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 incorporating 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

1995Low
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 this month 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—career and money are vehicles to take you back and forth to love. Attach yourself to the vehicle and wind up making paintings for sale.

There are a thousand reasons 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.

Roy, I Gave Up Interior Design For This Place?

IsabelWindowLow
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 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.

IsabelPeasantWindowLow

Another Study in Acrylic for Future Big Oil

isabel
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

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 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
—Van Morrison from “Fame”

Oswego Planted the Seed of Pop Art Fame

lakeontariospring
I Know Lake Ontario Doesn’t Look Like This in April, but Maybe It Should 2017. Acrylic on birch panel, 24 x 24″

[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.