Oswego Planted the Seed of Pop Art Fame

I Know Lake Ontario Doesn’t Look Like This in April, but Maybe It Should 2017. Acrylic on birch panel, 24 x 24″

[I wrote the following in December in 2015. This is a good way to re-introduce myself to the past limited knowledge I had about the life of Roy Lichtenstein. Still, even then I felt a kind of kindred connection to the man. Oswego brings people together, sometimes, if and when they decide to come out of their houses. One note of immense importance. Oswego was not a “low point” in Roy’s career, as a non-Oswego friend of his will mention in retrospect. I believe Oswego was Roy’s last internal hurdle to leap in order to cast away all the art prejudice he amassed up to that point in time. Oswego may not have been his muse, but here the fuse was lit to revolutionize his own message and method of  painting. Towns do not make an artist, neither rich town nor poor town. And I am quite certain that a teaching job in suburban New Jersey was no different than one in upstate NY. And encouragement? I’ve been to New Jersey many times. There is no encouragement there. There’s enough White Castle® retail to make the eyes bleed. Likewise, there is more greedy connection and capital to invest in an artist, via those uninspired rich people who are parasitically attracted to artists. But only one painter per several thousand will succeed in business. Roy was one. He made a lot of money for himself and more for non-artists. Even 20 years after death he still generates millions back and forth among the upper crust. The Lichtenstein legacy owes much more to Roy’s time spent in Oswego than it is letting on. The mystery of his (relatively) quick leap from abstract expressionism to international pop fame will be solved in Oswego, not New Jersey, and definitely not at the Leo Castelli Gallery, where fame is made.]

Wow. Yesterday I read a 2004 article on Roy Lichtenstein, a very famous painter of the late twentieth century. I already knew that he taught for a couple years here at the state college in Oswego. I also read in a biography that his wife hated it here. The winters were tough and she began to drink like a fish. But I never knew what a great failure Lichtenstein was the day before he started painting comics. He was an abstract painter who loved Picasso and Cézanne. His paintings amassed unsold in the basement.
Yesterday I read with laughing eyes the early story of Roy. The parallels are enough of a story to keep me plugging away at my own failure. I quote at length.
“Roy would say, ’I know any minute someone’s going to come and shake me and say, Mr. Lichtenstein, it’s time for your pills, and I’ll be back in Oswego, in a wheelchair.’ There was a touch of Lichtenstein’s characteristic self-deprecating humour about that. But also a sense that he had been, as she says, ’very lucky to have been where he was at a given moment’”.
Roy knew, like all painters do, that success is a crap shoot with a 1,679,616-sided die. Only a wise, self-deprecating Oswego artist would admit to this.
“But the teaching post he held in Oswego from 1957 to 1960 was a low point of his career, very far from the wealth and art stardom that were his within a couple of years… At the time he got the job in Oswego, Lichtenstein had been working as a painter for nearly 20 years, and achieved almost no success. Bruce Breland, a colleague of the time, remembered that Lichtenstein ’had shown in New York—with no results. He was showing paintings and they were going stone-nowhere.’”
All my paintings also going cement-nowhere in the basement.
“Lichtenstein did a series of part-time jobs—window dresser, draftsman, furniture designer, painting dials on instruments—while his wife, a successful interior designer, was the main breadwinner. Lee Csuri, sculptor and wife of another old friend, remembered that in the mid-1950s, ’Roy was very despondent about what he was doing. And feeling he was nowhere. His painting of that time was abstract expressionist, but it was very muddy’”.
Yahoo! My wife is a graphic designer, the bread winner, and my feelings of despondency on a good day have me yank off just enough mustache nose hairs to goad me to the next chore.
“Then in 1957, he got the job in Oswego. But as Avis Berman, a researcher into Lichtenstein’s life, concluded: ’Living in Oswego was disastrous for the Lichtensteins. The winters were brutal and Isabel lacked fulfilling work, and began drinking in earnest.’ So at 37, Lichtenstein had a dead-end post in the sticks, a wife who was rapidly becoming an alcoholic, and a studio full of paintings no one wanted to look at. Then his luck began to change.”
Oooh, I can only hope.
“As Dorothy Lichtenstein tells the story, ’Roy was always trying to get back to the New York area, and in 1960 he was able to get a job teaching at Rutgers University in New Jersey. And there was a group of interesting and lively people there, including the artists Alan Kaprow and George Segal. Roy had a feeling that if he’d still had a job teaching out in the boondocks, he might have done his first Pop work, but not carried on. He felt there was something that comes from response and encouragement that fuels you to go further than you might in a vacuum.’”
Response and encouragement. Roy had a feeling. Ron has one from time to time. He expresses it, and in return receives the appreciative song from a cricket stowing away under a stair in an abandoned Oswego factory.
“But there might have been another trigger. As Chuck Csuri, Lee’s husband, recalls, Lichtenstein’s son David came home one day from school and complained: ’Joey’s father’s a policeman, and Henry’s father’s this, and Virginia’s does that. And you’re an artist and you can’t draw.’ Roy said, ’Oh, OK.’ So he got out a canvas and drew a comic-book image. The result might have been Look Mickey, with Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse. In it, Donald is fishing, and says, ’Look Mickey, I’ve hooked a big one’. And a big, new idea was exactly what Lichtenstein had got hold of himself’”.
That is all the parallel I need. Back in 1998 Roy’s spirit must have hightailed it back to Oswego, and flew up my nose.
Now to focus on the work and the big break which is sure to come at fifty, using the logic of arrested development afflicting the middle-aged in the 21st century. I shall keep at work, seek escape, and let my mustache hairs grow into my mouth.