Roy Lichtenstein: History in the Making, 1948–1960 | Through January 8, 2023 | 

The Nasher Museum of Art, Durham

Several stories have been bruited about regarding Roy Lichtenstein’s first forays into Pop Art, the movement that blew open fine galleries to mass culture in the 1960s—and a movement that he would come to personify more enduringly than anyone except Warhol.

In some of these stories, Lichtenstein—an accomplished painter, though not yet a household name—is trying to prove to Disney-besotted children that he can paint. But in a tour of Roy Lichtenstein: History in the Making, 1948–1960, the Nasher Museum of Art’s Marshall N. Price (who curated the exhibit with Elizabeth Finch, of Maine’s Colby College Museum of Art) emphasized the longer, more telling origin story.

It’s 1961, and Lichtenstein is at Rutgers with Allan Kaprow. The two painters’ children have some Bazooka bubble gum, and the small comic strip inside it inspires Kaprow to proclaim that this, not Cézanne, should be used to teach kids the form and history of art. “Smiling wryly,” as Price put it, Lichtenstein reached into a storage closet and withdrew “Look Mickey,” the oil painting of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck that is regarded as both Lichtenstein’s first Pop Art work and a cornerstone of the style.

The difference between these creation myths—the one in which Lichtenstein decides to paint cartoon characters all at once, on a dare, and the one in which the notion emerges mysteriously from the shadows of his atelier—is also the difference between the usual run of Lichtenstein exhibits and this one. It’s the first time a museum has taken a full look at the dozen years before he Popped, when he painted, drew, and made prints in a wide variety of styles.

Though diverging sharply from the plasticine finish of his mature work, these small bodies of experimentation are sown with his later techniques and themes. Art buffs will relish the subtle foreshadowing, though there are ample displays of bravura for the casual spectator, too.

Before he turned to meticulously mimicking the style and content of mid-20th-century advertising and comics, Lichtenstein was already appropriating popular culture, deflating America’s heroic self-image with pointed, playful humor. In two early paintings, he shrivels the neoclassical grandeur of Emanuel Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware” with a silly, rudimentary style, like something on a patchwork quilt made by a child. He timed these paintings’ debut with the original’s centenary, when he knew it would be the subject of many a patriotic headline, showing how entwined with mass media his early work already was.

Other charming storybook figures—knights, cowboys, deep-sea divers—gambol through other modernist paintings, and these, too, have a secret ripped-from-the-headlines quality, satirizing ’50s fixations such as Old West stories and the undersea exploration of Jacques Cousteau.

If the exhibit doubles as a story about the dawn of Pop and a story about a naïve, dreamy decade, then it trebles as a biography of Lichtenstein’s hectic-sounding life. After being denied tenure at Ohio State University, he spent several years doing odd jobs in Cleveland, including painting dials for a machine company. According to Price, he’d had a professor who illustrated a famous engineering manual, and these combined experiences inspired the warm, chunky mechanical paintings we see at the Nasher, prefiguring Pop works like “Washing Machine.” By the late ’50s, Lichtenstein was teaching in Oswego, New York, where he made the five swirling expressionist drawings of Disney characters that are considered his missing link to Pop.

But first, there was one more phase to come. Swelling to a crescendo in the last gallery, it includes some of the most brilliant paintings in the show. In an art world dominated by the intense subjectivity of Abstract Expressionism, there had long been something a little iconoclastic about Lichtenstein’s figuration, representation, and popular sources. So perhaps it was inevitable that he have his say on the old guard before Pop swept it away.

Now at Rutgers, energized by proximity to the likes of Kaprow, George Segal, and Claes Oldenburg, Lichtenstein started using a rag to drag rainbow stripes across colorful abstractions, seeming to repudiate not only the form’s ingrown asperity but also its fetish of the mark, the drip, the artist’s hand—which would soon be subsumed in simulated reproductions of Pop. In these works, you might glimpse portents of the famous “Brushstrokes” works to follow or, simply, the piece in the exhibit you’d most enjoy hanging on your wall.

In “Brushstrokes,” Lichtenstein posed an ingenious visual riddle—can you use the marks that compose an image to portray the marks, not the image?—and that was probably his ultimate comment on the legacy of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko. But the first painting in the series came from a comic-book panel, indicating how composited Lichtenstein’s vision was, though it can also lead to misunderstandings. From a glance at iconic Pop works like “Whaam!” and “Drowning Girl,” now part of the same cultural ambiance they sought to pierce, you might assume that he simply copied comics panels. In fact, he carefully recomposed images and painted each Benday dot—the small circles used to create colors and shading in cheap industrial printing—by hand.

Appropriation in art was nothing new, not after all those European modernists and their African masks. But postwar American mass culture was something new to appropriate with its triumphalist dreams, relentless sales pitches, and rampant self-reproduction. For an American artist, this terrain was somehow at once apolitical and completely political.

It posed new possibilities in search of their ultimate meaning. “Look Mickey” is definitive because it perfectly captures the situation of someone founding a new art movement. “I’ve hooked a big one!” Donald Duck exclaims, having snagged his own hem, as Mickey covers his mouth and snickers—the duality of the artist glorying in and laughing at what he has done. If Lichtenstein’s first Pop vision emerged with unusual savvy, perhaps it’s because, as this exhibit portrays, it had already been steeping in his considerations for so long.

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