Harvey Sherman Harris (1915 – 1999) was a painter and teaching colleague of Roy Lichtenstein at Oswego State. I imagine professional jealousy was a persistent worm in the minds of artists in 1958 as it is today. I think that’s because artists in America think individually (at times) that they are great with verve and originality—better than the rest even—when really, what they’re privately pining for is an Elvis Presley fame with a Wayne Newton effort at expression. Truth is, everyone is free to achieve the inner peace and realization that there was only one John Coltrane, and we all should be happy enough with that satori, making things and drinking beer.
But few of us reach this happier place. Hence, university art departments nationwide, born from the seeds of children loving to make art, yet growing twisted and gnarled up, to be professional children chock full of groundless envy and pride.
The story is that on Monday, December 8, 1941, Hoyt Sherman arrived on the Ohio State University Campus to find the art department gathered in a meeting to discuss how art and design could help in the fight against the Japanese. Later that day Sherman briefed the Chairman of the Art Department on an idea that came to him several years prior while reading about Rembrandt van Rijn.
One day as a young man Rembrandt was studying the interior of his father’s windmill and while looking out a window, noticed how the revolving windmill blades created strobe-like effects, alternately blocking and letting light into the room. While looking at objects throughout the interior of the windmill, he experienced a unique way of seeing a whole space within a sequence of separate views. According to Sherman, this was a red-letter day for Rembrandt, and instrumental in changing the way he would see and compose future paintings.
Sherman believed he could replicate Rembrandt’s method to teach Navy pilots “how to see”. The U.S. Navy accepted his proposal at first, but a few weeks in, scrapped the deal because Sherman was having students stick clay on ship models that the Navy provided to the university, which apparently made a top naval officer very angry that his little kill toys were being muddied.
A year later while working on another military contract with the Navy Reserve Officers Training Corps, Sherman oversaw his experimental course where thirteen male students, (all with no drawing experience), were set in a dark room while a tachistoscope (a rapid fire slide projector) flashed an image on and off the screen in a tenth of a second. Each student had ten seconds to draw the image onto paper in the darkness. This would better equip their eyes to detect enemy aircraft symbols and shapes in a split second.
Sherman called it his “flash lab” where Roy Lichtenstein took classes and entered the war seeing good enough to kill people, yet fortunately for his psychological health, never got the chance to.
All in all, jingo Hoyt Sherman taught Roy Lichtenstein how to see. Roy thought Hoyt was the bee’s knees, and several years later, brought the peace time concept of the flash lab to Oswego. Also, after hundreds of successful World War II sorties bombing the b-jesus out of civilian populations (enabled in part by the practical applications of art used in wartime), the Joint Chief of Staffs of the U.S. military now control money flowing in and out of psychotic bureaucracies such as Ohio State University.
Professor Sherman was an imposter artist carrying a stupid be-a-man-chip on his shoulder. I pity you Roy Lichtenstein for being misled by a charlatan. I pity your innocent future that began with the help of a loser Hoyt Sherman to lead you astray.
It is so easy to be an artist when it comes to pretending to occupy head space. Just draw a picture and let people guess at your profundity. As a 16 year old boy, often flabbergasted by the insensitivity and hypocrisy of man, I had no outlet other than a spoken word “why” to react to interplay with myself and a world gone wrong. A friend gave me the nickname “Philosopher Ron,” which I didn’t know what to do with other than add more “whys” to a lengthening list on the sins of friends and family. I was working class, poorly educated, and limited to wonder that never took me too far outside my caste. I had no mentor, no teacher, no guru. So, why did the chef at the restaurant where I worked my first job as dishwasher serve late arrivals spaghetti that he scooped out of the garbage? Was his life that interesting after punching out to save time on the clock washing garbage can pasta and reheating it, rather than boiling another pound? That week on my night off I watched “The Day After”, a made for TV nuclear holocaust movie that was all the rage among adults pretending to give a crap about their own government’s trespass on the rights of all life on earth. What was a moral dishwasher with the intellectual capacity of a stone, yet the sensitivity of a butterfly wing, to do with that information?
Naturally, for me in my station, as inquisitive young dope and novice dishwasher, I just asked “why”, and then went to bed.
I am sure Roy Lichtenstein either watched or at least heard about the movie, for adults everywhere always talk about things the TV wants them to. He was rich and well cared for in 1983, and although he had the eyes of many thousands of thinking peoples, he thought best to remain humble in his art and let Ronald Reagan be master of the weapons that would melt his loved ones. Roy made one political painting that year, a framed “abstract” entitled “Against Apartheid”, which was very safe and popular and showed that the millionaire artist cared very much about oppression in South Africa. The rest of his output for 1983 is more brushstrokes, more frames, and some apples. And he probably took Dorothy out for spaghetti late one night, at the hour when chefs get very bitter and angry over their station in life.
Today, Philosopher Ron can’t help but to think that all popular visual artists are lazy jerks to the survival needs of mankind. I think the same of priests of religion, pop musicians, and writers with best selling books. Each has a huge following, yet uses expression to maintain the means that keep them grounded to the same spot on the spectrum of goodness and badness. They reside where the money comes and popularity is maintained. Popular artists, like infamous presidents (all presidents), gain the world and lose their souls. It’s just a matter of fact.
Fear of insignificance keeps the ambitious producing nothing to prevent the race to our own extinction. Whether it be pretty pop paintings or the B83 thermonuclear bomb.
Associate professor, Bruce Breland, and assistant professor Roy Lichtenstein were yearlings in the art department when they were asked to judge the Spring Weekend float parade. Sigma Tau Chi won fraternity honors with “Air Power”. Roy did a painting a few years before entitled “The Aviator”. I repainted it on the float pulled by the 1957 Chevy Bel Air.
In 1958 Lichtenstein was scrambling as an artist, adapting to trends, justifying “career”. By this time the abstract expression/impressionist painting style had spread to colleges and universities across the planet, and Roy was just another full-time teacher joining the trend, hoping to stay relevant while steadying a new life in obscurity. “The Aviator” (1954) was an original style he could have taken further with expressive freedom while working and helping to raise a family after uprooting Isabel (his wife) from a life she was good at back in Cleveland.
Yet even in Oswego obscurity, with plenty of time and few excuses not to be productive (as an artist), Roy produced very few paintings. And what he did make must have made him feel like a copycat imposter. Several attempts at abstract impressionism come up forced and flat, to my eye and feeling anyway. Roy must have hated them! His painting colleagues David Campbell, Harvey Harris, and Bruce Breland were no slouches. All seemed ambitious in practice. Certainly a tacit (un) healthy competition was present. None of them were buddhas, and each probably thought himself a Pope in his own mind. Not then (or now) was there an artist counseling center to assist creatives in combating the ego. And yet artistically (then and now), each was poised to become greater than their dreams. A paycheck earned while teaching practices they practiced. Time galore for contemplation. A tremendous fresh water lake, green hills in summer, the cold, dreadful, wonderful winds of winter… No struggle necessary to please the eyes of others… To perfect oneself impossibly as a person, to learn to love the world… Oops! I’m projecting again…
Nothing has changed. Lichtenstein had no peace then like the ego-artist of today. The only difference between Roy, his contemporary colleagues, and myself is that Roy was to realize his Faustian collapse, while the super majority of artists (then or now) aren’t even granted an interview with crafty Mephistopheles.
The sorority winner at the parade was “Music Around the World” created by the Arethusa Eta members. It was too much for me to include it in the painting. I already achieved a personal record in hours spent cursing the oils.
In spring, my family visited beautiful Berkshire Williamstown and I stopped in the Sawyer Library at Williams College to see what it held on Roy Lichtenstein. I walked up and down the pristine Dewey decimal rows and grabbed several books off the shelves. I was prepared for the usual art historian pinpointing of everything unimportant to the artist in 300 pages of big words and thousands of hours of time wasted on attempts to define the undefinable. I pray one day I open to a page in one of these esoteric tomes of mumbo-jumbo, and get a sense that the author is(was) a human like me. The rise and popularity of celebrity modern art and its People magazine history follows a predictable pattern. Youth, geography, and connection are the markers used to pin each artist on the value scale. The published art writers (socialists usually) act as scribes to the priestly class of capitalists who make(made) a set number of image-makers into commodities worth trading in a tuxedo auction house. Who publishes these books, over and over again, for coffee tables and multi-million dollar libraries? And why?
I was ready to flip through the stack and find no mention of Roy in Oswego, which would have confirmed my bias that the majority of PhD art historians unwittingly prop up the valuable expression of the artist with agonizing page after page of subjective interpretation. Detailed abstractions on art to uplift the offshore accounts of Christies, Inc., Larry Gagosian, and other gross millionaires and billionaires slamming the door shut on the eager studio art students ready to earn their place on library shelves of the future. I was going to add it to my book as a side theme proving my hypothesis that art historians pay much less attention to the biography of the artist than they ought to. As if an American Civil War historian found it more interesting to write ten pages interpreting the Gettysburg Address and made no mention of Lincoln’s dreadful thoughts while on the train traveling to the slaughter fields. Life happens to human beings and some make the effort to express themselves. Art history often lacks the life story of the artist, which is why I believe a few of the books I flipped through at the library were crisp and new and never opened after the Williams College stamp was pressed. Art without life is pretty damn boring.
All the books kept to the pattern, except two. One, which critiqued Lictenstein’s pre-pop (early 1950’s) paintings of Native Americans out west, and another book of essays, with one by Avis Berman, which, unlike any I have read thus far, actually makes an effort to understand the world of Roy Lichtenstein in Oswego. I spent half my research time copying a piece of the essay word for word, upside down-left-handed with a leaky pen, until I realized I could use my wife’s smartphone to take a picture of the pages and copy later. I quote pieces of my copy from the Berman essay in Roy Lichtenstein: All About Art:
“Isabel did not leave Cleveland willingly.”
“There were three new faculty members to the art department in 1957. David Campbell, Harvey Harris, and Bruce Breland.”
Bruce Breland: ” Roy was very popular with them (the students). They liked him because he wasn’t dealing with art as a mystery. He was dealing with art in the present, and they could understand that. Here’s how you make it.”
Bruce Breland: “He didn’t spend a lot of time speaking art history speak, he spent a lot of time with, ‘How does this go together? And how does this come apart?’ He was constantly thinking up different kinds of what he called ‘art marks’. ‘Art marks’ was a term I heard a good bit of. That impressed me because I never thought of the words ‘art mark’. Art that comes directly from ‘every mark you make modifies what you already know,’ from the old teacher.”
Roy re-introduced the “Flash Room” to SUNY Oswego students.
Bruce Breland: “He taught two-dimensional design, which turned into a flash room. He even had a machine that he converted to a kinesthescope, which is a strobe that flashes, and the shutter goes at a twentieth of a second, or something like that. The idea behind that is that when you see something high contrast, fast… and it’s very bright, there is a long afterimage, and you draw the after-image.
That was the whole thing—what’s going on… in the head. We carry around images in our head, and we can draw from these. Every mark modifies what you already know. There’s almost a catechism with it. I was taken with that. So Roy and I were just great conversationalists with each other. We tended to reinforce.”
So, Roy Lichtenstein was a human being in Oswego—a professor of art with his own interpretations, applications, and cool tools.
“Irrelevant!” is the cry from the art establishment (mafia). “We know he left that agonizing stagnation of wonder and growth to cut out advertisements and comics, and copy them onto canvas. And, of course make us more profit exchanging his celebrity commodity for generations to come.”
The best celebrity 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 six 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 there a recent inheritance to the nuclear family? Something to look into for those who look deeper into things.
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, financially… 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 obscurity during 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. No thing. Not even the omnipotent Artnews of the era.
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.
Why did he move? To be in Cleveland or not to be in Cleveland? That is the question!