In 1958, Art News Didn’t Give a Thin Dime About Roy Lichtenstein

RoyboysLow
2019. Oil in wood panel, 11 x 14″

…and no one escapes having to live life under duress

—Van Morrison, from “The Meaning of Loneliness”

The Lichtensteins moved to Oswego in late summer, 1957. Earlier in the year Roy and Isabel bought their first house in Cleveland, Ohio, which, in 1957 terms, meant a rest-of-life scenario along the Lake Erie shoreline. The couple had two little boys, David, born in October, 1954, and Mitchell, celebrating his first year in March, 1957. The several biographies I have read by art historians claim Roy took the job in Oswego to position himself “closer to the New York City art market”. Today it takes about seven hours to drive from Cleveland to New York, and five hours from Oswego. Certainly in the 1950’s both roads made the drive longer, but I would guess the Cleveland to New York latitude was more friendly to motorists while Eisenhower and GM’s monstrous interstate system was still in its planning stages.

Closer to the art market?

Hmm. No jobs available  in Lancaster, Allentown, or Wilke-Barre, Pennsylvania? And hour’s drive to Manhattan would seem more practical on every level.

So why leave many years of social acclimation and a purchased house in Cleveland to move a young family to Oswego, NY?

Dr. Aulus Sanders, the Chairman of the Art Department in 1957, who”plucked” Roy out of Cleveland, said that there were many applications for the opening to teach industrial design. He felt he had a special knack at sifting past those who looked good on paper, but would not rise to the occasion. Not Roy. He had prestige, enough talent, Manhattan accolades, but most importantly, Roy was 34 years old with a wife and family. Middle-aged and so ready to settle down, Dr. Aulus might have marked Roy’s application as a sound investment for the college. Perhaps it was Roy’s recently acquired job making furniture at the Republic Steel Company which made him think twice about a full-time painting career, prompting him to send his resume to higher ed institutions throughout the northeast. If he could secure a position teaching, then he could spend a lifetime practicing the art he loved in an atmosphere of encouragement rather than struggle.

Furthermore, he might have been between jobs when he sent his resume to Oswego. In quiet desperation, he could have left Isabel out of this decision, fearing she would be dead set against starting over in a small city far, far away. He would just wait and see if any offers came back, and then break the news to her.

History is chock full of stories that have little base in actual history. Still, using even rudimentary knowledge of the culture and human condition during the mid-20th century, it suffices to suggest that Roy was stubborn, but not crazy stubborn. There wasn’t a middle-aged family man in Cleveland not privately terrified of losing the ability to support a family. Roy’s ambition was very real. A few New York exhibitions under his belt, an unwavering philosophy on art and artist, and a highly naive, perhaps delusional, dream of “making it big”. This was the hope constantly wrestling with financial reality. He was a failure as a reliable breadwinner. That pressure in 1957 superseded any pressures demanded through the practicing of a private art. Roy was in struggle. Life-changing struggle.

So far in my limited reading, I believe the biographers get it wrong. Art historians are wont to fall into the trap of the hindsight “art for art sake” mindset. Roy had a wife and two little boys. Isabel had a husband and two little boys. Ends would have to meet and marriage survival was contingent on money making—at least enough to conform to illusions set in the middle class, Caucasian society of the time period.

No matter what Roy claimed in future VIP interviews, he sure as heck didn’t accept the job in Oswego to “get closer to the New York art market”. The assistant professor’s position paid between $5,570 and $7,250. It was a dream job for any misfit artist, scholar, or mathematician in need of conformity fast. To hold one’s head up high, bringing home the bacon, and partaking in an acceptable and steady occupation, frees the academic on many levels, including the time necessary to practice a joy.

Surely at the time, Roy still dreamed big. 34 wasn’t the end of the world. Being employed as a college professor in Oswego  would open more New York gallery doors than furniture maker in Cleveland. Perhaps it might be wiser for future art historians to interpret past allusions to Roy’s ambition while sliding into the narrative more sociology, rather than blind faith in what a millionaire or a millionaire’s friend had to say in a celebrity interview.

Start with this premise: Roy Lichtenstein did not come to Oswego to get closer to the New York art market. He came to Oswego to settle down and get closer to his art.

And to support a family so a social and political world would leave him the hell alone.

 

 

 

Squirrel and Roy Lichtenstein Waiting For Lake Effect, 1958

SquirrelRoyLow
2019. Oil on bed sheet, 24 x 25″

In 1958, Roy was 35 years old, married, with two children, and settling into his new job as assistant professor of art with emphasis on industrial design at the State Teacher’s College in Oswego, N.Y. How he got a job as an “expert” in industrial design, after earning an MA in fine art with emphasis on painting, is an example of a modern economy not running on full potential. For instance, 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 stare him to madness with their icy eyes.

When I was 35 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 had wrote, edited, and published four creative books by my 35th 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 12 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. However, both Leo Castelli (Roy’s initial and lifelong benefactor) and the 20th century are dead. Therefore, pipe, meet dream, and persist as you always have Ron, even while no one was looking.

In autumn 1958 Roy walked along the lake dreaming. In 2002, 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.

Screen shot 2019-02-11 at 8.34.16 AM
West 2nd Street, north of Bridge Street, December, 1958.