Mr. Lichtenstein Gave a Talk About Romanticism at English Club

LichtensteinRomanticLow
From “The Oswegonian”, January 14, 1958: “Mr. Lichtenstein Showed Slides to Illustrate His Definition of Romanticism in Art. It is a Blending of Backround and Foreground to Make a Complete Picture” 2019. Oil on canvas, 72 x 53″

The title is from this article:

1.14.1958EnglishClubLow

A “men only” group to teach coeds romanticism across disciplines.

Just two months prior, some other “men onlys” were out west dressing up pigs in Nevada to see how a thermonuclear blast affected their bodies. They called their degenerate oinking party, Operation Plumbbob, and it was hundreds of kilotons of explosives detonated to radioactively “blend background and foreground to make a complete picture”.

Hindsight is not always 20/20, for we still allow very dangerous modern pig-partying counterparts to walk the earth unscathed by communal scorn and hatred. There are good men and bad men orchestrating the human comedy throughout history. Men only, who are attracted to opposite poles of radical behavior. Both are deeply expressive. One group gives a pig a name and dresses her up for torture and doom. The other goes quiet, into art, and bides time on a men only earth, expressing individual schizophrenia with pretty pictures and things.

One cannot be an artist if one refrains from misanthropic dreaming. The juxtaposition is humanely more enormous than universal space and time. Roy Lichtenstein came out on a winter’s night to help girls and boys seek insight through the practice of sensitive expression. Earlier that autumn, Lieutenant-Colonel Frank P. Ball figuratively (and would-be literally) blew the piss out of every baby born and not yet born in 1957.

You can see the smirk on Roy’s face in the following art faculty photograph, taken from the 1958 Ontarian yearbook for future teachers of New York State children, all marked to die screaming by men only like Frank P. Ball.

And you can dream like me that the smirk is an all-knowing one. That Roy understands how Frank P. Ball will be crying for his mommy in a near future of private prostate decomposition. And nobody, not even Frank’s mommy, can love a loud killing bomb of a man who dresses up pigs and blows them to dust.

Roy1958Faculty
Roy standing left

 

 

On Lichtenstein’s First Visit to Oswego Campus, I Bet He Ran Over to the Library Looking For This

JohnhellerLow
Ad in Art in America, Summer issue, 1957

To show in a New York gallery was the third leap in a four jump career. Roy made it the same year he left Cleveland to teach industrial design at the State Teacher’s College at Oswego. I spent last Friday night researching periodicals in Penfield Library (SUNY Oswego), looking specifically for a John Heller Gallery advertisement, and viola! Hard copy historical evidence of a pre-Pop nincompoop painter, like myself and every self who paints, unknown and unmade by the New York Gallery circuit.

Roy must have felt like his ship had come in. He could free his wife from breadwinner responsibility (she probably preferred breadwinning), and feel good that important earthlings thought his work was saleable to some thousandaires and maybe even a business tycoon seeking a talking piece for the penthouse parlor.

Did he share his recent success with new students and colleagues?

Oh you bet he did! Somehow, anyhow! And when word got back to administration, few would have taken issue that the new hire in the art department would soon seek a path out of Oswego while on his first week teaching in Oswego. New York was the goal, the last leap taken to get made in an art mafia. Teaching was just a paycheck, and I hope, for the sake of future students of art, that present administrations and their provosts take note.

There are no full time artist/art teachers. There never has been and never can be. There are exceptional art professors practicing a hobby in art. And there are people working full time jobs as art teachers who just want to be full time players in the art mafia. As adults, the latter should be refused entrance to any college or university. Yet unfortunately, this art personality type make up a majority of faculty on many studio art departments nationwide—at least early on in the teaching career, when lunch is still left unscheduled. A vicious circle that Roy hopped on ambitiously. He was a father and a husband and a painter, but never an art teacher. He wanted New York bad!

There is a local rumor that present college administration does not want to promote the Roy Lichtenstein story because it ends with him abandoning the boring small town for the big city scene. I think they should worry more about the never-ending legacy of hiring resumes and accolades instead of human beings captivated by the art of teaching empowerment to the young.

Roy Lichtenstein never should have been hired to teach art in Oswego because he wasn’t a teacher.

He was just a painter who needed money.

 

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.