Breland and Lichtenstein Judge the Float Parade. Saturday Afternoon, May 10, 1958

BrelandLichtensteinlow
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.

I Learned More About Lichtenstein in One Hour at Williams College Sawyer Library Than I Have in Four Months Researching in a Town Where He Taught and Lived

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In 1958, Lichtenstein Must Have Felt Like This: Painting Abstract, Then 18th century Native, Then What, And Who Will Care? 2019. Oil on canvas, 20 x 16″

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.”

 

 

 

 

 

As An Amateur Art Historian and Gossip, I Believe Fame Took Its Toll On Roy Lichtenstein, And Nobodyness Kept Carolyn Blish’s Ease of Living In Tact

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2019. Oil on board over image by Carolyn Blish ’68, 35 x 24″

The best celebrity history story about Lichtenstein happens in 1957, five years before his ascension to international fame and small fortune. During that fateful year the Lichtensteins bought their first house in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. A mini-palace in a land of beautiful houses. Six bedrooms, a few baths. Isabel might have been employed still as assistant interior decorator at Jane L. Hansen, Inc., however, doubtful while shouldering responsibilities of two preschool boys. The younger Mitchell, not yet a year on earth.

Roy never kept a job for more than six months during the bulk of the decade, and his new job as engineering draftsman making furniture for the Republic Steel Company was work, but not work that could afford a 1950’s down payment on an upper middle class property.

Was there a recent inheritance to the nuclear family? Something to look into for those who look deeper into things.

But the big question is why, in August of the same year, did Roy take a job as assistant professor at Oswego State Teacher’s College, 350 miles away from his new home? The family rented an apartment in a duplex at 11 West 6th Street before the start of the Fall semester.

What a year of tumult, for better or worse! Things must have been pretty desperate on some level for such a drastic uprooting. Perhaps frantic. Eight paintings produced during the whole year. Eight paintings that took no time away from a harried move. Rushed work. Lazy work. Stolen hours’ work.

At 34 years old, I believe Roy was settling in for the duration. Baby boys, a wife who had always supported him, financially… He didn’t make this move to “get closer to the NY art scene”. So many historians make the claim in their usual paragraph (maybe two) written on the most significant change in the artist’s life to that point in time. Obviously, none have made the trip to Oswego, nor thought much about being an unknown painter in obscurity during the American year, 1957.

Everything that happened then created what was to come.

In the painting above, Roy and Isabel appear to be dancing. Both figures are copied from paintings he made in 1952. The house and address take you to the grounded reality of their lives, and no thing at that moment in time had the power to predict a future Elvis Presley fame in an international art world. No thing. Not even the omnipotent Artnews of the era.

Babies need to be fed. Rents and mortgages must get paid. At a starting salary of $6,300/year, Roy was well on his way to surviving barely in a cruel world.

Why did he move? To be in Cleveland or not to be in Cleveland? That is the question!

 

Some Words About Oil and My Degree in Painting Futility

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A Bargain For Francis, Part II 2019. Oil on canvas, 48 x 50″

I paint too fast to accept oils as a medium in my process. Still, no matter how awful and unnecessary, oils have provided a challenge to struggle with. After several months tripping over turpentine, smearing wet paint, covering pigment to mix it more drab, and torturing my muscles from tip to toe, I will have earned my masters in Painting Futility. No one will be able to claim to my understanding that oils are superior to fine acrylics. Where I already practice a weak rendering sensibility, oils just exacerbate the handicap and would force me into a meaningless and vacuous abstraction for the impossibility to render and color an eye without resting the hand on the canvas, and smearing the hand, and wiping the hand on the shirt, over the eye, in the mouth, cursing once, twice and finally kicking over the turpentine with my clumsy reaction.

If the hole needs to be dug today, (and I always dig my holes in a day), then I shall use a shovel (acrylics), instead of a dinner fork (oils).

The following painting was done in acrylics in 2017 with a different toy subject. To me the differences are night and day. I am not fooling anyone with oil. After the Lichtenstein exhibition I will take my degree and paint over it in acrylics.

Francis
A Bargain For Francis 2017. Acrylic on canvas, 48 x 50″

 

 

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.

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West 2nd Street, north of Bridge Street, December, 1958.

 

 

Roy, I Gave Up Interior Design For This Place?

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2019. Oil on stretched “Peasant” dinner napkin, 12 x 12″

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 often employed as assistant to Isabel as nuts and bolts of her business. Together they paid the Lichtenstein bills. However, 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” linen dinner napkin I purchased 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.

I too am an “All Pure” peasant. I too am the brusher of multitudes.

IsabelPeasantWindowLow

Acrylic Study For a Very Long Oil Title

oswegonian1958.jan.14
“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. There is a Warmth in the Colors Used.” 2019. Acrylic on canvas paper, 14 x 11″

This is a study for a larger oil painting to come. In 1958 (and today) The Oswegonian was a student run newspaper printed weekly and distributed campus wide. The quote in the title is from the article, “English Club Elects New Officers and Enjoys Panel on Romanticism”.

Would Roy like my romantic painting looking west into a January setting sun?

Probably, but he wouldn’t tell. Abstract impressionism was his thing on this date. He might have gone home, rushed up to his “studio” and fought the urge to be happy with desperate stokes of fuzzy ugly.  Fame and seed of fame are nasty critics. I can only imagine the false negativity surging through a man incapable of seeing the honor bestowed upon the teacher of eager innocence. Art is goodness expressed and shared whenever possible, and Roy abandoned the teaching of it for fame. Rather, the seed of fame.

Oh fame, babe, they’ve taken everything and just twisted it
Oh fame they say
You never could have resisted it
What’s in a name?
And everybody’s jaded by fame
Oh fame again
The press has gone and made another mess of it
Oh just because they got
So much invested in it
But they say you’re to blame it’s your own fault
‘Cause you got mixed up in fame
Oh no don’t believe none of that old Andy Warhol guff
It takes a lot more than 10 or 15 minutes
That’s just not enough
To qualify you for
Fame, you went beyond the boundries of your sanity
And every day you defy
All the laws of gravity
You ain’t got no shame
‘Cause you’re just addicted to fame
Well no don’t you buy none of that old Andy Warhol stuff (rough)
It takes a lot more than 10 or 15 minutes
Man, (yeah) it’s just not enough
To qualify you for
Fame, they’re already settin’ up, settin’ up your own Watergate, Watergate
Oh fame, that stalker out there is just filled with hate
You’ll never be the same
‘Cause everyone’s corrupted by fame
Oh fame, that took away, too away all my humanity
Oh fame got to fight
Every second of the day for my dignity
It’s a spectator’s game
And there ain’t nothing fair about fame
Oh no, oh fame, say it again, yeah, yeah, yeah
Oh fame say it again
Fame, say it again, fame, fame, fame
They say you’re to blame ’cause you got mixed up in fame, fame, say it again, fame
—Van Morrison from “Fame”