Somewhere an Introduction or More Like a Prologue

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Hares in the Gesso 2019. Oil on canvas, 19 x 30″

Andy sat down to talk one day
He said decide what you want.
Do you want to expand your parameters
Or play museums like some dilettante?

—From “Work”, a song written by Lou reed in memory of Andy Warhol

It is resplendent mid-summer in Oswego, NY. The flower garden is weeded and bursting with color, the garlic pulled and drying in the sun, and a half day spent edging the lawn along the curb and driveway. I have been grilling meals outdoors and watering the Merlot grapes at dusk. I want to risk a tomorrow of thirty mosquito bumps to sleep under the stars tonight. Summers spent along a Great Lake give a glimpse into Elysium, where the faithful retire for eternity.  Michael Fox, who came to Oswego State in 1967 to teach art and painting, lived the rest of his years with these beautiful summers. He claimed openly and often of the beauty and peace Oswego provided him. Like me, he lived next door to the college and walked to campus watching the changing skies. He laughed at those who mocked the very place they chose to live, especially the professors. “Why work here if you don’t want to be here?”

Many residents play act that Oswego is a lowly place overall. With such a depressed economy and winters that drag on forever, summer is a welcome but very limited respite to the cyclic despair of several poverties, exposed most predominantly in February with the cracked skin smiles of quiet desperation. Many professors commute from the Syracuse suburbs over the slippery roadways and lake effect white-outs, perhaps because a harried life looks best with many take-out options. February wears its prettiest sundress on Indian nights out for vindaloo. And there’s always a Wegman’s just around the corner!

Time is a prized commodity, especially for the art professors, who need to practice art to remain relevant as artists, while teaching. I think Michael Fox understood this very well. It helped that he was from another time and class of people who would be embarrassed to pretend the luxury of a Syracuse commute. Roy Lichtenstein was of that time too. Slowness was a natural breeding ground for the art process. (It still is.) Therefore places like Oswego would have been cherished as a best kept secret. Art shall take no interest in a life without frequent access to quiet and solitude. Lichtenstein came to Oswego State Teacher’s College and immersed himself into the drowsy flow of small town life, whether he liked it or not.

I don’t think he liked it very much.

Which to me means that he was never ready to be an artist. Not like Michael Fox was a teacher-artist, or Ron Throop is a father-husband artist. I guess the best phrase to describe a career for Roy Lichtenstein would be ambitious artist until jaded and then a commercial artist.

Oswego was his test and maybe he failed. He had already proved his ability to be accepted by the in crowd of New York City—he exhibited his original work several times throughout the fifties at the John Heller Gallery, and once in 1959 at the Condon Riley Gallery, with a painfully manufactured gambit at abstract impressionism. (He was reading about trends in Artnews and interpreting them in his own work, perhaps to muster relevance in a rapidly changing art world.) So he was ambitious to exhibit with some success, and likewise able to support a family with a professor’s paycheck.

So, what made the family get up and leave, again?

The history books declare “ambition!”. If we take this approach, then we also must admit that it was ambition to be successful like any corporate entity of his day, like Coca-Cola or Frank Sinatra. Perhaps initially, but not over the long term, it may have been ambition to practice painting to achieve master status (as he believed Picasso and Cezanne were masters). He could do this better via frequent train rides into Manhattan to pretend a Bohemian lifestyle while married with children back in suburban New Jersey. After initial success, his artist self would have realized that he was being commoditized by Leo Castelli, who would become his sole, lifelong promoter. So, most unfortunately for art’s sake, what began as art growth (Pop style) was repeated over and over for promises of more wealth and fame. Like a Rolling Stones concert of today, Roy in his later years would conform to representations of nostalgia from a freer past, but in reality, remain just a spectacle of choreographed fake freedom—the opposite of art.

I don’t think that, initially, ambition had anything to do with it. There were private, familial reasons, as any human being with spouse and small children will admit. Nobody in the mild flux of struggle (raising a family on an assistant professor’s salary) would posit such open and outward delusional fantasies. Especially in 1957 when only Elvis would get famous! Roy Lichtenstein proved that he could teach and practice in Oswego. I think he found the key to contentment in academia. To be offered a lateral position in New Jersey was probably the best he could do at the time for his family. He had a wife whom he probably loved and needed, and two young boys who carried his name. There was always movie night to play fantasy, and like the Cleveland where they lived before Oswego, there was just more to do in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Heck, the Edison Museum was a five minute drive up the road. And I bet a superabundance of lively drive-ins for burgers and shakes on demand any night of the week.

Today, some Oswego art professors seek better weekend entertainment opportunities in Syracuse or Rochester (or their suburbs). They do this because practicing art is always a practice of loneliness, for better or worse. It’s just not so much fun being lonely for a career, and art teachers, like car mechanics and brain surgeons, are human beings needing a society more often than not to do its expressing for them. Hence the comforting joys of a nearby Barnes and Noble®, Smokeybones®, or Wegmans® supermarket, stocked to the ceiling with digestible relevance. In 1960, Roy and Isabel moved the family closer to a geography that could uplift the doldrums on any Sunday, even in icy February.

Michael Fox remained in Oswego as a teacher-artist. His career was teaching while his art practice remained relevant unto himself. He too experienced beautiful Ontario summers like Ron Throop, who has no career besides writing these words, and painting these images.

One day in 1961 Roy Lichtenstein brought his newest paintings to a gallery in New York City and made money—then lots and lots of money, making images in a style he barely changed for the next 37 years. At least he had a year of tasty burgers and shakes at the families’ favorite New Brunswick drive-in before becoming the ubiquitous Coca-cola® served on every tray for generations to come.

 

 

Colleges and Universities Must End Adjuncting Now!

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Any Saturday in 1958, Roy Lichtenstein Took a Walk Along Lake Ontario 2019. Oil on canvas, 16 x 20″

[The following has been edited from my 2014 publication, December, subtracting and adding where necessary for more clarity. There were no adjuncts at Oswego State Teacher’s College in 1957. There were full time instructors hired with a salary between $5,140 to $6,250. Roy was lucky. He was taken on as an Assistant Professor at an annual payout between $5,570 to $8,640. No insurance plan back then. Just equality (white men) and dignity via work ethic and merit.]

Higher education in the arts. An oxymoron, but only because I am educated and think I know what that word means. So, English adjuncts (the writers) too, they join the fray, struggling with private demons day after day.
I have much to write on this subject, but I will try my best to keep it short and personal. Brevity is the new black, ever since our Internet gods have outlawed groupings of words taking up more than a page space to have us think on something that does not add to the bottom line. So here goes…
Number one: Any provost of a college or university who partakes in the adjunct system of hiring experts at a pittance needs a light tar and heavy feathering. This gang mentality of tenure-track professorship vs. under-insured, never-tenured, low-pay adjunct teaching is a paradigm replete with local collegiate classism. In a word it is disgusting. In a phrase—vile, petty, and incomprehensibly unfair weasel games. A nearby college where a friend of mine teaches will not afford him a private office on the hill. A room must be shared by all the lowly “unmade” adjuncts. Of course among the hapless professors in that room there may be a great teacher worthy of a private phone line, if not a club-issued award. The majority of students might sign up for his class because he is knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and talented beyond his official rank in the art of pedagogy. But the provost and her good ole girls/boys club does not inquire about actual teaching experience or ability when interviewing for the private office. The credentials can be equal, but one of those lucky 40 or 50 applicants gets the prize of being able to support a family and leave his day-old travel mug on the desk. The rest painstakingly struggle with a used car payment and harbor serious reservations about extra sprinkles on their kid’s ice cream cones.
It just makes for a vile, petty, unfair, even childish system of higher education. It puts fear into all players, nourishes elitism, tacit bullyism, gives men and women of the same age and caliber a false measuring stick to guide their lives by. It fosters competition toward the wrong ends (status and avarice), and of course the student body suffers. Heck, the latter have no idea about the immense gulf in pay, benefits and respect between the made and the unmade. They assume (their parents too) that the enormous sums spent on tuition is equally divided among the campus faculty, with slight variations in senior and junior pay. In fact, knowing the truth about below poverty income for their kid’s mentors, might make a significant number of parents rethink their plan to invest money in a school that is practically starving its local intelligentsia.
So, no more multimillion dollar buildings please, while good people are getting paid bad wages. Don’t believe administration, my adjunct professor friends, when it declares that your pay is equivalent to a dishwasher’s salary because the money for the big building comes from a special fund allotted to construction projects. They are lying to you. Their line is called “management confidential”. Confidential means “lie” on a college level entrance exam. Don’t let them lie to you anymore. Tell your students what you get paid, and what Ms. Cheese, the senior professor, gets paid. Show the gap to close the gap. Ms. Cheese teaches like a wet cardboard box. Some of you, I am sure articulate more meaningfully on relevant subjects than Ms. Cheese could with the help of a marching band. The kids don’t need to know what past credentials their teacher has layered thick upon her super smart sandwich. They want public and self respect, knowledge, and the ability to prove what they are capable of. Similar to the needs of an adjunct professor struggling to make ends meet on a line weighted down by mismanaged multimillion dollar colleges and universities.
Number two: Art faculty work everyday to silence their own art. What a conflict of interest! The more immersed and dependent on the university one is, the less her creativity can explore. The art teacher must be careful of how she is regarded among peers and powerful administrators. The problem builds over time to complete an endless circle. Careful teachers teaching careful art to students to become careful teachers themselves one day. Institutional art. In a hyphenated word, anti-art.
Yesterday, the Agora Gallery, a well-respected vanity show place in New York, linked an article for its Twitter followers. It was about the possible culture boom wrought by the fracking gush in North Dakota. The Agora hires people who have art degrees. Art in North Dakota. An oxymoron like “mountain man of the Bowery”. Men and women well drillers out to make some damn good art. They come home with twisted spines and chemical lung, and rush through dinner to express their dreams with pen or paint. I see it now, culture in North Dakota. Gay Paris. Painters in three-egg diners guzzling vanadium water instead of absinthe. Children being taught by well drillers who have aspired to art. Young adults graduating from the University of North Dakota with art degrees interviewed to adjunct at my local college. “Are you kidding us? We can get paid ten times that licking boots at the Marcellus Shale fields. Up yours with this insult to my climb out of poverty.”
So to art professors I say, Good for art, bad for oyster-fed artists, but truly, all art teachers must be made adjuncts, and live on rice and beans, and sometimes beer, or else!
That, for the artists. The rest of university adjuncts need to mob up, and storm the Bastille of administration to publicly shame the politicos who dangle their lives on a money string.

Two David Campbell Pieces For the Price of Meaningful Art History

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Print by David Campbell: Toledo 1964. 28 x 22″

On a Saturday in May I visited an estate sale a few doors up the road and discovered two works by David Campbell, professor of art at the State Teacher’s College at Oswego, and colleague to Roy Lichtenstein from 1957 to 1960.  A signed print (48/49), titled Toledo, and a lithograph, titled Loch Ness, both from 1964. On Toledo, the owners cut the signature, date and print run and pasted it on the back to fit the frame. I am thrilled by this great luck. I shall auction Toledo off at the Lichtenstein exhibition in October. All sales from this and my paintings will go to a one time local high school senior enrolled at SUNY Oswego, and intending to major in art history or studio art. The Tyler arts building is going through its second stage of renovation and this will give something back to a place that has been a mentor house to my family for thirty years.

David Campbell is a fine painter. He has a website and prints available for those Oswego affiliations who wish to be as lucky as me. The bulk of art history is lost to the cult of celebrity. Roy was no dummy. He must have known his fame and fortune was lottery-like luck. No one passes through Oswego without humility. Van Morrison has mentioned time and again that his world recognition, and wealth stemming from it, is owed to his early departure from obscurity. He left the small town for the big city, and never looked back.

That is brave, but it isn’t art. Art is work, and like Van Morrison, Roy got recognition in a busy city and then worked very hard to keep it.

To me it always seems like unnecessary struggle, often making a circus or a brand out of a person. To please myself is a daily exercise sweating determination and will power. I cannot imagine any sanity maintained with the pressure to please an entire world.

This discovery of David Campbell work hanging on lower middle class walls next door in small town, 2019 is true art history because it touches my own story in some real way, far beyond fame and money. No one really wants to possess a painting by Lichtenstein for any other reason besides fame and money—whether that be a museum or a mountebank. No one besides members of his family, friends, descendants, subjective hobbyists and connoisseurs, and the occasional historian who feels the need to tell a story, without all the wild speculation and false promotion, should be interested in another person’s art. A museum can hold paintings if they have contributed towards the uplifting (or degeneracy) of civilizations. However, art movements are never art history if promotion was the only reason for their coming to recognition. That’s art marketing, and mostly an industrial invention.

Leo Castelli was a rich art marketer in 1962. Larry Gagosian is one today, and Christies and Sotheby’s, Inc. are the banks of lies. None of it is art like David Campbell is art, yet to express this more clearly, I’ll need another 35 pages of time.

You can buy the book at the opening on October 11th, 2019.

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Backside of “Toledo”. Buyers cut out signature and pasted it on back.

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Sheldon hall (“Old Main”), from Washington Blvd.
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Sheldon Hall from estate sale.
1960 faculty photo
Roy, David and other wonderful people.
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My painting: David Campbell Painted “Lewis Bluff” in 1958, and Roy Lichtenstein Did Not 2019. Acrylic on paper, 15 x 23″

Roy Lichtenstein and Vernon Tryon Share a Stink

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Looking north through Splinter Village at Oswego State Teacher’s College, 1959.

This 1959 photograph shows temporary buildings that were constructed at the end of World War II, and used initially for housing to accommodate the influx of returning G.I.’s, and then as classrooms when enrollment went back to normal levels. They were called “Splinter Village”. Roy Lichtenstein shared one of theses boxes with Industrial Design professor Vernon Tryon. I met the latter last Tuesday afternoon in a local restaurant. He told me a story about the time an animal died under their classrooms and it smelled real bad.

The students used to ask, What is that stink, Professor Tryon?” I broke into Vernon’s reminiscing to quip, “Probably Roy’s ambition”.

 

In 1957, Joe Shoenfelt, Jewelry Professor at Oswego State Teacher’s College, Went On Sabbatical to San Miguel de Allende to Expand His Horizons. It Worked.

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2019. Acrylic on paper, 17 x 22″

From a letter sent to students dated October 30, 1957:

“Tomorrow is the Day of the Dead and the streets are filled with candy skulls—little candies, big candies, candies of all shapes and colors, candy animals, skeletons, dolls, and baskets. They are the most lovely candies I have seen. But they all taste like plain sugar.

We went to one cemetery this afternoon and preparations were already being made for the celebration. A cemetery here is a very grim place. The people do not buy the lots:they just rent them, so that when the rent is not paid, the bodies are dug up. As we walked around we saw lots of skulls and human bones. Some of the skulls still have hair on them.

The Indian will have picnics at the graves of the recently deceased on Saturday, and that seems to be the reason for all the elaborate candy for which San Miguel is famous.”

In 1958, Miss Frances Oler Did Not Frequent the Opportunities Offered to the Art Department Boys Club

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2019. Acrylic on paper, 19 x 25″

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.

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David Campbell Painted “Lewis Bluff” in 1958, and Roy Lichtenstein Did Not

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2019. Acrylic on paper, 19 x 23″

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.