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Roy Lichtenstein: History in the Making, 1948 – 1960

Roy Lichtenstein, Variations No. 7 (detail, shown in full below), 1959. Oil on canvas, 48 x 60 inches (121.9 x 152.4 cm). Collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. The Roy Lichtenstein Study Collection; gift of the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation, 2019.277.
© Estate of Roy Lichtenstein.

Landmark Exhibition of Formative Work

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 20th century. The exhibition tells the overlooked story of Lichtenstein’s early career and establishes a deeper understanding of postwar American art.

The landmark 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.

I am tremendously excited to share this exhibition with regional and national audiences. Many will discover an entirely new and surprising aspect of this well-known artist’s work. I am proud that the Nasher, with our exhibition partner, the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville, Maine, is exploring yet another uncharted territory in the history of art, and contributing new scholarship to the field of American Art.

Sarah Schroth, Mary D.B.T. and James H. Semans Director of the Nasher Museum

“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.

ABOVE: Ken Heyman, Roy Lichtenstein in mirror reflections (detail), 1964 (printed later). Gelatin silver print, 16 × 20 inches (40.64 × 50.8 cm). Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. Gift of Charles (A.B.’84) and Linda Googe, 2019.17.165. © Ken Heyman Estate.

We’re thrilled to reintroduce this beloved artist to U.S. audiences who know him for his comics-inspired Pop imagery. This exhibition will include work almost completely unknown to the public that laid the foundation for the rest of his career.

Co-curator Marshall N. Price, PhD, Nancy A. Nasher and David J. Haemisegger Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Nasher Museum

Born in New York City, Lichtenstein enrolled in 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 some 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, folk and children’s art. He drew on various forms of Americana, including representations of cowboys and Native Americans encountered in 19th-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.

Visitors will be surprised to see how Lichtenstein explored abstraction just prior to his seemingly abrupt turn to Pop art in 1961. These works are fascinating because they show the artist straddling the line between unabashed lyricism and a wry critique of second-generation Abstract Expressionism.

Co-curator Elizabeth Finch, Lunder Curator of American Art at the Colby College Museum of Art

Roy Lichtenstein: History in the Making, 1948 – 1960 introduces a revisionist starting point for a new understanding of Lichtenstein’s work and establishes a new context for this period in 20th-century modern American art.

Support

Roy Lichtenstein: History in the Making, 1948 – 1960 is co-organized by the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina and the Colby College Museum of Art, Waterville, Maine. The exhibition is co-curated by Marshall N. Price, Nancy A. Nasher and David J. Haemisegger Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Nasher Museum and Elizabeth Finch, Lunder Curator of American Art at the Colby Museum.

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. Wyeth logo

At the Nasher Museum, this exhibition is made possible by the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation; the Nancy A. Nasher and David J. Haemisegger Family Fund for Exhibitions; the J. Horst and Ruth Mary Meyer Fund for the Nasher Museum; the Neely Family Fund; the Lenore and Victor Behar Endowment Fund; Christine and Jeff Weller; Katherine Thorpe Kerr and Terrance Kerr; Lisa Lowenthal Pruzan and Jonathan Pruzan; and Karen M. Rabenau and David H. Harpole; and Parker & Otis.

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