suspected that one day he would become what he became.

Roy Lichtenstein, 'Self-Portrait at an Easel' (c. 1951-1952)
Roy Lichtenstein, 'Self-Portrait at an Easel' (c. 1951-1952)
Roy Lichtenstein, 'Variations No. 7' (1959)
Roy Lichtenstein, 'Variations No. 7' (1959)
Roy Lichtenstein, 'Ten Dollar Bill (Ten Dollars)' (1956)
Roy Lichtenstein, 'Ten Dollar Bill (Ten Dollars)' (1956)
Roy Lichtenstein, 'The Cannon' (1948)
Roy Lichtenstein, 'The Cannon' (1948)