Humility Is Fun When You’re Stinking Rich

“Maybe Bruce I Could Change Style On a Dime Because I Want to Feel Like an Artist, Not a Commodity” 2019. Oil on wood panel, 24 x 48″

[Bruce Breland was a fellow professor at the State College of Oswego. He and his wife Helen shared a house with the Lichtensteins on West Sixth Street in Oswego.]

While in Oswego, Roy Lichtenstein played with styles back and forth from figurative to abstract impressionism (mostly the latter). Then, after a year in New Jersey, he caught on to a style to hone and maintain for life.

How? Why?

Because it made him filthy rich. Don’t let the papers fool you. Once Roy knew the power and money begotten from his own ubiquitous methods, the more he sank into production for acquisition’s sake.

Wouldn’t you? By late middle age, every painting Roy finished was like winning the lottery again, and again.

Last week I watched a few short documentaries about Lichtenstein’s rise to fame. I found him to be a good soul, a very humble and likeable person. So peaceful and non-judgemental—a man who fully realized his ship had come in, and that luckily, no one suffered much to fill the treasure chest on board.

I wrote out a theory not too long ago about financial success for 20th century painters. Roy nearly broke the pattern. Or, perhaps he knew it all to well, and just arrived later than usual from sheer will and determination. Here is my take on the multi-billion dollar scam on art that overflows readily to trickle down upon the inert masses:

I have been bike riding to the local library with my daughter several days this week. She to the costume design and drawing books. Me to the painters. I don’t think my research is healthy. I pick a painter that I feel my limitations could compare to, yet after skimming through a few pages, I am usually unseated from the lounge chair in awe and wonder. The 20th century moderns were following a pattern. Most of their younger work is highly skilled in constipated rendering. Then, maybe a several year phase in abstract, mixed in with a looser expressionism. And finally, freedom and joy, perhaps even so confident as to present a colored cartoon at the salon. Some influential photographer is there to help the painter make history. Often with another famous artist(s) beside him, both photographed in three-piece suits, smoking cigarettes, and all of them men.
What the majority of these celebrity painters share in common, post-van Gogh, is recognition in youth and geography. The former fueled their next painting. Encouragement (plus food and raiment) kept the painter painting, and not seeking an alternative career in furniture sales. The latter was (is) all about being in the right place at the right time, usually a big city art media that “makes” the artist. Which is all too human, similar to the abstract growth of institutions like religion and federal buildings. None of the established modern greats have painted in the middle of nowhere anonymously. Some lucky outsiders get recognition in very old age, or more likely after death, to the joys of posterity. But the overall pattern is this: young painter in big city winning critical praise with inspired work, getting paid in actual money or status, and enjoying self pride and encouragement unto the next studio output. It’s what I call the Bob Dylan of success as an artist paradigm. Without early Greenwich Village accolades, Bob would have packed his dufflebag and got on a Greyhound back to Hibbing, Minnesota. Maybe, if brave, he would have stayed in New York to work a job in the service industry, and while young, continue to search for that “big break”. Eventually, after repeated failure, he would settle in with a girl, find more secure employment, get married, go suburb, raise children, etc. However, he won New York status while very young, was fueled exponentially thereafter, and like all lifelong successful 20th century artists, was promoted. Of course Dylan worked very hard each day to create beautiful stuff shared with an earth of eager human admirers. Yet without initial success and popular geography, no promoter (Columbia Records) would risk the investment.
Now pride dictates to me, the painter, that I shun the parties and the “glittering prizes” that the Stuckists are wont to do. That is just financial failure speaking in its best cognitive dissonance accent. I will never become the tiniest fraction of success of brand Bob Dylan, who, now in his wiser old age, probably would also yearn for the wisdom of obscurity. But as a young man, Dylan was an eager, very talented, lowly prostitute working the New York streets and clubs, and not much more than that. The band wagon picked him up, and he couldn’t stop. Compare the Bob Dylan story to all famous 20th century painters in their more humble, varying degrees of celebrity. I would argue that the similarities are too real to ignore.
So, finally, in desperation, Throop calls out to potential star-makers of the Internet. Partake in the first auction to undermine the archaic 20th century law of financial stability for artists. Buy inspired art that cannot carry the blue-ribbon of critical praise and big city geography. It has no clout. It is nothing but a man, made up of so many elements and minerals.