Early Roy Lichtenstein: Afount of insight onpostwar AmericaBy Murray Whyte Globe Staff,Updated May 7, 2021, 47 minutes agoRoy Lichtenstein's "Washington Crossing the Delaware II," from about 1951.ESTATE OF ROYLICHTENSTEIN/COURTESY OF GABRIEL MILLERWATERVILLE, Maine — In 1940, an Ohio State undergraduate named RoyLichtenstein — yes, that Roy Lichtenstein — made a loose and gestural ink
sketch of Paul Bunyan felling a tree with a mighty swing. He passed it off to hisroommate with a wink. Keep it, he said. I’m going to be famous someday.Someday came, and famous he was, though not for works like that. In 1961,Lichtenstein made “Look Mickey,” his first-ever appropriation of a four-colorpulp illustration. (He lifted it from the 1960 kids’ book “Donald Duck: Lostand Found.”) That anchored him as one of the pillars of the thoroughlyAmerican Pop Art movement.But “Roy Lichtenstein: History in the Making, 1948-1960,” at the ColbyCollege Museum of Art, isn’t about any of that. It’s about Lichtenstein beforehe became Lichtenstein, and it’s a revelation: A fresh view of an artist whoreached a saturation point so long ago he can feel as familiar and over-worn asold wallpaper.“History in the Making” is instead unfamiliar, exhilaratingly so, spanning theartist’s long teaching stints in Cleveland and upstate New York, up to a breathbefore that fateful Mickey steered his course into mass-cultural history. Theshow captures a young artist in a postwar moment, unmoved by the sunnyoptimism of a burgeoning American dream and driven to peel back its thinmyths. It underpins Lichtenstein’s own myth in the American mind — becausewhat’s more American than Pop Art, with its slick language of advertising, itsbreezy consumer critique? — with a foundation rooted in old-world artistictraditions. It’s even painterly, for heaven’s sake, the artist’s rough brushstrokes and thick textures pure anathema to the sleek surfaces of the hands-offworks he’s known for. It constantly surprises, and as a result is more thanoccasionally thrilling.All of this puts “History in the Making” right in step with a prevailing ethos ofthe times. Don’t we all know by now how history is selective and incomplete,and how arbitrary notions of “significance” can whittle complicated narrativesdown to fine points? I’d say so. It’s both the dilemma and corrective of ourtimes. (”History in the Making” is very much of our times in another way too.It’s been hanging at the Colby since February, but due to the pandemic, willopen to the public for only the final days of its run in early June. Day-tripperswill be able to catch it in August at its next stop at the Parrish Art Museum inWater Mill, N.Y.)
A dilemma shared by our times and Lichtenstein’s was the prevailing ethic ofthe market, which found his comic book paintings wonderfully saleable. Andso the back story — these paintings, a life before all that — was put in a box, tokeep the air of complication away from the pure pursuit of profit. It madeLichtenstein a victim of his own success, at least to me. I got what he wasdoing, alongside Warhol, in the 1960s — elevating dumb, sophomoricAmerican consumer trash culture to the status of art by force of gleeful,sardonic chutzpah. (That’s not all he did. Once he was famous, he was morethan happy to turn his sharp wit on the system that made him, and even onhimself.) And though I got the point of his later work, I never much cared forit; there’s only so much winkingly self-conscious cynicism you can take.Roy Lichtenstein's "Pilot," from about 1948.ESTATE OF ROY LICHTENSTEIN/COLLECTION OFTHE WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART, NEW YORK
That’s why “History in the Making” is a revelation. These are bold, expressivepaintings — experimental, gestural, full of color, fracture, and life. Theygrapple with the dark fable of American exceptionalism and explode its blitheexclusions into visceral critique. The show starts gently — a selection ofbeguiling figurative pastels made in the late 1940s, evocative of Europeansurrealists like Joan Miró and, inevitably, the jagged and totemic forms ofPablo Picasso — but becomes quickly more urgent.A step around the corner brings you to “The Cowboy (Red),” the Colby’s loneLichtenstein from the period, and curator Elizabeth Finch’s touchpoint for theshow. (”History in the Making” is a collaborative affair between Finch and hercounterpart Marshall N. Price at Duke University’s Nasher Museum, wherethe show will wind up its run in 2022.) Lichtenstein was fascinated byuniquely American icons and the legends that spawned them. The cowboy,that symbol of rough-and-tumble self-reliance on the western frontier, wasjust one example. In the piece, Lichtenstein’s view isn’t one of reverence butbefuddlement; the figure is grimly simplistic, a child’s drawing dismemberedand mawkish, like the wings pulled off a fly. It’s as though the artist, inunpacking American lore, found it too slim and fragile to reassemble.
Roy Lichtenstein's "The Cowboy," from about 1951.ESTATE OF ROY LICHTENSTEIN
That work, from 1951, is a powerful touchpoint for us, too. Lichtenstein madeit in Cleveland while the New York art world was ascending to globaldominance on the backs of Abstract Expressionism, the first full-blownAmerican art movement to gain international recognition. It quickly becamethe proverbial irresistible force: Serious modern painters had followed themedium to its logical conclusion in abstraction; those who didn’t, in theirview, just weren’t serious. (Picasso, I’m sure, begged to differ.)That, of course, was never really the case, and great work was being madeacross a spectrum of practice while the movement hogged the limelight. Butthat simple narrative dominated American art history orthodoxy for decades,and to a degree, still does. To get a sense of how selective history can be, it’sinstructive to read Lichtenstein’s short bio that accompanies the “LookMickey” page on the National Gallery of Art website. Born in New York, hedecamped for art school at Ohio State in 1940 and, after serving three years inthe army during the war, returned in 1946 to finish his MFA. At the time, NewYork was on the cusp of becoming New York, postwar angst coalescing withartists like Clyfford Still and Jackson Pollock to spawn a visual languagebeyond representation, so they said, of raw emotion.At the same time, Lichtenstein, the NGA says, spent 13 years working as an artprofessor at Ohio State, the State University of New York at Oswego, and atRutgers. He had his first exhibition in New York in 1951, and then movedthere (post-Mickey) for good in 1963.What it neglects to mention at all is what he was doing for those 13 years,which was painting furiously and with intent, tackling big narratives aboutAmerican identity that his suddenly famous New York peers had abruptlyabandoned. That, ultimately, is what “History in the Making” is about.The postwar years were a time of soul-searching, with residual trauma forcinghard questions about living in an increasingly fractured world. The AbstractExpressionist answer was, simply, to abandon that world entirely on a questfor emotional purity, the world of images not enough to express the tumultwithin. For Lichtenstein, that wouldn’t do. Maybe it was being in Cleveland,away from New York’s careerist pressures and keenly in touch with anotherAmerica, where the touchstones of Americana — cowboys and Indians,
westward expansion, the square jaws and noble intentions (or so the storiesgo) of the founders — still centered daily life.Roy Lichtenstein's "The Outlaw," 1956.ESTATE OF ROY LICHTENSTEIN
For Lichtenstein, the formal language of Modernism was a way to dismantlethose notions, to wobble the pillars on which American exceptionalism wasbuilt. Whether that meant the movies or great works from the canon,Lichtenstein gave them equal weight. He transformed the movie poster for the1955 Lloyd Bridges cowboy movie “Wichita” into a jagged puzzle of riotouscolor and painterly cross-hatching with his 1956 work “The Outlaw.” AndEmanuel Leutze’s absurdly famous, achingly heroic “Washington Crossing theDelaware,” a textbook painting recognized instantly by every American,became a simplistic, quasi-cubistic tableaux of reductive blandness.In works like that, you can see the artist Lichtenstein would become, seededhere, ever a dubious eye cast on bloated American self-regard. There arepassages of deeper awareness, too, of the destructive path cut by the country’screation; Lichtenstein made several paintings of Native Americans in the samefractured way, all of them more robust, powerful, and complex than what feelslike a sneering pass at Leutze. (“Two Indians,” from 1953, with its elegant,angular forms on deep blue, will wow you.)Speaking of complex, two works here feel critically, monumentally totemic.One, “The Death of the General,” from 1951, is Lichtenstein’s take onBenjamin West’s “The Death of General Wolfe,” from 1770, a dizzying paintingthat gathers up European colonialism in North America with a single scene ofcarefully choreographed, grandiose chaos. The other is “Emigrant Train,” atake on William Ranney’s 19th-century painting of the same name glorifyingwestward expansion.
Roy Lichtenstein's "Emigrant Train After William Ranney," 1951.ESTATE OF ROY LICHTENSTEINIn Lichtenstein’s hands, both paintings are dense tangles of figure and object,claustrophobic and confusing — an acknowledgment, I like to think, of theartist’s view on cut-and-dried jingoism. His take on the West painting is one ofimplosion, the scene draped in the American flag — not present in the original— in what seems to be a nod to American puffery. But “Emigrant Train” ismore than claustrophobic; where Ranney’s is ennobling, Lichtenstein’s feelsviolent. (A preparatory sketch more closely echoes Picasso’s “Guernica,” aboutthe carnage of the Spanish Civil War.) It says much about the dark heart ofsparkly postwar American optimism, which Lichtenstein saw clearly while somany chose to look away.“History in the Making” is important, partly because it deepens — or evenintroduces — an understanding of an artist so long at the center of Americanculture as to be lost in plain sight. But it also asks an important question: In
streamlining a myth of greatness, can what gets lost be as great, or more? Theanswer is a resounding yes; with “History in the Making,” you’re looking at it.ROY LICHTENSTEIN: HISTORY IN THE MAKING, 1948-1960At the Colby College Museum of Art, opening to the public June 4-6. 5600Mayflower Hill, Waterville, Maine. 207-859-5600, colby.edu/museumMurray Whyte can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on [email protected]