The Last Painting Roundup of Everything I Said Before

alohalow
Oswego Used an Indian Summer to Bait and Switch on Roy Lichtenstein 2019. Oil on car mechanic’s drop cloth, 73 x 54″

Roy Lichtenstein was a novice college art professor living in Oswego, New York from Autumn, 1957 to Spring, 1960. He arrived from Cleveland, Ohio a financial failure, and left for New Brunswick, New Jersey, a burgeoning academic. In Oswego, he taught future teachers of the Empire State, and experimented with abstract impressionism for the first time. He also made a couple carbon sketches of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.

I do not know where he shopped for groceries, or visited the doctor. He might have gone to the movies with his wife Isabel, and on pleasant evenings walked with the family along the river or Lake Ontario shoreline. We know he shoveled himself out of one enormous lake effect dumping in 1958, and in hopeful May sunshine, judged an annual float parade along Sheldon Avenue. A few articles in the college newspaper mention him, two very short oral stories have been shared from living memory, a published essay breaking the mold, and taking more than one paragraph to recount his Oswego residency… The historical record is always very bleak for past human beings making art, unless one made it big and wished to talk about the past that came to the fame.

Roy didn’t like to talk about Oswego in the interviews.

Now gather this limited information to create 35 paintings, interpret them in prose, and prepare an exhibit to show the public. I know it will be a hit because something cannot come from nothing. But when it can come from practically nothing, then it must be art. Lichtenstein was Pop before Oswego, and Pop after Oswego. The historians need to dig deeper to know the man. If the establishment wishes to carry on the brand Lichtenstein much longer (reselling Pop paintings to billionaires), it had better send its coffee table book army up to Oswego to remain relevant. Roy was a failure here, tragi-comically, like me and millions of artists worldwide, in our own minds. Rags to riches is a great theme. But without the rags, riches is just pathetic yachts and more meaninglessness. The Lichtenstein story is told like Cinderella, beginning in the middle, on the way to the ball, cutting out all adversity, and never leaving even a glass slipper of doubt. Roy was born, went to college, and made Pop paintings. Unknown and then known, poor and then rich, just like that! Poof! Thank you fairy Godfather, Leo Castelli!

That’s the historical record on Roy Lichtenstein and the Pop revolution. That, and a 100,000 pages of poppedy-pop, pop, pop!

Not good enough. A repeated implication that artistic relevance matters only after some rich dude says so.

I hope my effort will spurn more research by better art historians to recount the enormous influence I believe the Oswego experience had on Roy Lichtenstein.

I wish to thank CNYArts for its enthusiasm and steadfast commitment to the artists of Central New York. Thank you Mitch Fields and SUNY Oswego Facilities Services for efforts securing a venue for exhibition. Thank you SUNY Oswego Special Collections, Tyler Art Gallery Director, Michael Flanagan, Dean of the School of Communication, Media, and the Arts, Julie Pretzat, and the memory of Professor Lichtenstein.

On Lichtenstein’s First Visit to Oswego Campus, I Bet He Ran Over to the Library Looking For This

JohnhellerLow
Ad in Art in America, Summer issue, 1957

To show in a New York gallery was the third leap in a four jump career. Roy made it the same year he left Cleveland to teach industrial design at the State Teacher’s College at Oswego. I spent last Friday night researching periodicals in Penfield Library (SUNY Oswego), looking specifically for a John Heller Gallery advertisement, and viola! Hard copy historical evidence of a pre-Pop nincompoop painter, like myself and every self who paints, unknown and unmade by the New York City Gallery circuit.

Roy must have felt like his ship had come in. He could free his wife from breadwinner responsibility (she probably preferred breadwinning), and feel good that important earthlings thought his work was saleable to some thousandaires, perhaps even a business tycoon seeking a talking piece for the penthouse parlor.

Did he share his recent success with new students and colleagues?

Oh you bet he did! Somehow, anyhow! And when word got back to administration, few would have taken issue that the new hire in the art department would soon seek a path out of Oswego while on his first week teaching in Oswego. New York was the goal, the last leap taken to get made in an art mafia. Teaching was just a paycheck, and I hope, for the sake of future students of art, that present administrations and their provosts take note.

There are no full time artist/art teachers. There never has been and never can be. There are exceptional art professors practicing a hobby in art. And there are people working full time jobs as art teachers who just want to be full time players in the art mafia. As adults, the latter should be refused entrance to any college or university. Yet unfortunately, this art personality type make up a majority of faculty in many studio art departments nationwide—at least early on in the teaching career, when lunch is still left unscheduled. A vicious circle that Roy hopped on ambitiously. He was a father and a husband and a painter, but never an art teacher. He wanted New York bad!

There is a local rumor that present college administration does not want to promote the Roy Lichtenstein story because it ends with him abandoning the boring small town for the big city scene. I think they should worry more about the never-ending legacy of hiring resumes and accolades instead of human beings captivated by the art of teaching empowerment to the young.

Roy Lichtenstein never should have been hired to teach art in Oswego because he wasn’t a teacher.

He was just a painter wanting fame and maybe money.

 

1959—Isabel Came to the Faculty Wive’s Dinner Dressed in Red Stockings and Caused Quite a Stir

IsabelRed Low
2019. Oil on canvas, 53 x 72″

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 dozing in a hammock on Maui.

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 150 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, (not even for joy), and that the wife takes care of all that money nonsense.

Pressures were on Isabel too. See? She wore red stockings to long skirt events.

 

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

VonasLow
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.

 

Roy, I Gave Up Interior Design For This Place?

IsabelWindowLow
2019. Oil on stretched “Peasant” dinner napkin, 12 x 12″

Isabel Lichtenstein, Roy’s first wife, was not inspired by Oswego living. She was the breadwinner in Cleveland, and lost all her clients when Roy wanted to play teacher-pretend at the State College in Oswego. I can only imagine her frustration, if it existed at all. Imagining is what this project is all about. Historical fiction through paint.

Late 1950s America was not going to allow Isabel a career in design. Not with two little boys to raise. Society never fails to break into and disrupt the hardy, happy minds of of its enthusiastic artists. It was not a “privilege” for Roy to be pressed into a career in teaching when his drive was painting. In Cleveland, Roy was often employed as assistant to Isabel as nuts and bolts of her business. Together they paid the Lichtenstein bills. However, Cleveland would never allow Roy to become a homemaker outright, and raise toddler boys while cooking the meals and washing the clothes. It was a brief workable world turned upside-down. Certainly both Isabel and Roy knew that it could not last forever. Acquiescence to inertia was their best bet, and they made it. All the way to Oswego with hard winters and no one interested in freedom for art’s sake.

I stretched a 1950s “Peasant” linen dinner napkin I purchased on eBay. Oil is a new medium for me. It is for more patient methods I cannot succumb to. I am a hyperactive painter, and must make oils work how I need them to. Painful, but worth every drop of turpentine.

I too am an “All Pure” peasant. I too am the brusher of multitudes.

IsabelPeasantWindowLow

Acrylic Study For a Very Long Oil Title

oswegonian1958.jan.14
“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. There is a Warmth in the Colors Used.” 2019. Acrylic on canvas paper, 14 x 11″

This is a study for a larger oil painting to come. In 1958 (and today) The Oswegonian was a student run newspaper printed weekly and distributed campus wide. The quote in the title is from the article, “English Club Elects New Officers and Enjoys Panel on Romanticism”.

Would Roy like my romantic painting looking west into a January setting sun?

Probably, but he wouldn’t tell. Abstract impressionism was his thing on this date. He might have gone home, rushed up to his “studio” and fought the urge to be happy with desperate stokes of fuzzy ugly.  Fame and seed of fame are nasty critics. I can only imagine the false negativity surging through a man incapable of seeing the honor bestowed upon the teacher of eager innocence. Art is goodness expressed and shared whenever possible, and Roy abandoned the teaching of it for fame. Rather, the seed of fame.

Oh fame, babe, they’ve taken everything and just twisted it
Oh fame they say
You never could have resisted it
What’s in a name?
And everybody’s jaded by fame
Oh fame again
The press has gone and made another mess of it
Oh just because they got
So much invested in it
But they say you’re to blame it’s your own fault
‘Cause you got mixed up in fame
Oh no don’t believe none of that old Andy Warhol guff
It takes a lot more than 10 or 15 minutes
That’s just not enough
To qualify you for
Fame, you went beyond the boundries of your sanity
And every day you defy
All the laws of gravity
You ain’t got no shame
‘Cause you’re just addicted to fame
Well no don’t you buy none of that old Andy Warhol stuff (rough)
It takes a lot more than 10 or 15 minutes
Man, (yeah) it’s just not enough
To qualify you for
Fame, they’re already settin’ up, settin’ up your own Watergate, Watergate
Oh fame, that stalker out there is just filled with hate
You’ll never be the same
‘Cause everyone’s corrupted by fame
Oh fame, that took away, too away all my humanity
Oh fame got to fight
Every second of the day for my dignity
It’s a spectator’s game
And there ain’t nothing fair about fame
Oh no, oh fame, say it again, yeah, yeah, yeah
Oh fame say it again
Fame, say it again, fame, fame, fame
They say you’re to blame ’cause you got mixed up in fame, fame, say it again, fame
—Van Morrison from “Fame”