1959—Isabel Came to the Faculty Wive’s Dinner Dressed in Red Stockings and Caused Quite a Stir

IsabelRed Low
2019. Oil on canvas, 53 x 72″

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

For me this was a big oil adventure in a small studio space. Most days I wore a breathing mask, and on others I just sniffed Turpenoid® until I dreamed I was in Hawaii.

I built the frame, stretched the canvas, composed and painted the piece in 11 hours with a total cost of about 60 dollars, or .0923% of the families’ annual income. I could make 50 paintings this size a year at a cost of $3000 which translates to 4.61% of our total annual income. Actually, $3,000 has been my allotment for the last 10 years. I produce over 200 paintings a year, few ever reaching floor to ceiling proportions (like the one above), and all are done in acrylic which dries fast and stacks more efficiently than oil.

I have never made a financial profit from this endeavor. But I am beginning to see our investment give back exponentially.

In the fall of 1957 Roy Lichtenstein arrived in Oswego to live and teach. By the end of the year he had “completed” just 16 artworks. One 10″ woodcut for a magazine, four day sketches on paper, three mosaic tabletops, and 8 paintings. Gallant Scene II was his largest oil on canvas at 66 inches. For the year 1957, Roy was a painter like I am a Rochester commuter, a city in upstate NY that I visit about 8 times a year.

Lichtenstein graduated with an MFA from Ohio State University in 1949. His oeuvre from then to his arrival in Oswego consists mostly of U.S. history themes with an emphasis on painted stories of the wild west. (The Lichtenstein Foundation has a completed works timeline. Worth a visit.)

Actually, I love many of these paintings, even if several are based off the work of other artists (a pattern he will take up again for Pop). In future interviews Roy will say that he was working with a cubist style, mirroring Picasso, one of his favorite painters. When I look at this early to mid-1950’s work, I don’t see Picasso. I see how Roy Lichtenstein wanted to be known at the time. I also see great painting, and contrary to what one biographer insinuated, that the compositions were “meh” and the technique “meh-meh”, I feel many are far superior to his early 60’s Pop productions. Original, free, enthusiastic… the opposite of Pop.

In 1957 Roy was not a prolific painter. He was a husband and father of two little boys in a world much less freer than the one I live in today. His equally or more ambitious wife, Isabel, would never become the stable breadwinner of the family. The pressures of a suburban society were not going to allow Roy to paint all day using 4.61% of the family income. His society was so much more severe. In 1957 Oswego (or Cleveland), one did not strike up a conversation at the supermarket check out and declare that he paints, not for a living, but for joy, and the wife takes care of all that money nonsense.

Pressures were on Isabel too. She wore red stockings to long dress events.

 

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.

Squirrel and Roy Lichtenstein Waiting For Lake Effect, 1958

SquirrelRoyLow
2019. Oil on bed sheet, 24 x 25″

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.

Screen shot 2019-02-11 at 8.34.16 AM
West 2nd Street, north of Bridge Street, December, 1958.

 

 

The Lichtensteins Lived at 11 West Sixth Street in Oswego

11W.6th.Low
2019. Oil on 1950’s “Peasant” dinner napkin, 10 x 10″

This is a duplex the Lichtensteins shared with the Brelands that burned down in the early 1990’s. A stone’s throw to the lake, and across the street from Montcalm Park, where my wife and I were married. Ghosts!

One summer night Roy hosted a student “pop up” painting exhibition in his living room.  I have hosted several group shows in my Oswego house. This behavior is example of art anonymity testing its limits. Connection!

Ghosts and connections! Connections and ghosts!

Friday, October 11, 1957: Isabel Got a Sitter and Roy Took Her Out For Red Wine and Italian

VonasLow
2019. Oil on 1950’s “Peasant” table cloth, 36 x 40″

Painting quickly with oil onto a gessoed, but pilled tablecloth, is a two day lesson in hell’s art class. This painting is a copy of an add placed on Tuesday, October 8, 1957 in the state college newspaper, The Oswegonian. It was a month into Roy’s first semester teaching industrial design. I imagine the Lichtensteins wanted to celebrate in some fashion, and Vona’s Restaurant would cater to their private desire. In fact life must have looked pretty darn good stepping out into a golden autumn evening, a paycheck to be cashed, good conversation, and dreams for the future. Roy and Isabel might have chosen to walk the mile from their rented apartment on West 6th Street, through Montcalm park where my wife and I were married, past our first house on 7th Street, and the many residences of the working class seeking sedation at the end of a golden autumn work week. It’s a thrilling time to be alive any time.

Vona’s is still in business. We go there for red wine and Italian when the need arises. They treat you right. Like doctors or artists, or anything else you pretend to be.

 

Humility Is Fun When You’re Stinking Rich

CommodityLow
“Maybe Bruce I Could Change Style On a Dime Because I Want to Feel Like an Artist, Not a Commodity” 2019. Oil on wood panel, 24 x 48″

[Bruce Breland was a fellow professor at the State College of Oswego. He and his wife Helen shared a house with the Lichtensteins on West Sixth Street in Oswego.]

While in Oswego, Roy Lichtenstein played with styles back and forth from figurative to abstract expressionism (mostly the latter). Then, after a year in New Jersey, he caught on to a style to hone and maintain for life.

How? Why?

Because it made him filthy rich. Don’t let the papers fool you. Once Roy knew the power and money begotten from his own ubiquitous methods, the more he sank into production for acquisition’s sake.

Wouldn’t you? By late middle age, every painting Roy finished was like winning the lottery again, and again.

Last week I watched a few short documentaries about Lichtenstein’s rise to fame. I found him to be a good soul, a very humble and likeable person. So peaceful and non-judgemental—a man who fully realized his ship had come in, and that no one suffered much to fill the treasure chest.

I wrote out a theory not too long ago about financial success for 20th century painters. Roy nearly broke the pattern. Or, perhaps he knew it all to well, and just arrived later than usual from sheer will and determination:

I have been bike riding to the local library with my daughter several days this week. She to the costume design and drawing books. Me to the painters. I don’t think my research is healthy. I pick a painter that I feel my limitations could compare to, yet after skimming through a few pages, I am usually unseated from the lounge chair in awe and wonder. The 20th century moderns are all following a pattern. Most of their younger work is highly skilled in constipated rendering. Then, maybe a several year phase in abstract, mixed in with a looser expressionism. And finally, freedom and joy, perhaps even so confident as to present a colored cartoon at the salon. Some influential photographer is there to help the painter make history. Often with another famous artist(s) beside him, both photographed in three-piece suits, smoking cigarettes.
What the majority of these celebrity painters share in common, post-van Gogh, is recognition in youth and geography. The former fueled their next painting. Encouragement (plus food and raiment) kept the painter painting, and not seeking an alternative career in furniture sales. The latter was (is) all about being in the right place at the right time, usually a big city that “makes” the artist. Which is all too human, similar to the abstract growth of institutions like religion and federal buildings. None of the established modern greats have painted in the middle of nowhere anonymously. Some lucky outsiders get recognition in very old age, or more likely after death, to the joys of posterity. But the overall pattern is this: young painter in big city winning critical praise with inspired work, getting paid in actual money or status, and enjoying self pride and encouragement unto the next studio work. It’s what I call the Bob Dylan of success as an artist paradigm. Without early Greenwich Village accolades, Bob would have packed his dufflebag and got on a Greyhound back to Hibbing. Maybe, if brave, he would have stayed in New York to work a job in the service industry, and while young, continue to search for that “big break”. Eventually, after repeated failure, he would settle in with a girl, find more secure employment, get married, go suburb, raise children, etc. However, he won New York status while very young, was fueled exponentially thereafter, and like all lifelong successful 20th century artists, was promoted. Of course Dylan worked very hard each day to create beautiful stuff shared with an earth of eager human admirers. Yet without initial success and popular geography, no promoter (Columbia Records) would risk the investment.
Now pride dictates to me the painter that I shun the parties and the “glittering prizes” that the Stuckists are wont to do. That is just financial failure speaking in its best cognitive dissonance accent. I will never become the tiniest fraction of success of brand Bob Dylan, who, now in his wiser old age, probably would also yearn for the wisdom of obscurity. But as a young man, Dylan was an eager, very talented, lowly prostitute working the New York streets and clubs, and not much more. The band wagon picked him up, and he couldn’t stop. Compare the Bob Dylan story to all famous 20th century painters in their more humble, varying degrees of celebrity. I would argue that the similarities are too real to ignore.
So, finally, in desperation, Throop calls out to potential star-makers of the Internet. Partake in the first auction to undermine the archaic 20th century law of financial stability for artists. Buy inspired art that cannot carry the blue-ribbon of critical praise and big city geography. It has no clout. It is nothing but a man, made up of so many elements and minerals.

 

 

Where’s Roy?

1960 faculty photo
From 1960 Ontarian—Yearbook from State Teacher’s College at Oswego

I am corresponding with local archives to arrange time to visit. I need to research the late 1950’s Oswego scene. Likewise, I have written to the Lichtenstein Foundation hoping to gain permission to use a few images of Roy’s paintings during this time period.

Already I am feeling the magic of historical daydreaming. Roy and I share a connection to Oswego, however slight. Below is a photo of Park Hall, the academic building where Roy and his colleagues taught art to future teachers of America. I walk this view nearly every day in summer, and live less than a tenth of a mile from it.  Roy must have pushed out the doors of Park Hall not knowing what the hell he was up to, nor the fame explosion he would experience just a year and a half later.

view of park 1960
Looks like the photo was taken in the fall of ’59. Which car is Roy’s?

I want to learn where he lived, the stores he shopped at, and restaurants he frequented. Could he even afford to take the family out on a teacher’s salary? Did his wife Isabel work? Where? How old were his kids at the time?

The paintings will come. I have stretched the first canvas and ordered the oils. Artistically, Roy was in crisis. He would have known he was leaving Oswego and heading to New Jersey for a different life. His painting was going nowhere. I know where my paintings are. I also know that I don’t need New Jersey for a future to come to me. I just need to push through a crisis and find my focus. Roy sought outside encouragement. I seek courage, yet during the process, I wouldn’t mind running into satori once in a while.