In 1958, Art News Didn’t Give a Thin Dime About Roy Lichtenstein

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2019. Oil in wood panel, 11 x 14″

…and no one escapes having to live life under duress

—Van Morrison, from “The Meaning of Loneliness”

The Lichtensteins moved to Oswego in late summer, 1957. Earlier in the year Roy and Isabel bought their first house in Cleveland, Ohio, which, in 1957 terms, meant a rest-of-life scenario along the Lake Erie shoreline. The couple had two little boys, David, born in October, 1954, and Mitchell, celebrating his first year in March, 1957. The several biographies I have read by art historians claim Roy took the job in Oswego to position himself “closer to the New York City art market”. Today it takes about seven hours to drive from Cleveland to New York, and five hours from Oswego. Certainly in the 1950’s both roads made the drive longer, but I would guess the Cleveland to New York latitude was more friendly to motorists while Eisenhower and GM’s monstrous interstate system was still in its planning stages.

Closer to the art market?

Hmm. No jobs available  in Lancaster, Allentown, or Wilke-Barre, Pennsylvania? And hour’s drive to Manhattan would seem more practical on every level.

So why leave many years of social acclimation and a purchased house in Cleveland to move a young family to Oswego, NY?

Dr. Aulus Sanders, the Chairman of the Art Department in 1957, who”plucked” Roy out of Cleveland, said that there were many applications for the opening to teach industrial design. He felt he had a special knack at sifting past those who looked good on paper, but would not rise to the occasion. Not Roy. He had prestige, enough talent, Manhattan accolades, but most importantly, Roy was 34 years old with a wife and family. Middle-aged and so ready to settle down, Dr. Aulus might have marked Roy’s application as a sound investment for the college. Perhaps it was Roy’s recently acquired job making furniture at the Republic Steel Company which made him think twice about a full-time painting career, prompting him to send his resume to higher ed institutions throughout the northeast. If he could secure a position teaching, then he could spend a lifetime practicing the art he loved in an atmosphere of encouragement rather than struggle.

Furthermore, he might have been between jobs when he sent his resume to Oswego. In quiet desperation, he could have left Isabel out of this decision, fearing she would be dead set against starting over in a small city far, far away. He would just wait and see if any offers came back, and then break the news to her.

History is chock full of stories that have little base in actual history. Still, using even rudimentary knowledge of the culture and human condition during the mid-20th century, it suffices to suggest that Roy was stubborn, but not crazy stubborn. There wasn’t a middle-aged family man in Cleveland not privately terrified of losing the ability to support a family. Roy’s ambition was very real. A few New York exhibitions under his belt, an unwavering philosophy on art and artist, and a highly naive, perhaps delusional, dream of “making it big”. This was the hope constantly wrestling with financial reality. He was a failure as a reliable breadwinner. That pressure in 1957 superseded any pressures demanded through the practicing of a private art. Roy was in struggle. Life-changing struggle.

So far in my limited reading, I believe the biographers get it wrong. Art historians are wont to fall into the trap of the hindsight “art for art sake” mindset. Roy had a wife and two little boys. Isabel had a husband and two little boys. Ends would have to meet and marriage survival was contingent on money making—at least enough to conform to illusions set in the middle class, Caucasian society of the time period.

No matter what Roy claimed in future VIP interviews, he sure as heck didn’t accept the job in Oswego to “get closer to the New York art market”. The assistant professor’s position paid between $5,570 and $7,250. It was a dream job for any misfit artist, scholar, or mathematician in need of conformity fast. To hold one’s head up high, bringing home the bacon, and partaking in an acceptable and steady occupation, frees the academic on many levels, including the time necessary to practice a joy.

Surely at the time, Roy still dreamed big. 34 wasn’t the end of the world. Being employed as a college professor in Oswego  would open more New York gallery doors than furniture maker in Cleveland. Perhaps it might be wiser for future art historians to interpret past allusions to Roy’s ambition incorporating into the narrative more sociology, rather than blind faith in what a millionaire or a millionaire’s friend had to say in a celebrity interview.

Start with this premise: Roy Lichtenstein did not come to Oswego to get closer to the New York art market. He came to Oswego to settle down and get closer to his art.

And to support a family so a social and political world would leave him the hell alone.

 

 

 

The Painter as a Middle to Late Middle-aged Giraffe

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Gee, I Sure Hope Christies Can Sell My Art to Billionaires This October” 2019. 53 x 54″

In an interview in late life Roy pondered the irony of painting commodities and then becoming a commodity himself. Christies® sells commodities to cure the ennui of the lowest cast of humanity (billionaires). Giraffes are too stupid to realize this, and then they get mauled and eaten by hyenas.

 

 

 

Roy Lichtenstein Wasn’t Going Anywhere and Everywhere at the Same Time

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Sheldon Hall at Oswego State teacher’s College, 1959

For the most part, popular culture in the mid to late 20th century revolved around the cult of personality. Especially in the arts, where very few new players were being made (and the multitude turned away) by the New York gallery mafia, promoted to penthouse heights by a media class embedded in the tri-state area, a tiny geographical point with universal scope and influence.

Today we know that women, African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans—any humanoid not male Caucasian in 1959—had zero opportunity for fame and fortune as a visual artist. It would come, but another generation would have to pass before art, as an avenue for justice, would come into its own. We cannot take for granted the enormous pool of practiced and determined people who were left out of the New York City gallery scene when the latter would make its annual autumn roll call of who’s who in the arts.

Roy applied for the assistant professor job at Oswego State Teacher’s College in late 1956 or early 1957. In a recorded interview circa late 1970’s Aulus Saunders, chairman of the arts department from 1937 to 1968, cites an inaccurate memory to recall the Lichtenstein hire:

We had a young man here by the name of Roy Lichtenstein who I plucked out of Cleveland. He was designing for the Bethlehem Steel Company.

Not true exactly. After failing to get tenure for a teaching position at Ohio State University in 1950 (due to “lack of substantial growth”), Roy worked several odd jobs during the early and mid-1950’s, none ever lasting more than 6 months. He did get a job as an engineering draftsman in 1957 making furniture in the Product and Process Department of the Republic Steel Company, but no mention of Bethlehem and certainly not a steady career position anywhere. (A note here. In early 1957 the Lichtenstein’s had two baby boys and purchased their first house in Cleveland. No small matter to consider when pondering an abrupt move to Oswego in the same year).

He got his masters from Ohio State University in design. And so Roy came to teach industrial arts here at Oswego.

Again, just a little off. Roy received both his BFA and MA in Art at OSU. The concentrate was clearly on painting, not design, although he did teach a design class or two while employed as an instructor at Ohio State in the late 1940’s. Hiring protocols were certainly more lax in those days.

He was one of the most brilliant painters we ever had.

Oh, I intend to show that this was just not the case in real time. Yet I will forgive Dr. Saunders his hindsight worship within the cult of personality. We are only human.

But he only stayed a couple of years. He went to New York City from here where he could get closer to the art market. At that time he was ambitious to become an outstanding painter. And he did become one of the world’s figures. You probably remember his name. We would have loved to have kept him but he was too valuable to keep under wraps here in Oswego.

Roy made a parallel move to Douglass College at Rutgers, New Jersey in 1960, an hour’s ride to New York City. One would think that Dr. Saunders (at the time not having any idea of Roy’s future success) would have offered him a raise or promise of future associate professorship if Roy was such a valuable asset to the college. I don’t think chairmen of art departments were too keen on recent hires skidaddling across careers then, or now.

So Roy Lichtenstein came to Oswego, N.Y. to teach. He must have applied to the position out of a feeling of defeat as a working artist. Though he did his part, juggling financial responsibility with his wife Isabel until the inevitable crisis of the battle of the sexes at a time in U.S. social history when there was no socially acceptable battle to be fought. In married households, women raised children and men brought home the bacon, period. I can imagine their fight and compromise in the parlor of their newly purchased home in Cleveland, when Roy received an offer to teach in a land far away. In 1957 an assistant professor’s salary at Oswego State ranged between $5,570 and $7,250 per year. Roy was to be the uncontested breadwinner for the first time in his life. He completed very few paintings in 1956 and 57. In 1958 Oswego, he takes up the torch once again, and refuses to rest on his laurels. No doubt about it, Roy was ambitious. And there must have been many private moments when he thought himself insane. The leaps he was beginning to make were enormous compared to the risks the average or the content are ever wont to do.

Roy was the player, primed and ready, for the game masters in New York to use as a chip in their poker play. That’s the other story that gets told all the time. The one where the art historians religiously adhere to the lie that art movements are created by artists. Any artist worth her salt knows that if this were true, there would be more than a million movements since the first mastodon was drawn in a cave. In the near future Roy would paint some pictures and a rich man would use them to get richer. This is the story of popular western art since the day a middle man entered the scene, circa your guess is as good as mine.

 

 

 

 

 

Mr. Lichtenstein Gave a Talk About Romanticism at English Club

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From “The Oswegonian”, January 14, 1958: “Mr. Lichtenstein Showed Slides to Illustrate His Definition of Romanticism in Art. It is a Blending of Backround and Foreground to Make a Complete Picture” 2019. Oil on canvas, 72 x 53″

The title is from this article:

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A “men only” group to teach coeds romanticism across disciplines.

Just two months prior, some other “men onlys” were out west dressing up pigs in Nevada to see how a thermonuclear blast affected their bodies. They called their degenerate oinking party, Operation Plumbbob, and it was hundreds of kilotons of explosives detonated to radioactively “blend background and foreground to make a complete picture”.

Hindsight is not always 20/20, for we still allow very dangerous modern pig-partying counterparts to walk the earth unscathed by communal scorn and hatred. There are good men and bad men orchestrating the human comedy throughout history. Men only, who are attracted to opposite poles of radical behavior. Both are deeply expressive. One group gives a pig a name and dresses her up for torture and doom. The other goes quiet, into art, and bides time on a men only earth, expressing individual schizophrenia with pretty pictures and things.

One cannot be an artist if one refrains from misanthropic dreaming. The juxtaposition is humanely more enormous than universal space and time. Roy Lichtenstein came out on a winter’s night to help girls and boys seek insight through the practice of sensitive expression. Earlier that autumn, Lieutenant-Colonel Frank P. Ball figuratively (and would-be literally) blew the piss out of every baby born and not yet born in 1957.

You can see the smirk on Roy’s face in the following art faculty photograph, taken from the 1958 Ontarian yearbook for future teachers of New York State children, all marked to die screaming by men only like Frank P. Ball.

And you can dream like me that the smirk is an all-knowing one. That Roy understands how Frank P. Ball will be crying for his mommy in a near future of private prostate decomposition. And nobody, not even Frank’s mommy, can love a loud killing bomb of a man who dresses up pigs and blows them to dust.

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Roy standing left

 

 

On Lichtenstein’s First Visit to Oswego Campus, I Bet He Ran Over to the Library Looking For This

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Ad in Art in America, Summer issue, 1957

To show in a New York gallery was the third leap in a four jump career. Roy made it the same year he left Cleveland to teach industrial design at the State Teacher’s College at Oswego. I spent last Friday night researching periodicals in Penfield Library (SUNY Oswego), looking specifically for a John Heller Gallery advertisement, and viola! Hard copy historical evidence of a pre-Pop nincompoop painter, like myself and every self who paints, unknown and unmade by the New York Gallery circuit.

Roy must have felt like his ship had come in. He could free his wife from breadwinner responsibility (she probably preferred breadwinning), and feel good that important earthlings thought his work was saleable to some thousandaires and maybe even a business tycoon seeking a talking piece for the penthouse parlor.

Did he share his recent success with new students and colleagues?

Oh you bet he did! Somehow, anyhow! And when word got back to administration, few would have taken issue that the new hire in the art department would soon seek a path out of Oswego while on his first week teaching in Oswego. New York was the goal, the last leap taken to get made in an art mafia. Teaching was just a paycheck, and I hope, for the sake of future students of art, that present administrations and their provosts take note.

There are no full time artist/art teachers. There never has been and never can be. There are exceptional art professors practicing a hobby in art. And there are people working full time jobs as art teachers who just want to be full time players in the art mafia. As adults, the latter should be refused entrance to any college or university. Yet unfortunately, this art personality type make up a majority of faculty on many studio art departments nationwide—at least early on in the teaching career, when lunch is still left unscheduled. A vicious circle that Roy hopped on ambitiously. He was a father and a husband and a painter, but never an art teacher. He wanted New York bad!

There is a local rumor that present college administration does not want to promote the Roy Lichtenstein story because it ends with him abandoning the boring small town for the big city scene. I think they should worry more about the never-ending legacy of hiring resumes and accolades instead of human beings captivated by the art of teaching empowerment to the young.

Roy Lichtenstein never should have been hired to teach art in Oswego because he wasn’t a teacher.

He was just a painter who needed money.

 

1959—Isabel Came to the Faculty Wive’s Dinner Dressed in Red Stockings and Caused Quite a Stir

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2019. Oil on canvas, 53 x 72″

The quote in the title came directly from my next door neighbor Helen who knew the Lichtensteins in the late 1950’s. Her husband, Ernie, was a physical education teacher and the soccer coach admitted the same semester and year as Roy—Fall, 1957.

For me this was a big oil adventure in a small studio space. Most days I wore a breathing mask, and on others I just sniffed Turpenoid® until I dreamed I was in Hawaii.

I built the frame, stretched the canvas, composed and painted the piece in 11 hours with a total cost of about 60 dollars, or .0923% of the families’ annual income. I could make 50 paintings this size a year at a cost of $3000 which translates to 4.61% of our total annual income. Actually, $3,000 has been my allotment for the last 10 years. I produce over 200 paintings a year, few ever reaching floor to ceiling proportions (like the one above), and all are done in acrylic which dries fast and stacks more efficiently than oil.

I have never made a financial profit from this endeavor. But I am beginning to see our investment give back exponentially.

In the fall of 1957 Roy Lichtenstein arrived in Oswego to live and teach. By the end of the year he had “completed” just 16 artworks. One 10″ woodcut for a magazine, four day sketches on paper, three mosaic tabletops, and 8 paintings. Gallant Scene II was his largest oil on canvas at 66 inches. For the year 1957, Roy was a painter like I am a Rochester commuter, a city in upstate NY that I visit about 8 times a year.

Lichtenstein graduated with an MFA from Ohio State University in 1949. His oeuvre from then to his arrival in Oswego consists mostly of U.S. history themes with an emphasis on painted stories of the wild west. (The Lichtenstein Foundation has a completed works timeline. Worth a visit.)

Actually, I love many of these paintings, even if several are based off the work of other artists (a pattern he will take up again for Pop). In future interviews Roy will say that he was working with a cubist style, mirroring Picasso, one of his favorite painters. When I look at this early to mid-1950’s work, I don’t see Picasso. I see how Roy Lichtenstein wanted to be known at the time. I also see great painting, and contrary to what one biographer insinuated, that the compositions were “meh” and the technique “meh-meh”, I feel many are far superior to his early 60’s Pop productions. Original, free, enthusiastic… the opposite of Pop.

In 1957 Roy was not a prolific painter. He was a husband and father of two little boys in a world much less freer than the one I live in today. His equally or more ambitious wife, Isabel, would never become the stable breadwinner of the family. The pressures of a suburban society were not going to allow Roy to paint all day using 4.61% of the family income. His society was so much more severe. In 1957 Oswego (or Cleveland), one did not strike up a conversation at the supermarket check out and declare that he paints, not for a living, but for joy, and the wife takes care of all that money nonsense.

Pressures were on Isabel too. She wore red stockings to long dress events.