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.
If David Campbell showed this painting alongside Roy’s piece that year in the faculty exhibition, he would have outclassed his struggling colleague. Roy was confusing himself and others by abandoning his “feel” while making a leap in style from figurative to abstract impressionism. We only know this because Roy went Evel Knievel a couple years later to land somewhere completely new. And new can win in New York if you have the support and backing of a millionaire who knows many millionaires who have nothing better to do than buy a work of art for the price of a house. So Roy got paid a fortune copying comics, and David Campbell got close to zilcho making beautiful paintings.
No one said that life is fair. Certainly not Leo Castelli then, nor Larry Gagosian today.
David Campbell has a website where prints are available. Give his genius a try! Lord knows we could use something new for the rest of us.
Harvey Sherman Harris (1915 – 1999) was a painter and teaching colleague of Roy Lichtenstein at Oswego State. I imagine professional jealousy was a persistent worm in the minds of artists in 1958 as it is today. I think that’s because artists in America think individually (at times) that they are great with verve and originality—better than the rest even—when really, what they’re privately pining for is an Elvis Presley fame with a Wayne Newton effort at expression. Truth is, everyone is free to achieve the inner peace and realization that there was only one John Coltrane, and we all should be happy enough with that satori, making things and drinking beer.
But few of us reach this happier place. Hence, university art departments nationwide, born from the seeds of children loving to make art, yet growing twisted and gnarled up, to be professional children chock full of groundless envy and pride.
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.
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.
In spring, my family visited beautiful Berkshire Williamstown and I stopped in the Sawyer Library at Williams College to see what it held on Roy Lichtenstein. I walked up and down the pristine Dewey decimal rows and grabbed several books off the shelves. I was prepared for the usual art historian pinpointing of everything unimportant to the artist in 300 pages of big words and thousands of hours of time wasted on attempts to define the undefinable. I pray one day I open to a page in one of these esoteric tomes of mumbo-jumbo, and get a sense that the author is(was) a human like me. The rise and popularity of celebrity modern art and its People magazine history follows a predictable pattern. Youth, geography, and connection are the markers used to pin each artist on the value scale. The published art writers (socialists usually) act as scribes to the priestly class of capitalists who make(made) a set number of image-makers into commodities worth trading in a tuxedo auction house. Who publishes these books, over and over again, for coffee tables and multi-million dollar libraries? And why?
I was ready to flip through the stack and find no mention of Roy in Oswego, which would have confirmed my bias that the majority of PhD art historians unwittingly prop up the valuable expression of the artist with agonizing page after page of subjective interpretation. Detailed abstractions on art to uplift the offshore accounts of Christies, Inc., Larry Gagosian, and other gross millionaires and billionaires slamming the door shut on the eager studio art students ready to earn their place on library shelves of the future. I was going to add it to my book as a side theme proving my hypothesis that art historians pay much less attention to the biography of the artist than they ought to. As if an American Civil War historian found it more interesting to write ten pages interpreting the Gettysburg Address and made no mention of Lincoln’s dreadful thoughts while on the train traveling to the slaughter fields. Life happens to human beings and some make the effort to express themselves. Art history often lacks the life story of the artist, which is why I believe a few of the books I flipped through at the library were crisp and new and never opened after the Williams College stamp was pressed. Art without life is pretty damn boring.
All the books kept to the pattern, except two. One, which critiqued Lictenstein’s pre-pop (early 1950’s) paintings of Native Americans out west, and another book of essays, with one by Avis Berman, which, unlike any I have read thus far, actually makes an effort to understand the world of Roy Lichtenstein in Oswego. I spent half my research time copying a piece of the essay word for word, upside down-left-handed with a leaky pen, until I realized I could use my wife’s smartphone to take a picture of the pages and copy later. I quote pieces of my copy from the Berman essay in Roy Lichtenstein: All About Art:
“Isabel did not leave Cleveland willingly.”
“There were three new faculty members to the art department in 1957. David Campbell, Harvey Harris, and Bruce Breland.”
Bruce Breland: ” Roy was very popular with them (the students). They liked him because he wasn’t dealing with art as a mystery. He was dealing with art in the present, and they could understand that. Here’s how you make it.”
Bruce Breland: “He didn’t spend a lot of time speaking art history speak, he spent a lot of time with, ‘How does this go together? And how does this come apart?’ He was constantly thinking up different kinds of what he called ‘art marks’. ‘Art marks’ was a term I heard a good bit of. That impressed me because I never thought of the words ‘art mark’. Art that comes directly from ‘every mark you make modifies what you already know,’ from the old teacher.”
Roy re-introduced the “Flash Room” to SUNY Oswego students.
Bruce Breland: “He taught two-dimensional design, which turned into a flash room. He even had a machine that he converted to a kinesthescope, which is a strobe that flashes, and the shutter goes at a twentieth of a second, or something like that. The idea behind that is that when you see something high contrast, fast… and it’s very bright, there is a long afterimage, and you draw the after-image.
That was the whole thing—what’s going on… in the head. We carry around images in our head, and we can draw from these. Every mark modifies what you already know. There’s almost a catechism with it. I was taken with that. So Roy and I were just great conversationalists with each other. We tended to reinforce.”
So, Roy Lichtenstein was a human being in Oswego—a professor of art with his own interpretations, applications, and cool tools.
“Irrelevant!” is the cry from the art establishment (mafia). “We know he left that agonizing stagnation of wonder and growth to cut out advertisements and comics, and copy them onto canvas. And, of course make us more profit exchanging his celebrity commodity for generations to come.”