The Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University’s Recent Exhibition Roy Lichtenstein: History in the Making, 1948–1960

Drowning girl, 1963

While many of us may know the late pop artist Roy Lichtenstein’s iconic works Drowning Girl and Whaam! (1963)... how many of us are familiar with his early work? And really, how often do museums, art lovers, and collectors consider an artist’s early career before fame? 

It seems the more famous an artist becomes, the more fascinating their early work is—no matter how much of a learning curve there may have been.

Anyone who visited the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University’s exhibition Roy Lichtenstein: History in the Making, 1948-1960 can confidently say they saw first hand Lichtenstein’s learning curve—but not in the way you may think.Lichtenstein definitely had a lot to learn, but less so about how to perfect his craft and create art, and more about what he was trying to say with it.

The exhibition beautifully curates an array of early Lichtenstein works that showcase his not-so-familiar chaotic brush strokes, textured paint, lots of color mixing, and abstract figurative painting. While the theme of each work strays drastically from his later art pieces that embody a cartoonish, Pop Art style, it is clear his interest in pop culture, humor, and the appropriation of images was there from the start. 

It is almost as if Lichtenstein always wrote the same messages, but over time, changed the font. 

Let’s take, for example, an early work titled Mickey Mouse I, c. 1958, on display as part of History in the Making. This abstract Mickey rendition is a charcoal drawing of Mickey Mouse standing with one hand extended forward and looking excitedly into the distance. In this scene, the beloved Disney character is surrounded by an abstract representation of a boat on water. 

Flash forward five or so years when Lichtenstein released Look Mickey, which soon became a Lichtenstein Pop Art masterpiece. In this context, the earlier 1958 rendition of Mickey might have been a blueprint for Look Mickey, which similarly depicts Mickey Mouse standing on a dock. Again, Mickey Mouse extends his hand out long and looks into the distance. While it’s hard to say how much of Lichtenstein’s early career impacted his later works, it is safe to say the subject matter is fairly similar throughout his stylistic changes.

In a video produced by the Nasher Museum, Jack Cowart, Executive Director of The Roy Lichtenstein Foundation, said that “What Roy thought about his early work has always been a question that has amused us over the years… He was ambivalent, he was loyal to it, he recollected it during his lifetime, he preserved it over his lifetime. I think he would be amused that we’re spending this much time studying this as we have been.”

In one way, it's funny. Lichtenstein’s early work is now an entire genre of art history that museums deem worthy to showcase and study. However, for Lichtenstein, looking back at this early work might have felt like flipping through an old high school yearbook. Perhaps even stirring up feelings of vulnerability, regret, amusement, nostalgia, and happiness—but who knows? How does anyone feel when they look back on something from a time in their life they barely recognize anymore? 


Who was that person? Who is that person now? 

While Roy Lichtenstein: History in the Making, 1948-1960 leaves the Nasher Museum in a matter of days, the line of thinking the exhibition inspired will remain. Perhaps it will motivate viewers to do some digging and trace back their favorite artist’s early careers. And really, it will be a worthwhile task, as proven by this revealing exhibition. 

©ArtRKL™️ LLC 2021-2023. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. ArtRKL™️ and its underscore design indicate trademarks of ArtRKL™️ LLC and its subsidiaries.

Related articles