Roy Lichtenstein in Oswego

1957 - 1960

This week’s Friday Freeflow is the following book:

Please read it over the weekend.

Roy Lichtenstein taught art at the Oswego State Teachers College in the late 1950s. I researched and imaginatively painted his story in 2019, then had an exhibition of 35 paintings and received national recognition because someone in California and Texas mentioned it by name.

Here is the link. (Noticeable spelling errors that I have fixed in present publication.)

You deserve more, but this is what I have come up with after a busy week. I’ll post the intro to entice you to open the link and read about the pop art legend when he was nothing much in Oswego, just like anyone anywhere is nothing much until someone who is much says you’re something much.

The artist is one who without effort inhabits a higher sphere of thought into which others rise with some difficulty and labor. It is not for me to say that I inhabit such an exalted plane, but I am flattered beyond imagination and grateful to those few who think I do. Meanwhile, I enjoy the comfort of calling myself just a painter.

— Eric Sloane from Legacy

Roy Lichtenstein might have been an artist for the last time in Oswego, N.Y.

This will be difficult to prove, yet thankfully, even harder to refute. I know Roy Lichtenstein was probably an artist in Oswego because I am an artist in Oswego. For career, I am a painter and a writer. Privately however, I remain an artist to the core. I will try to prove that to you with my presence, which is this book and painting exhibition. After 1961, Roy Lichtenstein was a painter, but no longer, even potentially, was he an artist. I will prove that too. And I think Roy would agree, if he were alive today. He might get mad about it, publicly, and refute such a preposterous notion in the next edition of ARTnews. However, privately he would admit that he no longer shadow-boxed with his existentialism, and professionally coasted through later life in wealth and fame on low doses of misanthropy, and high octane artifice. I know if ghost Roy floated into my studio today he would counsel me on the great Vegas crapshoot that is modern art exchanged in the marketplace. No doubt he too was a painter, and would talk shop like a pro. But an artist? After recognition in the Land of Millionaires, he circled around the same style until death did him part. I have read of his many ten hour days spent painting. As any painter worth her salt will tell you, however, this is far from the truth. Roy might have logged 10 hours a day in his studio, which means, alone, thinking, mixing, taping, dreaming, sleeping, eating, and yes, painting from time to time. But nobody paints for ten hours straight. The millionaires want you to believe the lie because it is good story and good story can make a frail old person appear great like a small god. And, when vigorously promoted, a small gods’ painting can be sold for a fortune. Fairy tale art stories maintain the wealth of museums and mountebanks.

Likewise, innocents like Bruce Breland, (duplex neighbor and colleague of Lichtenstein in the art department at the State Teachers College at Oswego, New York), naively add to the false paradigm. Fame sometimes allows the lower caste dog in to prop up the pony show. Breland recollected a time when Roy’s mother and stepfather came for a weekend visit. According to Bruce, Roy spent the entire time painting in his bedroom studio. Didn’t come down once, not even for meals and such.

Just another anecdote to support an art propaganda that has plagued humanity for nearly a hundred years. Contrary to what the gossip columnist (art historians) claim, genius does not stand up on a whim and leave a family room for art’s sake. Functional psychotics do that, and usually for business, not art. And although I believe Roy was saddled with an ambitious drive to be a celebrity in paint like Elvis was in rock and roll, I do not think he was psychotic. His painting output for the year Breland recounts is minimal, laughable really, if we are to assume, via the million word push from dishonest art historians, that in 1958 Roy Lichtenstein was watering the seeds of creative genius to come.

Perhaps during that family visit, Roy went up to his room initially to sulk. Maybe he didn’t approve of his mother’s remarriage, or he could have had papers to grade, a lesson plan to make. He sure as heck didn’t paint for 48 hours in a heightened state while the baby cried and Isabel (Roy’s wife) handled all the chores attending to her in-laws.

How sad that in this late-life interview, Breland admits how he admired Roy’s ability to shut out the world at any moment to go practice his art. As if Breland could have risen to equal fame and fortune if he just latched on to Roy’s hyper-ambition (and incredible rudeness).

This is a common misconception of fame voiced time and again by disaffected and aging art teachers explaining away why their careers are never mentioned in the art media. If only, if only...

If only what?

If only art teacher just once humbled him/herself to naive, wild dreamer, to make believe like Roy Lichtenstein, loading paintings in a box, strapping the box to the family wagon, and driving to New York City every weekend, going from gallery door to gallery door hawking the paintings that may well be great, but no one will care about until some business intermediary thinks he can make a thousand dollars?

I know and have known college professors who expect MacArthur Foundation “Genius” grants for sound careers based in art-making — never art-pedagogy, which alone has supported their means to justify the end to a lifetime of “making art”.

Unfortunately our colleges and universities are still offering career positions to thousands interested in “making it big” with their art while maintaining full time jobs pleasing department chairs, provosts, administration, and sometimes students.

These can be very good people — great teachers, careerists, what have you. But they are not artists, just as I cannot claim to be a professor, although for years I have lectured people about the practice and theory of painting.

In late 1950s Oswego, Roy Lichtenstein had no delusions when it came to his painting. He was so unsure of himself, copying dying trends, teaching, planning, painting just a little bit, raising a family. In art history, hindsight is never 20/20. It likes to think that it is, but very few artists open their minds up with documents left post-mortem describing true feelings that spawned their art in the first place. Without factual account, art history often wildly interprets artistic motive, attempting to take fame apart backward like a clock, yet every cog and wheel is faulty like a failing memory, a self-aggrandizing interview, anecdotal praise by others — guided by the psychology of self-delusion, or just outright, made-up stories. There are no hard facts to read in people’s minds. For instance, in a recent book on Lichtenstein’s 1960s output, art historian and tenured professor at Rice University, Graham Bader, dedicated several pages linking the painter’s famous Pop painting, Girl With Ball, to a Freudian sex toy. According to Bader, her open mouth is another orifice to have sex with on a blow up doll. This wildly speculative research could be compared to an American political historian interpreting the signature of our first President as some repressed desire to make love to his handsome cocker spaniel. Roy Lichtenstein never let on that Girl With Ball was a blow up doll with a sex hole. So the art historian should have refrained from such a preposterous conclusion. But lies make good stories. Art historians are story tellers who lie with artspeak. “A great story will make me relevant too!” That’s just human, all too human.

The Lichtensteins left Cleveland for reasons we may never know, but can be surmised with thoughtful application of contemporary social norms afflicting creative people in an anti-intellectual postwar America. Society would not readily accept an able man supported by his wife. Especially not with two little boys to raise responsibly. The dream was over for the Lichtensteins. And Roy made haste to assume a male leadership role to disguise the reality that Isabel was the more satisfied breadwinner. A new job as an engineering draftsman making furniture at a steel company in Cleveland would have been full time and stultifying. In early 1957, the couple purchased their first house in suburban Cleveland to raise two boys, the youngest turning a year old that March. By summer, Roy had accepted an assistant professor’s job in Oswego — many miles away from roots stretching deep and wide.

How does an art historian take apart that clock, part by part?

She does not, or rather, should not because it’s all chimera.

The facts for the art history books are few and far between while accounting for this brief sojourn to Oswego in the saga of Lichtenstein. Roy finished seven paintings in 1957, tripled his output in 1958, and made roughly 45 paintings in 1959. He was employed as Assistant Professor of Art at the State Teachers College at Oswego, married to Isabel, with two sons, David and Mitchell.

We can look at Roy’s paintings. We can walk the same streets he walked, reflect along the same shoreline he pondered, and to revolutionize the new century we can put a stop to endless kowtowing to what money made and keeps on making for the undeserved. The 20th century celebrity artist is like a hundred year old house in a good neighborhood that keeps rising in value even while the structure and its systems deteriorate. Realtors and banks continue to collect profits on old wood that, once upon a time, displayed sound craftsmanship in house building. Meanwhile housing developers prop up brand new, cheaply made structures (artists with car payments and cell phone contracts), and banks (art establishment) make their money here too. The resale of the old house is the dead artist who got promoted, and therefore historically rich and well provided for in endless streams of present-day re-promotion. A new house is filler and temporal, and will fall apart in a lifetime (those artists alive today who subscribe to art history artifice).

This little book will seem schizophrenic. Some mornings, while painting the life and times of Roy Lichtenstein in Oswego, I dislike the man he became after Oswego. Mainly because of the manufactured way he was elevated to fame, and via that false, lottery-like paradigm, made millions of future painters pine for similar breakthroughs.

Opportunists are never innocent, and Roy would be no exception in the art world. Painters getting rich is anathema to art. Dishonest art historians using the no-logic of extremely minimized hindsight, assuming (wrongly) through their research and writings that it was all “meant to be”, the cream rises to the top, etc...

Any true artist knows this is bunk. Financially successful “artists” are not born. They are made. Privileged upper class made (as in the distant past), or art mafia made (also by the privileged class) in modern times.

You will find that I abhor Roy Lichtenstein the commodity, yet am quite charmed by the reticence of his reality, which we can never know.

But I can imagine.

That is my birthright. And Christies, Inc. can’t have it to sell it.


May, 2019.

I found this photo from a Life magazine article about a lake effect snowstorm in Oswego over Thanksgiving weekend, 1958. Is that Roy walking down the road?

Yes, why not?

Thanks for reading!