Professor Aulus Saunders Receiving Lichtenstein Resignation in Alternate Reality, Spring 1960

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2019. Oil on canvas, 20 x 16″

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.

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

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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.

 

 

 

In 1995 Roy Lichtenstein Was in Southampton Signing Papers to Add to His Enormous Fortune. I Was in a Tree in Oswego Asking My Future Wife For a First Date

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2019. Oil on wood panel, 11 x 14″

The 20th century was very good to me. I became an aristocrat of the spirit. I did not get rich making rich people richer. I stayed poor on purpose buying time and selling thoughts. There are moments these days while diving into the Lichtenstein history when I feel very sad for the nice man that fame attached itself to. Lucky people discover along the way that love and health (physical and mental) is everything that matters. Love of life, a woman, man, a child, and nature is the only meaningful means to an end. Career and its money are vehicles to take you back and forth to love. Attach yourself to the vehicle and wind up truly loveless and making paintings for sale.

There are a thousand reasons why artists fail financially, yet only one reason to remain an artist. Certainly Roy understood this at some point in his life. Art for gain is a runaway train. A very bad choice of vehicle. I paint every day but I would never work like Roy Lichtenstein if it kept luring me away from the holy tree limb of August, 1995.

I am a financial failure, which alone does not make me a successful artist. Stop by my studio on a golden autumn day. Ask me what’s for dinner and whom do I love. You’ll determine very quickly that expression is much more than visual art hard copies. I got more of it than any Roy Lichtenstein could daydream while meeting with a banker to set up another trust. The art is better too, in meaning and passion. Roy got famous and rich because unloved people made love to his paintings in an elite society that writhed and wrinkled inside its own celebrity orgies. All of those manufactured movements of high fashion meaninglessness must have made him so sick and sad.

And lonely.

Making art for the rich and unloved is no way to make life lovable. Roy’s little art blip in time famously made no single life richer in meaning. I just hope he made waffles for his boys on Saturdays, and always, no matter under what pressure, gave up his time for their time.

Otherwise art is useless like garbage collecting and stock portfolio management, which is fine if you’re an aristocrat of the spirit.

Only Roy would know that.

And dead men tell no tales.

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.

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Another Study in Acrylic for Future Big Oil

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11 x 14″ on canvas paper. Title below

“1959—Isabel Came to the Faculty Wives Dinner Dressed in Red Stockings and Caused Quite a Stir!”

This, (or something nearly this), will become a large oil painting when the oils arrive.

The quote in the title came directly from my next door neighbor Helen who knew the Lichtensteins in the late 1950’s. Her husband was a physical education teacher and the soccer coach admitted the same semester and year as Roy—Fall, 1957.

I too feel like wearing red stockings wherever I go in Oswego. Now I think I might. Who could tell with the sweatshop of garments I need to wear just to step outside in January!

 

Dorothy Lichtenstein Begins and Ends the Story

 

From Tate Modern video: executive producer: Jane Burton. Full video here.

“He (Roy Lichtenstein) used to joke and say someone is gonna be tapping him, ‘Mr. Lichtenstein, it’s time for your pill’. He’d be in a wheel chair with his hat cocked on his head, and he would still be living in Oswego, N.Y., snowed in, and this would all have been a dream.”

 

Acrylic Study For a Very Long Oil Title

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“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”