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Exhibition Review: Roy Lichtenstein: History in the Making, 1948-1960

Exhibition Review: Roy Lichtenstein: History in the Making, 1948-1960

Article by Caroline Haller


August 25th, 2022 – January 8, 2023, at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University 

I consider myself extremely lucky to have attended the opening of Roy Lichtenstein: History in the Making, 1948-1960 at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University! The show was fantastic! Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997) was an American artist famous for his pop art pieces. This exhibition delves into the early work of his career prior to 1960, when he began producing these pop art pieces. All of these works of art were unknown to me until I visited!

The exhibition opened at the Nasher on August 25th, 2022, and was accompanied by a curator conversation, where visitors heard from co-curators Marshall N. Price and Elizabeth Finch. Marshall N. Price serves as the Chief Curator and Nancy A. Nasher and David J. Haemisegger Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Nasher Museum of Art. Elizabeth Finch is the Lunder Chief Curator at the Colby Museum of Art.

Having already visited Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville, ME, the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, NY and Columbus Museum of Art in Columbus, OH, the Nasher is the exhibition’s last stop.

The exhibition began to take shape when curator Elizabeth Finch discovered The Cowboy (Red) in the collections at the Colby College Museum of Art. (Figure 1) Finch was surprised to find that this work, by Lichtenstein, was not an anomaly, but one of several early works by the artist in the same style. Thus, Finch partnered with curator Marshall Price and sought to discuss the early works in Lichtenstein’s career. These early pastels, oils and sculptures have received considerably less consideration than Lichtenstein’s pop works but reveal Lichtenstein’s signature satirical view coupled with an intense sincerity.


Figure 1. Roy Lichtenstein, The Cowboy (Red), c. 1951, Oil on Canvas, 51 x 41 cm, Colby Museum of Art, Waterville, ME

Lichtenstein’s career really took off in the 1960’s and he became known for his pop art images derived from comics. Lichtenstein used benday dots in his pop art works to mimic comics. Therefore, this exhibition, might be called “before the dot”, as it examines works by Lichtenstein from before his pop art period.

In any case, what the exhibition does extremely well is show the threads of experimentation, materiality, American Exceptionalism, satire and earnestness which exist throughout this early period of Lichtenstein’s work. (Figure 2)


Figure 2. Roy Lichtenstein, Gallant Scene II, c. 1957, 120 x 176.2 cm, Private Collection. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein.

In the first gallery, amongst Lichtenstein’s early pastels, is a rare self-portrait. Not only did Lichtenstein rarely produce any form of self-portrait, but this one of him painting and wearing a bowler hat is especially unique because of its figuration. (Figure 3)


Figure 3. Roy Lichtenstein, Self-Portrait at an Easel, c, 1951-1952, Oil on Canvas, 86.5 x 76.5 cm. Private collection. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein.


Though born in New York City, Lichtenstein chose to attend Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. Lichtenstein’s instruction was interrupted because he served in the Army during World War II. However, after the war, Lichtenstein returned to Ohio State University, where he finished his studies and began a graduate degree. After which he returned to New York City. This unique experience in the mid-west at OSU’s progressive school, helped dictate Lichtenstein’s response to American history and culture. The exhibition serves as somewhat of a survey of trends in postwar American art.


Figure. 4. Roy Lichtenstein, Washington Crossing the Delaware II, 1951. Oil on Canvas, 62.2 x 76.5 cm. The Roy Lichtenstein Foundation Collection, New York. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein

Continuing through the exhibition, I stumbled upon a canvas that seemed vaguely familiar. (Figure 4) Rendered with a childlike naiveite, Lichtenstein’s Washington Crossing the Delaware II, takes its inspiration from a work done 100 years prior. That was Emanuel Leutze’s, Washington Crossing the Delaware from 1851. (Figure 5) Most Americans will have seen this image, at least in their history textbooks. In some ways, Lichtenstein’s canvas, pokes fun at the American notion of Manifest Destiny, or the notion that American’s were innately better. 



Figure 5. Emanuel Leutze, Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851, Oil on Canvas, 378.5 cm x 647.7 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and Minnesota Marine Art Museum, Winona, Minnesota.

As the exhibition shows, Lichtenstein’s work prior to 1960 contains the same humor and utilizes many of the same themes and subjects as his later works. Lichtenstein often included references from popular culture such as fairytales, caricatures, Americana, and Disney characters like Mickey Mouse. (Figure 6)


Figure 6. Gallery in Roy Lichtenstein: History in the Making, 1948-1960 at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, August 25th, 2022. Featuring sketches of Mickey Mouse.


A welcome surprise was the last gallery in the exhibition. This last section featured his brief trial with Abstract Expressionism between 1959-1960. The gallery not only shows his dedication to experimenting with materials and techniques, but also shows his attempts to best the fading movement of his contemporaries. Different from his peers, he depersonalized the process of creating abstract expressionism by using a rag to create the pieces. (Figure 7)


Figure 7. Roy Lichtenstein, Untitled, c. 1959, Oil on Canvas, 174.6 cm x 121.3 cm, Private Collection


The exhibition layout and design display an obvious thoughtfulness. Throughout the exhibition pillars painted in primary colors section off the thematically divided sections. The red, blue and yellow accentuate Lichtenstein’s playful side, while referencing his pop art to come.

At first, when I reached the conclusion of the exhibition. I looked around for one of Lichtenstein’s pop art pieces. I selfishly desired to see it as the next step in the development of Lichtenstein’s career. However, when I took a step out of the gallery space, I realized what a brilliant decision the curators had made in excluding the pop art pieces. In this, the curators achieved their goal; to highlight the overlooked early works in Lichtenstein’s oeuvre.   

The works in Roy Lichtenstein: History in the Making, 1948-1960 are from museums and private collections and most of these works are on view to the public for the first time ever! With 90 works from these early years of Lichtenstein’s artistic career, this exhibition is a must visit! If you get a chance to visit before the exhibition closes January 8th, 2023, you should! You will definitely walk away with a superior understanding of Lichtenstein’s early career.

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