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.
Andy sat down to talk one day He said decide what you want. Do you want to expand your parameters Or play museums like some dilettante?
—From “Work”, a song written by Lou reed in memory of Andy Warhol
It is resplendent mid-summer in Oswego, NY. The flower garden is weeded and bursting with color, the garlic pulled and drying in the sun, and a half day spent edging the lawn along the curb and driveway. I have been grilling meals outdoors and watering the Merlot grapes at dusk. I want to risk a tomorrow of thirty mosquito bumps to sleep under the stars tonight. Summers spent along a Great Lake give a glimpse into Elysium, where the faithful retire for eternity. Michael Fox, who came to Oswego State in 1967 to teach art and painting, lived the rest of his years with these beautiful summers. He claimed openly and often of the beauty and peace Oswego provided him. Like me, he lived next door to the college and walked to campus watching the changing skies. He laughed at those who mocked the very place they chose to live, especially the professors. “Why work here if you don’t want to be here?”
Many residents play act that Oswego is a lowly place overall. With such a depressed economy and winters that drag on forever, summer is a welcome but very limited respite to the cyclic despair of several poverties, exposed most predominantly in February with the cracked skin smiles of quiet desperation. Many professors commute from the Syracuse suburbs over the slippery roadways and lake effect white-outs, perhaps because a harried life looks best with many take-out options. February wears its prettiest sundress on Indian nights out for vindaloo. And there’s always a Wegman’s just around the corner!
Time is a prized commodity, especially for the art professors, who need to practice art to remain relevant as artists, while teaching. I think Michael Fox understood this very well. It helped that he was from another time and class of people who would be embarrassed to pretend the luxury of a Syracuse commute. Roy Lichtenstein was of that time too. Slowness was a natural breeding ground for the art process. (It still is.) Therefore places like Oswego would have been cherished as a best kept secret. Art shall take no interest in a life without frequent access to quiet and solitude. Lichtenstein came to Oswego State Teacher’s College and immersed himself into the drowsy flow of small town life, whether he liked it or not.
I don’t think he liked it very much.
Which to me means that he was never ready to be an artist. Not like Michael Fox was a teacher-artist, or Ron Throop is a father-husband artist. I guess the best phrase to describe a career for Roy Lichtenstein would be ambitious artist until jaded and then a commercial artist.
Oswego was his test and maybe he failed. He had already proved his ability to be accepted by the in crowd of New York City—he exhibited his original work several times throughout the fifties at the John Heller Gallery, and once in 1959 at the Condon Riley Gallery, with a painfully manufactured gambit at abstract impressionism. (He was reading about trends in Artnews and interpreting them in his own work, perhaps to muster relevance in a rapidly changing art world.) So he was ambitious to exhibit with some success, and likewise able to support a family with a professor’s paycheck.
So, what made the family get up and leave, again?
The history books declare “ambition!”. If we take this approach, then we also must admit that it was ambition to be successful like any corporate entity of his day, like Coca-Cola or Frank Sinatra. Perhaps initially, but not over the long term, it may have been ambition to practice painting to achieve master status (as he believed Picasso and Cezanne were masters). He could do this better via frequent train rides into Manhattan to pretend a Bohemian lifestyle while married with children back in suburban New Jersey. After initial success, his artist self would have realized that he was being commoditized by Leo Castelli, who would become his sole, lifelong promoter. So, most unfortunately for art’s sake, what began as art growth (Pop style) was repeated over and over for promises of more wealth and fame. Like a Rolling Stones concert of today, Roy in his later years would conform to representations of nostalgia from a freer past, but in reality, remain just a spectacle of choreographed fake freedom—the opposite of art.
I don’t think that, initially, ambition had anything to do with it. There were private, familial reasons, as any human being with spouse and small children will admit. Nobody in the mild flux of struggle (raising a family on an assistant professor’s salary) would posit such open and outward delusional fantasies. Especially in 1957 when only Elvis would get famous! Roy Lichtenstein proved that he could teach and practice in Oswego. I think he found the key to contentment in academia. To be offered a lateral position in New Jersey was probably the best he could do at the time for his family. He had a wife whom he probably loved and needed, and two young boys who carried his name. There was always movie night to play fantasy, and like the Cleveland where they lived before Oswego, there was just more to do in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Heck, the Edison Museum was a five minute drive up the road. And I bet a superabundance of lively drive-ins for burgers and shakes on demand any night of the week.
Today, some Oswego art professors seek better weekend entertainment opportunities in Syracuse or Rochester (or their suburbs). They do this because practicing art is always a practice of loneliness, for better or worse. It’s just not so much fun being lonely for a career, and art teachers, like car mechanics and brain surgeons, are human beings needing a society more often than not to do its expressing for them. Hence the comforting joys of a nearby Barnes and Noble®, Smokeybones®, or Wegmans® supermarket, stocked to the ceiling with digestible relevance. In 1960, Roy and Isabel moved the family closer to a geography that could uplift the doldrums on any Sunday, even in icy February.
Michael Fox remained in Oswego as a teacher-artist. His career was teaching while his art practice remained relevant unto himself. He too experienced beautiful Ontario summers like Ron Throop, who has no career besides writing these words, and painting these images.
One day in 1961 Roy Lichtenstein brought his newest paintings to a gallery in New York City and made money—then lots and lots of money, making images in a style he barely changed for the next 37 years. At least he had a year of tasty burgers and shakes at the families’ favorite New Brunswick drive-in before becoming the ubiquitous Coca-cola® served on every tray for generations to come.
I think I have formulated a revisionist art history. It’s time to take our PhD’s in other hopeful directions. Enough with the “masters”, who were never more master than any other prolific creators—just richer. Either while living or posthumously, it was millionaires and billionaires (sometimes even the CIA) that made them masters through celebrity and finance. We must get off this track, derail the train if necessary. Because Picasso was a man, not a marker. And Jeff Koons is a monstrosity from a hell made by ignorant billionaires, who are so dirty it hurts my brain so to think about them. Yet both set standards for the multitude of creative geniuses practicing arts not of the celebrity mold. And these standards are anti-art for those seeking master status in a subjective medium, aka: judgemental world.
I suggest a people’s history of art. Art always made by people for people, locally (until the Internet), not for Christies® and Hyperallergic®, which are very unpeople-like, especially in the realm of art making and sharing. They are co-parasites in a “look-at-me-now!” bubble. Like Donald Trumps and Kim Kardashians, show poodles at the poodle show—nothing more, and much less…
Last Saturday I stumbled upon a local antiques shop in a residential neighborhood of my small town. My wife is the driver of such things that I usually avoid, that is, until of late, when I suspect there might be a treasure of a painting to rediscover. Since I am searching locally for paintings made by colleagues of Roy Lichtenstein, I have been frequenting garage and estate sales, and now antiques shops too. By lazy Saturday chance I found the pot of gold to art history, or what needs to become the new art history, if people of substance are to matter ever again.
The usual artifacts—vintage tools, tchotchkes, and roller skates, record albums, post cards, coins, 19th century books, costume jewelry, tables, a chair, and yes, paintings on the walls. Mostly framed prints, a few originals by who knows who—rarely art historians, of course, because they’re not searching for the obscure lessor knowns…
Up in the corner of a far wall was the treasure. I thought I recognized the style. Sure enough, a Dr. Aulus Saunders original, signed and dated, 1981. A painting of a then local restaurant long ago out of business. On the tag was written “Not for sale. For future exhibition”.
In 1937, Aulus Saunders was picked by Ralph Swetman to head the art department at the State Teacher’s College of Oswego. He was instrumental in the hiring of every art faculty member until his retirement in 1978. He hired Roy Lichtenstein in 1957.
Unfortunately, via the uber-influential cult of celebrity, Lichtenstein got fame and fortune because millionaires were conned by other millionaires to buy his trinkets, to be in the know, to have collections in their names, and be spoken of with respect at high parties—the ones just like others, with toilets and sinks, and careful conversations. And the painting practice and pedagogic genius of Dr. Saunders bound to obscurity in an antique shop. The majority of Oswego professors Saunders hired to teach art and art history abandoned the man who gave them license to perpetuate the fraud of modern celebrity art. Thousands of students loaded to confusion with facts, interpretations and style about nothing really—impressionism, expressionism, surrealism, ad nauseism… Future art historians churning out more coffee tables books than a solar system could possibly want, unless necessary for house building during the final throes of the sixth extinction.
And then Steve the proprietor came over to me while gazing at the Saunder’s painting. He bought the entire collection years ago from the professor’s son. 80 paintings, cornered and covered in Steve’s home basement. He thought maybe one day he would have an exhibition, or maybe the college would be interested in acquiring a few for its collection. 80 original paintings by a man dedicated to art practice and pedagogy. Ho boy! And local to boot. An absolute dream to any non-convoluted historian. A radical concept. Art history without art celebrity. Painters who practiced literally what they preached. That is, a dedication to art and art-making. Productivity through creativity, and then shouldering the responsibility to carry on art traditions to a younger generation.
I tried to conceal some of my excitement. I’d take a loan out to secure these 80 paintings safe passage out of Steve’s musty basement. I just think I might.
So should any art historian worth his or her salt. Roy Lichtenstein made pop art a popular name. Aulus Saunders hired Roy Lichtenstein and many other practicing teacher-artists, and himself practiced art until he died. Both have value to the future. However, I shall always argue that one is of lessor substance, even if it happened to purchase a mansion in the Hamptons, and abandon art for commodities’ sake.
Dear art historians of today and tomorrow. Kill the Buddha to see how many million Buddhas are popping up all over the place. If I can find dead collections to come alive, so can you. Start searching estate sales and in your local antique shops. A people’s art for the future, and the little rich dandys can continue their prostituting to Sotheby’s of Dubai. They are so much old news, like Picasso in his underwear and Michelangelo lounging about the Pope’s brothel.
Frances Oler is seated in the 1958 art faculty photo for the yearbook. She was allowed to teach future teachers how to teach art to elementary school children. Cans of safety scissors, crayons, and dream potential squashed because she peed sitting down.
For years, Miss Oler lived kitty korner to our house. She taught our neighbor Helen’s children at the Campus School in Sheldon Hall throughout the 1960’s.
This painting is how Roy and the other boys probably saw her in the flesh.
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 illicit Chinese items (street heroin) which must be outlawed with brute force. 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 terrified 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 making.
Though I understand 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. A few weeks later he returned and was offered representation and a path to fame and fortune. Most likely, 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.