The best 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 6 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 their a recent inheritance? Something to look into.
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… 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 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.
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.
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.
In 1958, Roy was 34 years old, married, with two children, and settling into his new job as assistant professor of industrial design at the state teacher’s college in Oswego, N.Y. How he got a job as an “expert” in industrial design, earning an MA in fine art with emphasis on painting, is an example of a modern economy not running on full potential. 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 stone him to madness with their icy eyes.
When I was 34 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 wrote, edited, and published a creative book during my 34th 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 11 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. But both Leo Castelli and the 20th century are dead. Therefore, pipe, meet dream, and persist as you always have Ron, even when no one was looking.
In autumn 1958 Roy walked along the lake dreaming. In 2001, 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.
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 employed as assistant to Isabel as nuts and bolts of her business. Together they paid the Lichtenstein bills. But 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” dinner napkin I purchased in a linen table set 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.
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 expressionism 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 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, 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
[I wrote the following in December in 2015. This is a good way to re-introduce myself to the past limited knowledge I had about the life of Roy Lichtenstein. Still, even then I felt a kind of kindred connection to the man. Oswego brings people together, sometimes, if and when they decide to come out of their houses. One note of immense importance. Oswego was not a “low point” in Roy’s career, as a non-Oswego friend of his will mention in retrospect. I believe Oswego was Roy’s last internal hurdle to leap in order to cast away all the art prejudice he amassed up to that point in time. Oswego may not have been his muse, but here the fuse was lit to revolutionize his own message and method of painting. Towns do not make an artist, neither rich town nor poor town. And I am quite certain that a teaching job in suburban New Jersey was no different than one in upstate NY. And encouragement? I’ve been to New Jersey many times. There is no encouragement there. There’s enough White Castle® retail to make the eyes bleed. Likewise, there is more greedy connection and capital to invest in an artist, via those uninspired rich people who are parasitically attracted to artists. But only one painter per several thousand will succeed in business. Roy was one. He made a lot of money for himself and more for non-artists. Even 20 years after death he still generates millions back and forth among the upper crust. The Lichtenstein legacy owes much more to Roy’s time spent in Oswego than it is letting on. The mystery of his (relatively) quick leap from abstract expressionism to international pop fame will be solved in Oswego, not New Jersey, and definitely not at the Leo Castelli Gallery, where fame is made.]
Wow. Yesterday I read a 2004 article on Roy Lichtenstein, a very famous painter of the late twentieth century. I already knew that he taught for a couple years here at the state college in Oswego. I also read in a biography that his wife hated it here. The winters were tough and she began to drink like a fish. But I never knew what a great failure Lichtenstein was the day before he started painting comics. He was an abstract painter who loved Picasso and Cézanne. His paintings amassed unsold in the basement.
Yesterday I read with laughing eyes the early story of Roy. The parallels are enough of a story to keep me plugging away at my own failure. I quote at length. “Roy would say, ’I know any minute someone’s going to come and shake me and say, Mr. Lichtenstein, it’s time for your pills, and I’ll be back in Oswego, in a wheelchair.’ There was a touch of Lichtenstein’s characteristic self-deprecating humour about that. But also a sense that he had been, as she says, ’very lucky to have been where he was at a given moment’”.
Roy knew, like all painters do, that success is a crap shoot with a 1,679,616-sided die. Only a wise, self-deprecating Oswego artist would admit to this. “But the teaching post he held in Oswego from 1957 to 1960 was a low point of his career, very far from the wealth and art stardom that were his within a couple of years… At the time he got the job in Oswego, Lichtenstein had been working as a painter for nearly 20 years, and achieved almost no success. Bruce Breland, a colleague of the time, remembered that Lichtenstein ’had shown in New York—with no results. He was showing paintings and they were going stone-nowhere.’”
All my paintings also going cement-nowhere in the basement. “Lichtenstein did a series of part-time jobs—window dresser, draftsman, furniture designer, painting dials on instruments—while his wife, a successful interior designer, was the main breadwinner. Lee Csuri, sculptor and wife of another old friend, remembered that in the mid-1950s, ’Roy was very despondent about what he was doing. And feeling he was nowhere. His painting of that time was abstract expressionist, but it was very muddy’”.
Yahoo! My wife is a graphic designer, the bread winner, and my feelings of despondency on a good day have me yank off just enough mustache nose hairs to goad me to the next chore. “Then in 1957, he got the job in Oswego. But as Avis Berman, a researcher into Lichtenstein’s life, concluded: ’Living in Oswego was disastrous for the Lichtensteins. The winters were brutal and Isabel lacked fulfilling work, and began drinking in earnest.’ So at 37, Lichtenstein had a dead-end post in the sticks, a wife who was rapidly becoming an alcoholic, and a studio full of paintings no one wanted to look at. Then his luck began to change.”
Oooh, I can only hope. “As Dorothy Lichtenstein tells the story, ’Roy was always trying to get back to the New York area, and in 1960 he was able to get a job teaching at Rutgers University in New Jersey. And there was a group of interesting and lively people there, including the artists Alan Kaprow and George Segal. Roy had a feeling that if he’d still had a job teaching out in the boondocks, he might have done his first Pop work, but not carried on. He felt there was something that comes from response and encouragement that fuels you to go further than you might in a vacuum.’”
Response and encouragement. Roy had a feeling. Ron has one from time to time. He expresses it, and in return receives the appreciative song from a cricket stowing away under a stair in an abandoned Oswego factory. “But there might have been another trigger. As Chuck Csuri, Lee’s husband, recalls, Lichtenstein’s son David came home one day from school and complained: ’Joey’s father’s a policeman, and Henry’s father’s this, and Virginia’s does that. And you’re an artist and you can’t draw.’ Roy said, ’Oh, OK.’ So he got out a canvas and drew a comic-book image. The result might have been Look Mickey, with Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse. In it, Donald is fishing, and says, ’Look Mickey, I’ve hooked a big one’. And a big, new idea was exactly what Lichtenstein had got hold of himself’”.
That is all the parallel I need. Back in 1998 Roy’s spirit must have hightailed it back to Oswego, and flew up my nose.
Now to focus on the work and the big break which is sure to come at fifty, using the logic of arrested development afflicting the middle-aged in the 21st century. I shall keep at work, seek escape, and let my mustache hairs grow into my mouth.