The Last Painting Roundup of Everything I Said Before

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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.

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.

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

 

 

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.