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

sheldon1959
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 near zero opportunity for fame and fortune as a visual artist. 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, Dr. 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 concentration 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. A couple of his colleagues were so much more inspired. 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 and juggled financial responsibility with his wife Isabel until the inevitable crisis of the battle of the sexes emerged—unfortunately for Isabel, 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.