Breland and Lichtenstein Judge the Float Parade. Saturday Afternoon, May 10, 1958

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2019. Oil on canvas, 72 x 55″

Associate professor, Bruce Breland, and assistant professor Roy Lichtenstein were yearlings in the art department when they were asked to judge the Spring Weekend float parade. Sigma Tau Chi won fraternity honors with “Air Power”. Roy did a painting a few years before entitled “The Aviator”. I repainted it on the float pulled by the 1957 Chevy Bel Air.

In 1958 Lichtenstein was scrambling as an artist, adapting to trends, justifying “career”. By this time the abstract expression/impressionist painting style had spread to colleges and universities across the planet, and Roy was just another full-time teacher joining the trend, hoping to stay relevant while steadying a new life in obscurity. “The Aviator” (1954) was an original style he could have taken further with expressive freedom while working and helping to raise a family after uprooting Isabel (his wife) from a life she was good at back in Cleveland.

Yet even in Oswego obscurity, with plenty of time and few excuses not to be productive (as an artist), Roy produced very few paintings. And what he did make must have made him feel like a copycat imposter. Several attempts at abstract impressionism come up forced and flat, to my eye and feeling anyway. Roy must have hated them! His painting colleagues David Campbell, Harvey Harris, and Bruce Breland were no slouches. All seemed ambitious in practice. Certainly a tacit (un) healthy competition was present. None of them were buddhas, and each probably thought himself a Pope in his own mind. Not then (or now) was there an artist counseling center to assist creatives in combating the ego. And yet artistically (then and now), each was poised to become greater than their dreams. A paycheck earned while teaching practices they practiced. Time galore for contemplation. A tremendous fresh water lake, green hills in summer, the cold, dreadful, wonderful winds of winter… No struggle necessary to please the eyes of others… To perfect oneself impossibly as a person, to learn to love the world… Oops! I’m  projecting again…

Nothing has changed. Lichtenstein had no peace then like the ego-artist of today. The only difference between Roy, his contemporary colleagues, and myself is that Roy was to realize his Faustian collapse, while the super majority of artists (then or now) aren’t even granted an interview with crafty Mephistopheles.

The sorority winner at the parade was “Music Around the World” created by the Arethusa Eta members. It was too much for me to include it in the painting. I already achieved a personal record in hours spent cursing the oils.

Forty-two, for those who are counting.

I Learned More About Lichtenstein in One Hour at Williams College Sawyer Library Than I Have in Four Months Researching in a Town Where He Taught and Lived

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In 1958, Lichtenstein Must Have Felt Like This: Painting Abstract, Then 18th century Native, Then What, And Who Will Care? 2019. Oil on canvas, 20 x 16″

In spring, my family visited beautiful Berkshire Williamstown and I stopped in the Sawyer Library at Williams College to see what it held on Roy Lichtenstein. I walked up and down the pristine Dewey decimal rows and grabbed several books off the shelves. I was prepared for the usual art historian pinpointing of everything unimportant to the artist in 300 pages of big words and thousands of hours of time wasted on attempts to define the undefinable. I pray one day I open to a page in one of these esoteric tomes of mumbo-jumbo, and get a sense that the author is(was) a human like me. The rise and popularity of celebrity modern art and its People magazine history follows a predictable pattern. Youth, geography, and connection are the markers used to pin each artist on the value scale. The published art writers (socialists usually) act as scribes to the priestly class of capitalists who make(made) a set number of image-makers into commodities worth trading in a tuxedo auction house. Who publishes these books, over and over again, for coffee tables and multi-million dollar libraries? And why?

I was ready to flip through the stack and find no mention of Roy in Oswego, which would have confirmed my bias that the majority of PhD art historians unwittingly prop up the valuable expression of the artist with agonizing page after page of subjective interpretation. Detailed abstractions on art to uplift the offshore accounts of Christies, Inc., Larry Gagosian, and other gross millionaires and billionaires slamming the door shut on the eager studio art students ready to earn their place on library shelves of the future. I was going to add it to my book as a side theme proving my hypothesis that art historians pay much less attention to the biography of the artist than they ought to. As if an American Civil War historian found it more interesting to write ten pages interpreting the Gettysburg Address and made no mention of Lincoln’s dreadful thoughts while on the train traveling to the slaughter fields. Life happens to human beings and some make the effort to express themselves. Art history often lacks the life story of the artist, which is why I believe a few of the books I flipped through at the library were crisp and new and never opened after the Williams College stamp was pressed. Art without life is pretty damn boring.

All the books kept to the pattern, except two. One, which critiqued Lictenstein’s pre-pop (early 1950’s) paintings of Native Americans out west, and another book of essays, with one by Avis Berman, which, unlike any I have read thus far, actually makes an effort to understand the world of Roy Lichtenstein in Oswego. I spent half my research time copying a piece of the essay word for word, upside down-left-handed with a leaky pen, until I realized I could use my wife’s smartphone to take a picture of the pages and copy later. I quote pieces of my copy from the Berman essay in Roy Lichtenstein: All About Art:

“Isabel did not leave Cleveland willingly.”

“There were three new faculty members to the art department in 1957. David Campbell, Harvey Harris, and Bruce Breland.”

Bruce Breland: ” Roy was very popular with them (the students). They liked him because he wasn’t dealing with art as a mystery. He was dealing with art in the present, and they could understand that. Here’s how you make it.”

Bruce Breland: “He didn’t spend a lot of time speaking art history speak, he spent a lot of time with, ‘How does this go together? And how does this come apart?’ He was constantly thinking up different kinds of what he called ‘art marks’. ‘Art marks’ was a term I heard a good bit of. That impressed me because I never thought of the words ‘art mark’. Art that comes directly from ‘every mark you make modifies what you already know,’ from the old teacher.”

Roy re-introduced the “Flash Room” to SUNY Oswego students.

Bruce Breland: “He taught two-dimensional design, which turned into a flash room. He even had a machine that he converted to a kinesthescope, which is a strobe that flashes, and the shutter goes at a twentieth of a second, or something like that. The idea behind that is that when you see something high contrast, fast… and it’s very bright, there is a long afterimage, and you draw the after-image.

That was the whole thing—what’s going on… in the head. We carry around images in our head, and we can draw from these. Every mark modifies what you already know. There’s almost a catechism with it. I was taken with that. So Roy and I were just great conversationalists with each other. We tended to reinforce.”

So, Roy Lichtenstein was a human being in Oswego—a professor of art with his own interpretations, applications, and cool tools.

“Irrelevant!” is the cry from the art establishment (mafia). “We know he left that agonizing stagnation of wonder and growth to cut out advertisements and comics, and copy them onto canvas. And, of course make us more profit exchanging his celebrity commodity for generations to come.”

 

 

 

 

 

Some Words About Oil and My Degree in Painting Futility

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A Bargain For Francis, Part II 2019. Oil on canvas, 48 x 50″

I paint too fast to accept oils as a medium in my process. Still, no matter how awful and unnecessary, oils have provided a challenge to struggle with. After several months tripping over turpentine, smearing wet paint, covering pigment to mix it more drab, and torturing my muscles from tip to toe, I will have earned my masters in Painting Futility. No one will be able to claim to my understanding that oils are superior to fine acrylics. Where I already practice a weak rendering sensibility, oils just exacerbate the handicap and would force me into a meaningless and vacuous abstraction for the impossibility to render and color an eye without resting the hand on the canvas, and smearing the hand, and wiping the hand on the shirt, over the eye, in the mouth, cursing once, twice and finally kicking over the turpentine with my clumsy reaction.

If the hole needs to be dug today, (and I always dig my holes in a day), then I shall use a shovel (acrylics), instead of a dinner fork (oils).

The following painting was done in acrylics in 2017 with a different toy subject. To me the differences are night and day. I am not fooling anyone with oil. After the Lichtenstein exhibition I will take my degree and paint over it in acrylics.

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A Bargain For Francis 2017. Acrylic on canvas, 48 x 50″

 

 

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 Background 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 to this article, 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

 

 

In 1995 Roy Lichtenstein Was in Southampton Signing Papers to Add to His Enormous Fortune. I Was in a Tree in Oswego Asking My Future Wife For a First Date

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2019. Oil on wood panel, 11 x 14″

The 20th century was very good to me. I became an aristocrat of the spirit. I did not get rich making rich people richer. I stayed poor on purpose buying time and selling thoughts. There are moments these days while diving into the Lichtenstein history when I feel very sad for the nice man that fame attached itself to. Lucky people discover along the way that love and health (physical and mental) is everything that matters. Love of life, a woman, man, a child, and nature is the only meaningful means to an end. Career and its money are vehicles to take you back and forth to love. Attach yourself to the vehicle and wind up truly loveless and making paintings for sale.

There are a thousand reasons why artists fail financially, yet only one reason to remain an artist. Certainly Roy understood this at some point in his life. Art for gain is a runaway train. A very bad choice of vehicle. I paint every day but I would never work like Roy Lichtenstein if it kept luring me away from the holy tree limb of August, 1995.

I am a financial failure, which alone does not make me a successful artist. Stop by my studio on a golden autumn day. Ask me what’s for dinner and whom do I love. You’ll determine very quickly that expression is much more than visual art hard copies. I got more of it than any Roy Lichtenstein could daydream while meeting with a banker to set up another trust. The art is better too, in meaning and passion. Roy got famous and rich because unloved people made love to his paintings in an elite society that writhed and wrinkled inside its own celebrity orgies. All of those manufactured movements of high fashion meaninglessness must have made him so sick and sad.

And lonely.

Making art for the rich and unloved is no way to make life lovable. Roy’s little art blip in time famously made no single life richer in meaning. I just hope he made waffles for his boys on Saturdays, and always, no matter under what pressure, gave up his time for their time.

Otherwise art is useless like garbage collecting and stock portfolio management, which is fine if you’re an aristocrat of the spirit.

Only Roy would know that.

And dead men tell no tales.

Friday, October 11, 1957: Isabel Got a Sitter and Roy Took Her Out For Red Wine and Italian

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2019. Oil on 1950’s “Peasant” table cloth, 36 x 40″

Painting quickly with oil onto a gessoed, but pilled tablecloth, is a two day lesson in hell’s art class. This painting is a copy of an add placed on Tuesday, October 8, 1957 in the state college newspaper, The Oswegonian. It was a month into Roy’s first semester teaching industrial design. I imagine the Lichtensteins wanted to celebrate in some fashion, and Vona’s Restaurant would cater to their private desire. In fact life must have looked pretty darn good stepping out into a golden autumn evening, a paycheck to be cashed, good conversation, and dreams for the future. Roy and Isabel might have chosen to walk the mile from their rented apartment on West 6th Street, through Montcalm park, (where my wife and I were married), past our first house on 7th Street, and the many residences of the working class seeking sedation at the end of a long work week. It’s a thrilling time to be alive any time. And it’s best among a young, healthy working class on a September Friday night.

Vona’s is still in business. We go there for red wine and Italian when the need arises. They treat you right, whether you’re a doctor or an artist, or anything else you pretend to be.