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.
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.
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!
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.
[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.
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.
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.
“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!