Explore Roy Lichtenstein: History in the Making, 1948–1960

Co-organized by the Colby College Museum of Art and the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Roy Lichtenstein: History in the Making, 1948–1960 tells the story of an ambitious young artist who experimented with materials and processes, critiqued social mores and mythic conceptions of US history through his satirical artworks, and ultimately found fame by helping to launch a global art movement. It reveals a largely unacknowledged through line, linking Lichtenstein’s early riffs on history painting and representations of the American West, folk art, and gestural abstraction to the later Pop paintings for which he is best known.

The enterprising first chapter of Lichtenstein’s career, which coincided with both consumerism and US power in ascendance, shows him methodically experimenting with artistic styles and mediums; creating series organized by theme; identifying new printed visual sources; and establishing the methods of appropriation that would later define his art. This is the first Lichtenstein exhibition to examine this early period in depth and recognize it for what it is: not as a mere prelude, but as a formative passage for an artist intent on making history.

Self-Portrait at an Easel, c. 1951–52. Oil on canvas. 34 1/16 x 30 1/8 in. (86.5 x 76.5 cm). Private collection. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein

Archetypes/Steroetypes

In his early works, Lichtenstein evoked mythic narratives and archetypes, among them the warrior, the knight, and the outlaw (later the Pop art fighter pilot) as well as the mother and the damsel (later the Pop art “girl”). Such familiar tropes guided his appropriations from illustrated histories, art histories, and magazines, from which he teased out interrelated themes of selfhood and nationalism. Lichtenstein could verge, as his sources did, into the realm of the stereotype, even as his seeming modernist objectivity veiled something more personal at work. Early in the Pop art era, he observed that “the things that I have apparently parodied I actually admire,” indicating the push and pull between critique and identification at the heart of his project.

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Midwest Medieval

As he navigated his early career, Lichtenstein read books on the stages of an artist’s creative development and children’s drawings informed his exploration of a purposefully naive or unschooled style. He also looked at images of the Bayeux Tapestry and made “medievalizing” works with a childlike quality; they conflate European kings and knights with Native American chiefs and warriors and the “founding fathers” of the United States. 

The social and cultural backdrop for these antic jousts and spoofs on bravery was postwar America, which Lichtenstein experienced from the vantage point of the Midwest. Returning servicemen and the population surge of the baby boom era led to a renewed emphasis on traditional gender roles: women in the home, men in the workforce. The future Pop artist understood the situation as ripe for critique, even as he depicted himself, a new veteran, in the guise of an impish combatant well positioned to reap its rewards.

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Mythic America

In 1951, Lichtenstein began appropriating scenes from US history, for instance Revolutionary War battles, images of westward expansion, and Native American subjects. Many of these were taken from reproductions of nineteenth-century art found in popular sources. Satirizing US ideals that had become mythologized and enshrined, Lichtenstein explored modern styles, ranging from the intentionally childlike to the highly structured.

To many, the Allied victory in World War II and the country’s ascendance as a global superpower reinforced a belief in American exceptionalism—the idea that the United States is inherently distinct from and superior to other countries. By mining existing imagery from popular and print culture, Lichtenstein established the method of appropriation that would become a hallmark of Pop art, and in the process cast a critical eye on a widely accepted narrative.

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Painting Machines

Around 1953, Lichtenstein embarked on a series of paintings depicting mechanical devices. These new works, unlike his earlier narrative scenes, were section diagrams showing the interiors of machines, gears, electronics, and blueprints. Pivoting away from his engagement with US history and folklore, these diagrammatic paintings anticipate some of Lichtenstein’s earliest Pop works. They focus on individual objects, emphasize drawing and design, and eliminate narrative content. Lichtenstein’s paintings of machines constitute only a small portion of his early works, but they underscore, through their banal subjects, the artist’s claim that he was more compelled by formal concerns than subject matter. They also presage Lichtenstein’s interest in the mechanisms of printing, most notably his hand-painted Benday dots.

The inspiration for these paintings came from at least two sources. An engineering drawing class at the Ohio State University had exposed Lichtenstein to A Manual of Engineering Drawing, an illustrated reference book for mechanical drafting. Additionally, while making these paintings he was working odd jobs, including painting the black-and-white faces of dials and meters at the Hickok Electrical Instrument Company in Cleveland.

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Cosmic Abstraction

By the late 1950s, as Lichtenstein searched for a distinctive style, his work became increasingly abstract. Like many artists of his time, he felt obliged to experiment with Abstract Expressionism, a gestural mode of painting that had been the dominant aesthetic for nearly a decade. Yet in the process, he invented a groundbreaking technique that involved painting with multiple bright hues simultaneously: A cloth loaded up with stripes of brilliantly colored paint became a substitute for the painter’s brush. Lichtenstein at once partially removed the artist’s hand from the process, parodied the seriousness and self-consciousness of Abstract Expressionism, and established what would become his trademark palette of saturated primary colors. In a single gesture, both literal and metaphorical, he repudiated his predecessors while establishing a fundamental element of his Pop vocabulary. These lyrical abstractions inspired a series of Pop brushstroke paintings in the mid-1960s, a subject to which Lichtenstein would repeatedly return over the next three decades.

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Glimmers of Pop

In 1958, Lichtenstein produced a series of drawings featuring the Disney cartoon characters Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and Warner Bros.’ Bugs Bunny. First introduced in short animated films in the late 1920s and 1930s, these anthropomorphized animals—easygoing Mickey, irascible Donald, braggart Bugs—were part of a broader universe of fictional creatures whose predecessors included Peter Rabbit in the UK and Krazy Kat in the United States.

By the mid-twentieth century, Disney’s and Warner’s creations had become prime exports of US culture. Their prominence made them obvious candidates for Lichtenstein’s consideration, given his abiding interest in popular content. He rendered each of the three famous figures in loose gestures that resonated with his concurrently emerging abstractions. In addition to drawings, Lichtenstein also made semi-abstract paintings of cartoon characters, which he later recalled using as canvas drop cloths when creating the works now known as his earliest contributions to Pop art.

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Sighting Sources

Lichtenstein was an avid museumgoer, but the sources he explored in his studio came from mainstream printed matter: books, magazines, and, most famously, comic books. The Colby Museum’s presentation of Roy Lichtenstein: History in the Making includes a gallery dedicated to a selection of the artist’s printed source materials and related artworks, shown together with works from the Colby Museum collection that exemplify his early-career visual interests. In some instances, Lichtenstein cited his sources in his paintings’ titles, but more often he adapted and transformed these and other references as he worked them into his paintings.

In 1937, at the age of fourteen, the future Pop artist received his first art book, Thomas Craven’s Modern Art: The Men, the Movements, the Meaning (1934), a volume whose subtitle captures both the author’s authoritative style and the limits of his worldview. A copy of this volume appears in this section of the exhibition. Craven advised American artists to gain independence from European models by representing authentic American subjects that reflected distinct regional differences. With characteristic skepticism, Lichtenstein viewed regionalism as one possible conceptual and stylistic gesture to be made in response to the country’s growing global artistic recognition.

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Installation Views