The best history story about Lichtenstein happens in 1957, five years before his ascension to international fame and small fortune. During that fateful year the Lichtensteins bought their first house in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. A mini-palace in a land of beautiful houses. Six bedrooms, a few baths. Isabel might have been employed still as assistant interior decorator at Jane L. Hansen, Inc., however, doubtful while shouldering responsibilities of two preschool boys. The younger Mitchell, not yet a year on earth.
Roy never kept a job for more than 6 months during the bulk of the decade, and his new job as engineering draftsman making furniture for the Republic Steel Company was work, but not work that could afford a 1950’s down payment on an upper middle class property.
Was their a recent inheritance? Something to look into.
But the big question is why, in August of the same year, did Roy take a job as assistant professor at Oswego State Teacher’s College 350 miles away from his new home? The family rented an apartment in a duplex at 11 West 6th Street before the start of the Fall semester.
What a year of tumult, for better or worse. Things must have been pretty desperate on some level for such a drastic uprooting. Perhaps frantic. Eight paintings produced during the whole year. Eight paintings that took no time away from a harried move. Rushed work. Lazy work. Stolen hours’ work.
At 34 years old, I believe Roy was settling in for the duration. Baby boys, a wife who had always supported him… He didn’t make this move to “get closer to the NY art scene”. So many historians make the claim in their usual paragraph (maybe two) written on the most significant change in the artist’s life to that point in time. Obviously, none have made the trip to Oswego, nor thought much about being an unknown painter in the American year, 1957.
Everything that happened then created what was to come.
In the painting above, Roy and Isabel appear to be dancing. Both figures are copied from paintings he made in 1952. The house and address take you to the grounded reality of their lives, and no thing at that moment in time had the power to predict a future Elvis Presley fame in an international art world.
Babies need to be fed. Rents and mortgages must get paid. At a starting salary of $6,300/year, Roy was well on his way to surviving barely in a cruel world.
Sometimes I think art historians don’t do art history very well. In 1961, Roy was a family man, raising two little boys. He wasn’t making paintings (copying magazine, newspaper and comic clippings) to emphasize orifices and blow up dolls. The following excerpt is taken from Hall of Mirrors by Graham Bader, assistant professor at Rice University. Great writer, but a bunch of kinky balderdash!
Professor Bader does not have a degree in Subjective Interpretations of Someone Else’s Art, and yet society supplies him an office with a desk and streams of students who pay with their time and money to take their seat beside him. Imagine if Howard Zinn, American history historian, wrote that Robert Kennedy used to dress up as a duck and make love to chicken wire. He had no proof—no recorded interview, not even personal anecdote from enemy Brezhnev’s autobiography. Would MIT Press publish wild speculation? Would Rice University tenure such nonsense?
Here is my subjective interpretation, knowing what I know about the world of 1961. Roy was a year and a half out of Oswego. He was a teacher in New jersey, and his youngest boy a wannabe Mouseketeer. Mouths were not sexual orifices to Roy. Not openly anyway. Not yet. There is no pre-pop evidence that he was a sexual-thinking person. He took his “Girl With Ball” to the Leo Castelli Gallery, and it was the first painting the latter purchased. Maybe Leo thought she had a sexy mouth hole. Roy just copied his girl straight from a Poconos Advertisement in the New York Times. He made the mouth look like the ball, maybe.
Anyway, read for yourself. Good writing can be convincing. Bad writing too. I just wish professor Bader wasn’t awarded a hundred grand a year to help push the hordes of living artists into obscurity holes. We have a lot to say about our work. And we’re alive. And he can trust us,
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.
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.
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 this month 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—career and money are vehicles to take you back and forth to love. Attach yourself to the vehicle and wind up making paintings for sale.
There are a thousand reasons 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.
In 1958, Roy was 34 years old, married, with two children, and settling into his new job as assistant professor of industrial design at the state teacher’s college in Oswego, N.Y. How he got a job as an “expert” in industrial design, earning an MA in fine art with emphasis on painting, is an example of a modern economy not running on full potential. Women were denied vacant career tracts that men could apply into—even unqualified men like Roy.
Oswego might have been desperate to fill the position. And Roy was a painter, which is affiliated with art, and design can be arty too, so… Close enough! Hired to do a job he had little interest in. His wife Isabel was building a clientele in Cleveland as an interior designer, but now the couple had two children. Even big city Cleveland was not going to allow Roy to paint all day while Isabel brought home the bacon. Who would stay back to watch the kids? Roy, a stay-at-home Dad in the mid-1950s? He would have better luck applying for cosmonaut trainer in Kremlin Heights. The neighbors would stone him to madness with their icy eyes.
When I was 34 in Oswego, I too was married with children. We lived in a more fair economy where women were allowed careers (as long as their husbands had one too). However, unlike Roy, I persisted in my art which was home teaching my daughters, and working day after day as a house husband, and full time, sometimes part-time, as a line cook in a local steak and seafood restaurant.
Beside frequent painting, I wrote, edited, and published a creative book during my 34th year. I scratch prepared and cooked 14 meals a week for the family, washed, dried, and folded all the laundry, changed 3/4 of our infant daughter’s diapers, and home taught my 11 year old daughter three days a week. We also had a dog, whom I walked twice a day. And house repair and refurbishment was never-ending. I mean never ending.
I cannot get a job at the state college next door, and I have applied at different times to be a janitor, dining hall cook, and even an assistant gallery director. All to no avail. Like Roy, I probably didn’t want the job(s) anyway. I wanted an income as a painter. But both Leo Castelli and the 20th century are dead. Therefore, pipe, meet dream, and persist as you always have Ron, even when no one was looking.
In autumn 1958 Roy walked along the lake dreaming. In 2001, Ron did too. However at our respective moments in time, only one of us was fortunate enough to remain an artist. Lake effect is a meteorological phenomenon when a westerly winter wind dumps an inordinate amount of snow in a very narrow band of storm on an eastern shore of a large body of water.
Below is a photo of Oswego captured by Carl Mydans for Life Magazine in December 1958, when lake effect gave the city 6 feet of snow over the weekend. I am certain the gears of escape were already turning inside Roy’s head.
This is a duplex the Lichtensteins shared with the Brelands that burned down in the early 1990’s. A stone’s throw to the lake, and across the street from Montcalm Park, where my wife and I were married. Ghosts!
One summer night Roy hosted a student “pop up” painting exhibition in his living room. I have hosted several group shows in my Oswego house. This behavior is example of art anonymity testing its limits. Connection!