From a letter sent to students dated October 30, 1957:
“Tomorrow is the Day of the Dead and the streets are filled with candy skulls—little candies, big candies, candies of all shapes and colors, candy animals, skeletons, dolls, and baskets. They are the most lovely candies I have seen. But they all taste like plain sugar.
We went to one cemetery this afternoon and preparations were already being made for the celebration. A cemetery here is a very grim place. The people do not buy the lots:they just rent them, so that when the rent is not paid, the bodies are dug up. As we walked around we saw lots of skulls and human bones. Some of the skulls still have hair on them.
The Indiand will have picnics at the graves of the recently deceased on Saturday, and that seems to be the reason for all the elaborate candy for which San Miguel is famous.”
Recent business news informs the lowly that it’s wrong to compound tariffs on China because it will hurt business and the economy. Some articles on the Internet begin with an image of a cargo ship loaded with colorful shipping containers, docked at port with no place to go. The oceans are rapidly acidifying and I am still being propagandized to think that shipping containers filled with fidget spinners and plastic paper clips will bring contentment to my loved ones—if only those ships are free to cross the sea and filth up our lives and ecology. Personally, I believe 2,000% trade tariffs should be charged on all international goods, except for Chinese items which must be outlawed like street heroin. I painted this image on a tablecloth made in China that was flimsy like wet Shanghai kelp, even after after being gessoed and dried twice. China makes crap. And the United States buys the crap. The crappiest kind of people get rich in the process, and buy more crap like yachts. Economically, both China and the U.S. are just crappy states of peasant people afraid of their own governments.
Good people feel guilty for making a carbon footprint in a musty basement painting pictures.
Bad people talk, write, and think about trade while spitting in the hot wind of their own creations.
I understand, though, that in order to survive socially sane and dignified in the modern age, a marketplace needs to remain open, and all people (good and bad) will partake on some level. When good people make a transaction for slight profit, it should feel like getting a strong urge to stool on a very hot day in an open marketplace without a single toilet nearby.
A good person will take the money, put her head down in shame, and run.
Established New York City galleries have placed enormous 1% tariffs on paintings they acquire and sell. Meaning that only the 1% could ever afford them, and also be the type of loathsome people to even want to.
In my painting, the New York City art market is always the pissant, and back in 1961, Roy was just another painter. The day he dropped off his six pop pieces to Leo Castelli was a great day. He left without a deal, taking a stroll to a nearby coffeehouse to dream. The day he returned and was offered representation and a path to fame and fortune, Roy, like every peasant painter who came before him, got the pressing urge to stool. Unlike the majority of peasant painters, however, a great embarrassment overwhelmed Roy on the spot. He didn’t put his head down in shame and run.
It is so easy to be an artist when it comes to pretending to occupy head space. Just draw a picture and let people guess at your profundity. As a 16 year old boy, often flabbergasted by the insensitivity and hypocrisy of man, I had no outlet other than a spoken word “why” to react to interplay with myself and a world gone wrong. A friend gave me the nickname “Philosopher Ron,” which I didn’t know what to do with other than add more “whys” to a lengthening list on the sins of friends and family. I was working class, poorly educated, and limited to wonder that never took me too far outside my caste. I had no mentor, no teacher, no guru. So, why did the chef at the restaurant where I worked my first job as dishwasher serve late arrivals spaghetti that he scooped out of the garbage? Was his life that interesting after punching out to save time on the clock washing garbage can pasta and reheating it, rather than boiling another pound? That week on my night off I watched “The Day After”, a made for TV nuclear holocaust movie that was all the rage among adults pretending to give a crap about their own government’s trespass on the rights of all life on earth. What was a moral dishwasher with the intellectual capacity of a stone, yet the sensitivity of a butterfly wing, to do with that information?
Naturally, for me in my station, as inquisitive young dope and novice dishwasher, I just asked “why”, and then went to bed.
I am sure Roy Lichtenstein either watched or at least heard about the movie, for adults everywhere always talk about things the TV wants them to. He was rich and well cared for in 1983, and although he had the eyes of many thousands of thinking peoples, he thought best to remain humble in his art and let Ronald Reagan be master of the weapons that would melt his loved ones. Roy made one political painting that year, a framed “abstract” entitled “Against Apartheid”, which was very safe and popular and showed that the millionaire artist cared very much about oppression in South Africa. The rest of his output for 1983 is more brushstrokes, more frames, and some apples. And he probably took Dorothy out for spaghetti late one night, at the hour when chefs get very bitter and angry over their station in life.
Today, Philosopher Ron can’t help but to think that all popular visual artists are lazy jerks to the survival needs of mankind. I think the same of priests of religion, pop musicians, and writers with best selling books. Each has a huge following, yet uses expression to maintain the means that keep them grounded to the same spot on the spectrum of goodness and badness. They reside where the money comes and popularity is maintained. Popular artists, like infamous presidents (all presidents), gain the world and lose their souls. It’s just a matter of fact.
Fear of insignificance keeps the ambitious producing nothing to prevent the race to our own extinction. Whether it be pretty pop paintings or the B83 thermonuclear bomb.
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 employed as assistant to Isabel as nuts and bolts of her business. Together they paid the Lichtenstein bills. But 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” dinner napkin I purchased in a linen table set 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.
“1959—Isabel Came to the Faculty Wives Dinner Dressed in Red Stockings and Caused Quite a Stir!”
This, (or something nearly this), will become a large oil painting when the oils arrive.
The quote in the title came directly from my next door neighbor Helen who knew the Lichtensteins in the late 1950’s. Her husband was a physical education teacher and the soccer coach admitted the same semester and year as Roy—Fall, 1957.
I too feel like wearing red stockings wherever I go in Oswego. Now I think I might. Who could tell with the sweatshop of garments I need to wear just to step outside in January!
I am corresponding with local archives to arrange time to visit. I need to research the late 1950’s Oswego scene. Likewise, I have written to the Lichtenstein Foundation hoping to gain permission to use a few images of Roy’s paintings during this time period.
Already I am feeling the magic of historical daydreaming. Roy and I share a connection to Oswego, however slight. Below is a photo of Park Hall, the academic building where Roy and his colleagues taught art to future teachers of America. I walk this view nearly every day in summer, and live less than a tenth of a mile from it. Roy must have pushed out the doors of Park Hall not knowing what the hell he was up to, nor the fame explosion he would experience just a year and a half later.
I want to learn where he lived, the stores he shopped at, and restaurants he frequented. Could he even afford to take the family out on a teacher’s salary? Did his wife Isabel work? Where? How old were his kids at the time?
The paintings will come. I have stretched the first canvas and ordered the oils. Artistically, Roy was in crisis. He would have known he was leaving Oswego and heading to New Jersey for a different life. His painting was going nowhere. I know where my paintings are. I also know that I don’t need New Jersey for a future to come to me. I just need to push through a crisis and find my focus. Roy sought outside encouragement. I seek courage, yet during the process, I wouldn’t mind running into satori once in a while.