Roy Lichtenstein was a novice college art professor living in Oswego, New York from Autumn, 1957 to Spring, 1960. He arrived from Cleveland, Ohio a financial failure, and left for New Brunswick, New Jersey, a burgeoning academic. In Oswego, he taught future teachers of the Empire State, and experimented with abstract impressionism for the first time. He also made a couple carbon sketches of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.
I do not know where he shopped for groceries, or visited the doctor. He might have gone to the movies with his wife Isabel, and on pleasant evenings walked with the family along the river or Lake Ontario shoreline. We know he shoveled himself out of one enormous lake effect dumping in 1958, and in hopeful May sunshine, judged an annual float parade along Sheldon Avenue. A few articles in the college newspaper mention him, two very short oral stories have been shared from living memory, a published essay breaking the mold, and taking more than one paragraph to recount his Oswego residency… The historical record is always very bleak for past human beings making art, unless one made it big and wished to talk about the past that came to the fame.
Roy didn’t like to talk about Oswego in the interviews.
Now gather this limited information to create 35 paintings, interpret them in prose, and prepare an exhibit to show the public. I know it will be a hit because something cannot come from nothing. But when it can come from practically nothing, then it must be art. Lichtenstein was Pop before Oswego, and Pop after Oswego. The historians need to dig deeper to know the man. If the establishment wishes to carry on the brand Lichtenstein much longer (reselling Pop paintings to billionaires), it had better send its coffee table book army up to Oswego to remain relevant. Roy was a failure here, tragi-comically, like me and millions of artists worldwide, in our own minds. Rags to riches is a great theme. But without the rags, riches is just pathetic yachts and more meaninglessness. The Lichtenstein story is told like Cinderella, beginning in the middle, on the way to the ball, cutting out all adversity, and never leaving even a glass slipper of doubt. Roy was born, went to college, and made Pop paintings. Unknown and then known, poor and then rich, just like that! Poof! Thank you fairy Godfather, Leo Castelli!
That’s the historical record on Roy Lichtenstein and the Pop revolution. That, and a 100,000 pages of poppedy-pop, pop, pop!
Not good enough. A repeated implication that artistic relevance matters only after some rich dude says so.
I hope my effort will spurn more research by better art historians to recount the enormous influence I believe the Oswego experience had on Roy Lichtenstein.
I wish to thank CNYArts for its enthusiasm and steadfast commitment to the artists of Central New York. Thank you Mitch Fields and SUNY Oswego Facilities Services for efforts securing a venue for exhibition. Thank you SUNY Oswego Special Collections, Tyler Art Gallery Director, Michael Flanagan, Dean of the School of Communication, Media, and the Arts, Julie Pretzat, and the memory of Professor Lichtenstein.
Andy sat down to talk one day He said decide what you want. Do you want to expand your parameters Or play museums like some dilettante?
—From “Work”, a song written by Lou reed in memory of Andy Warhol
It is resplendent mid-summer in Oswego, NY. The flower garden is weeded and bursting with color, the garlic pulled and drying in the sun, and a half day spent edging the lawn along the curb and driveway. I have been grilling meals outdoors and watering the Merlot grapes at dusk. I want to risk a tomorrow of thirty mosquito bumps to sleep under the stars tonight. Summers spent along a Great Lake give a glimpse into Elysium, where the faithful retire for eternity. Michael Fox, who came to Oswego State in 1967 to teach art and painting, lived the rest of his years with these beautiful summers. He claimed openly and often of the beauty and peace Oswego provided him. Like me, he lived next door to the college and walked to campus watching the changing skies. He laughed at those who mocked the very place they chose to live, especially the professors. “Why work here if you don’t want to be here?”
Many residents play act that Oswego is a lowly place overall. With such a depressed economy and winters that drag on forever, summer is a welcome but very limited respite to the cyclic despair of several poverties, exposed most predominantly in February with the cracked skin smiles of quiet desperation. Many professors commute from the Syracuse suburbs over the slippery roadways and lake effect white-outs, perhaps because a harried life looks best with many take-out options. February wears its prettiest sundress on Indian nights out for vindaloo. And there’s always a Wegman’s just around the corner!
Time is a prized commodity, especially for the art professors, who need to practice art to remain relevant as artists, while teaching. I think Michael Fox understood this very well. It helped that he was from another time and class of people who would be embarrassed to pretend the luxury of a Syracuse commute. Roy Lichtenstein was of that time too. Slowness was a natural breeding ground for the art process. (It still is.) Therefore places like Oswego would have been cherished as a best kept secret. Art shall take no interest in a life without frequent access to quiet and solitude. Lichtenstein came to Oswego State Teacher’s College and immersed himself into the drowsy flow of small town life, whether he liked it or not.
I don’t think he liked it very much.
Which to me means that he was never ready to be an artist. Not like Michael Fox was a teacher-artist, or Ron Throop is a father-husband artist. I guess the best phrase to describe a career for Roy Lichtenstein would be ambitious artist until jaded and then a commercial artist.
Oswego was his test and maybe he failed. He had already proved his ability to be accepted by the in crowd of New York City—he exhibited his original work several times throughout the fifties at the John Heller Gallery, and once in 1959 at the Condon Riley Gallery, with a painfully manufactured gambit at abstract impressionism. (He was reading about trends in Artnews and interpreting them in his own work, perhaps to muster relevance in a rapidly changing art world.) So he was ambitious to exhibit with some success, and likewise able to support a family with a professor’s paycheck.
So, what made the family get up and leave, again?
The history books declare “ambition!”. If we take this approach, then we also must admit that it was ambition to be successful like any corporate entity of his day, like Coca-Cola or Frank Sinatra. Perhaps initially, but not over the long term, it may have been ambition to practice painting to achieve master status (as he believed Picasso and Cezanne were masters). He could do this better via frequent train rides into Manhattan to pretend a Bohemian lifestyle while married with children back in suburban New Jersey. After initial success, his artist self would have realized that he was being commoditized by Leo Castelli, who would become his sole, lifelong promoter. So, most unfortunately for art’s sake, what began as art growth (Pop style) was repeated over and over for promises of more wealth and fame. Like a Rolling Stones concert of today, Roy in his later years would conform to representations of nostalgia from a freer past, but in reality, remain just a spectacle of choreographed fake freedom—the opposite of art.
I don’t think that, initially, ambition had anything to do with it. There were private, familial reasons, as any human being with spouse and small children will admit. Nobody in the mild flux of struggle (raising a family on an assistant professor’s salary) would posit such open and outward delusional fantasies. Especially in 1957 when only Elvis would get famous! Roy Lichtenstein proved that he could teach and practice in Oswego. I think he found the key to contentment in academia. To be offered a lateral position in New Jersey was probably the best he could do at the time for his family. He had a wife whom he probably loved and needed, and two young boys who carried his name. There was always movie night to play fantasy, and like the Cleveland where they lived before Oswego, there was just more to do in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Heck, the Edison Museum was a five minute drive up the road. And I bet a superabundance of lively drive-ins for burgers and shakes on demand any night of the week.
Today, some Oswego art professors seek better weekend entertainment opportunities in Syracuse or Rochester (or their suburbs). They do this because practicing art is always a practice of loneliness, for better or worse. It’s just not so much fun being lonely for a career, and art teachers, like car mechanics and brain surgeons, are human beings needing a society more often than not to do its expressing for them. Hence the comforting joys of a nearby Barnes and Noble®, Smokeybones®, or Wegmans® supermarket, stocked to the ceiling with digestible relevance. In 1960, Roy and Isabel moved the family closer to a geography that could uplift the doldrums on any Sunday, even in icy February.
Michael Fox remained in Oswego as a teacher-artist. His career was teaching while his art practice remained relevant unto himself. He too experienced beautiful Ontario summers like Ron Throop, who has no career besides writing these words, and painting these images.
One day in 1961 Roy Lichtenstein brought his newest paintings to a gallery in New York City and made money—then lots and lots of money, making images in a style he barely changed for the next 37 years. At least he had a year of tasty burgers and shakes at the families’ favorite New Brunswick drive-in before becoming the ubiquitous Coca-cola® served on every tray for generations to come.