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

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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 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.

 

 

 

 

 

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 Backround 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, 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

 

 

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

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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 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 and maybe 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 on 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 who needed money.

 

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 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.

Squirrel and Roy Lichtenstein Waiting For Lake Effect, 1958

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2019. Oil on bed sheet, 24 x 25″

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.

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West 2nd Street, north of Bridge Street, December, 1958.

 

 

The Lichtensteins Lived at 11 West Sixth Street in Oswego

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2019. Oil on 1950’s “Peasant” dinner napkin, 10 x 10″

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!

Ghosts and connections! Connections and ghosts!

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 golden autumn work week. It’s a thrilling time to be alive any time.

Vona’s is still in business. We go there for red wine and Italian when the need arises. They treat you right. Like doctors or artists, or anything else you pretend to be.