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.

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.

 

Roy, I Gave Up Interior Design For This Place?

IsabelWindowLow
2019. Oil on stretched “Peasant” dinner napkin, 12 x 12″

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.

IsabelPeasantWindowLow

Acrylic Study For a Very Long Oil Title

oswegonian1958.jan.14
“January 14, 1958: ‘Mr. Lichtenstein Showed Slides to Illustrate His Definition of Romanticism in Art. It is a Blending of Background and Foreground to Make a Complete Picture. There is a Warmth in the Colors Used.” 2019. Acrylic on canvas paper, 14 x 11″

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
—Van Morrison from “Fame”

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.