The Parrish Art Museum opens the first exhibition to investigate Roy Lichtenstein's early work
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The Parrish Art Museum opens the first exhibition to investigate Roy Lichtenstein's early work
Roy Lichtenstein, Untitled, c. 1955. Painted canvas, painted scrap wood, wood battens, bolts, screws, string; 26 3/4 x 13 9/16 x 3 13/16 inches (67.9 x 34.4 x 9.7 cm). Private Collection. ã Estate of Roy Lichtenstein.

WATER MILL, NY.- The Parrish Art Museum presents Roy Lichtenstein: History in the Making, 1948–1960, the first major museum exhibition to investigate the early work of the artist, who became a founder of the Pop Art movement. It will be on view August 1 through October 24, 2021. The exhibition provides an illuminating prologue to Lichtenstein’s well-known comics-inspired imagery, and tells the largely overlooked story of his early career, when formal experimentation and a keen eye for irony irrevocably defined his art. Lichtenstein’s fruitful, formative years introduce a revisionist starting point for understanding his work and establish a fresh context for this period in 20th-century modern American art. The exhibition is co-curated by Elizabeth Finch, Lunder Chief Curator at Colby College Museum of Art, and Marshall N. Price, Chief Curator and Nancy A. Nasher and David J. Haemisegger Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. The presentation at the Parrish Art Museum is organized by Alicia G. Longwell, Ph.D., Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Chief Curator.

Roy Lichtenstein: History in the Making, 1948–1960 features approximately 90 paintings, drawings, sculpture, and prints—many on public view for the first time. Open in February to a limited audience at Colby, it makes its full, public debut at the Parrish, which is sited in close proximity to where the artist lived and worked for 30 years in Southampton Village. This venue emphasizes Lichtenstein’s bond to the region and the Museum, where exhibitions of his work have been held across four decades.

Roy Lichtenstein: History in the Making, 1948–1960 examines the period before Pop art and Lichtenstein’s adoption of what would become his signature use of Benday dots. It reveals how Pop emerged in dialogue with European modernism, American history painting, diverse vernacular sources, and popular post-war trends. Lichtenstein was attuned to the increased interest in children’s toys and games as the American population boomed after World War II. The Cannon (1948), among six pastels on view, illustrates the artist’s attention to child’s play with the whimsical depiction of heavy artillery—a nod to war toys—and figures that evoke painted wooden folk art.

Washington Crossing the Delaware II (1951) attests to a central aim of Lichtenstein’s early work: satirizing the American historical narrative. Among his many sources during this period was Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 work, Washington Crossing the Delaware, an idealized depiction of Washington leading Continental Army troops on the eve of the Battle of Trenton in 1776. Lichtenstein’s version of this parable shows the artist’s willingness to parody even some of the most ingrained and revered American historical narratives.

The exhibition includes examples from Lichtenstein’s brief but instrumental foray into abstraction with paintings such as Variations No.7 (1959), where frenetic brushstrokes used in earlier works are combined with small bands of color painted in stripes.

Lichtenstein’s interest in Americana as well as his fascination with popular culture and cartoon characters were central motivations behind loosely rendered drawings such as Bugs Bunny (1958) and Look Mickey (1961). That pivotal work, often credited as the first Pop painting, was first shown in Roy Lichtenstein: Paintings, a 1982 exhibition at the Parrish.

Roy Lichtenstein: History in the Making, 1948–1960 continues the artist’s enduring relationship with the Museum that began when he and his wife Dorothy moved to Southampton in 1970. In addition to Roy Lichtenstein: Paintings, the Parrish has presented The Prints of Roy Lichtenstein, a major exhibition organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., (1995); and Roy Lichtenstein: American Indian Encounters (2006).

Roy Lichtenstein

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 later, newspapers.

The exhibition will later travel to the Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio, and to the Nasher Museum. It is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue published by Rizzoli New York, featuring essays by Elizabeth Finch and Marshall N. Price, as well as Lichtenstein scholars Ruth Fine, Scott Manning Stevens, and Graham Bader.

Roy Lichtenstein: History in the Making, 1948–1960 is co-organized by the Colby College Museum of Art, Waterville, Maine, and the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.

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