Roy Lichtenstein’s Early Years Revealed at the Parrish

Roy Lichtenstein, Washington Crossing the Delaware II, 1951. Oil on canvas, 24 1/2 x 30 1/8 inches (62.2 x 76.5 cm). The Roy Lichtenstein Foundation Collection, New York. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein.
Roy Lichtenstein, Washington Crossing the Delaware II, 1951. Oil on canvas, 24 1/2 x 30 1/8 inches (62.2 x 76.5 cm). The Roy Lichtenstein Foundation Collection, New York. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein

Of the many artists woven into the Hamptons fabric, Roy Lichtenstein stands among the most prominent.

The Pop artist, who bought a home in Southampton with his wife Dorothy in 1970 and lived here full-time for a decade before his death in 1997, is best-known for his comic book-inspired works using Ben-Day dots and primary colors. Lichtenstein’s paintings and sculpture are instantly recognizable by this style that defined him as an important figure in the Pop Art movement, but like all artists—even the greatest icons—it took time to find his groove. Brilliant careers often begin with experimentation, mimicry and the study of those who came before.

To truly get a full picture of our most remarkable talents, there’s great value in looking back to these times in a young artist’s development. And the Parrish Art Museum is doing just that with Roy Lichtenstein: History in the Making, 1948­­–1960, a comprehensive examination of the painter’s early years and the work that eventually led him to the technique and aesthetic that brought him fame and respect worldwide.

On view from Sunday, August 1 through October 24, and co-curated by Elizabeth Finch, Chief Curator at Colby College Museum of Art’s Lunder Institute, and Marshall N. Price, Chief Curator at Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art, History in the Making collects some 90 paintings, drawings, sculptures and prints, including numerous pieces that have never been shown publicly beyond a limited run at Colby College in February of this year. It’s the first major museum exhibition to explore work from this widely overlooked period in Lichtenstein’s career.

Roy Lichtenstein, Self-Portrait at an Easel, c. 1951–1952. Oil on canvas, 34 1/16 x 30 1/8 inches (86.5 x 76.5 cm). Private collection. ©Estate of Roy Lichtenstein.
Roy Lichtenstein, Self-Portrait at an Easel, c. 1951–1952. Oil on canvas, 34 1/16 x 30 1/8 inches (86.5 x 76.5 cm). Private collection. ©Estate of Roy Lichtenstein.

An early peek at the show’s checklist reveals a wide spectrum of style, content and color, but even the artist’s pre-Pop efforts demonstrate consistencies throughout. Lichtenstein, it appears, always leaned toward bold lines, geometry and separate fields of color. Still, he can be seen emulating Picasso’s early and later work in pieces such as his oil on canvas “Self-Portrait at an Easel” (1951–52) or the Cubist canvas “Captain Stephen Decatur” (1954).

The latter, and other childlike, historic portraits or homages, like his 1951 oil version of Emanuel Leutze’s hallowed and patriotic 1851 work, “Washington Crossing the Delaware” (at top of page), are formative examples of the wry wit and satire that were hallmarks of the paintings that delivered Lichtenstein to the international stage alongside vaunted Pop contemporaries, such as Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol and James Rosenquist.

Even as far back as 1950, Lichtenstein’s oil painting “Man on a Lion” feels heavily influenced by the style and palette of Henri Matisse, a painter he later lampooned or honored—depending on who you ask—in “Artist’s Studio ‘The Dance,’” a 1974 Ben-Day recreation of Matisse’s most-recognized painting.

Roy Lichtenstein, Bugs Bunny, c. 1958. Brush and India ink on paper. Private collection
Roy Lichtenstein, Bugs Bunny, c. 1958. Brush and India ink on paper. Private collection

Later in the timeline, the artist’s rough and loosely rendered 1958 drawings of Bug Bunny and Mickey Mouse on paper feel more like Willem de Kooning’s charcoals than the crisp imagery Lichtenstein eventually appropriated from comic strips, but the source material is closely aligned. His use of primary colors emerges soon after that in a series of untitled watercolors from 1959–60, where we see him go fully into abstraction and highlight individual brushstrokes. It’s clear that Lichtenstein was right on the cusp of his big breakthrough, and it’s wonderful to witness with knowledge of happened next.

To add further context, History in the Making features various paper gallery announcements from Lichtenstein’s shows in the 1950s, along with other ephemera, such as photographs, books and a 1949 copy of Life magazine.

All the elements of this exhibition connect to form a beautiful and scholarly picture of an eminently important artist and East End figure. Whether you’re a fan of Lichtenstein’s paintings or not, it tells a worthwhile story of how a modern master takes shape. And there’s no better place to see it than the Parrish, which has been exhibiting and celebrating Roy Lichtenstein’s work, life and legacy for the past four decades.

Visit parrishart.org for more info.

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