In an interview in late life Roy pondered the irony of painting commodities and then becoming a commodity himself. Christies® sells commodities to cure the ennui of the lowest cast of humanity (billionaires). Giraffes are too stupid to realize this, and then they get mauled and eaten by hyenas.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This is a study for a larger oil painting to come. In 1958 (and today) The Oswegonian was a student run newspaper printed weekly and distributed campus wide. The quote in the title is from the article, “English Club Elects New Officers and Enjoys Panel on Romanticism”.
Would Roy like my romantic painting looking west into a January setting sun?
Probably, but he wouldn’t tell. Abstract expressionism was his thing on this date. He might have gone home, rushed up to his “studio” and fought the urge to be happy with desperate stokes of ugly. Fame and seed of fame are nasty critics. I can only imagine the false negativity surging through a man incapable of seeing the honor bestowed upon the teacher of eager innocence. Art is goodness, and Roy abandoned the teaching of it for fame. Rather, the seed of fame.
Oh fame, babe, they’ve taken everything and just twisted it Oh fame they say You never could have resisted it What’s in a name? And everybody’s jaded by fame
Oh fame again The press has gone and made another mess of it Oh just because they got So much invested in it But they say you’re to blame it’s your own fault ‘Cause you got mixed up in fame
Oh no don’t believe none of that old Andy Warhol guff It takes a lot more than 10 or 15 minutes That’s just not enough To qualify you for
Fame, you went beyond the boundries of your sanity And every day you defy All the laws of gravity You ain’t got no shame ‘Cause you’re just addicted to fame
Well no don’t you buy none of that old Andy Warhol stuff (rough) It takes a lot more than 10 or 15 minutes Man, (yeah) it’s just not enough To qualify you for
Fame, they’re already settin’ up, settin’ up your own Watergate, Watergate Oh fame, that stalker out there is just filled with hate You’ll never be the same ‘Cause everyone’s corrupted by fame
Oh fame, that took away, too away all my humanity Oh fame got to fight Every second of the day for my dignity It’s a spectator’s game And there ain’t nothing fair about fame
Oh no, oh fame, say it again, yeah, yeah, yeah Oh fame say it again Fame, say it again, fame, fame, fame They say you’re to blame ’cause you got mixed up in fame, fame, say it again, fame