Somewhere an Introduction or More Like a Prologue

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Hares in the Gesso 2019. Oil on canvas, 19 x 30″

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.

 

 

Professor Aulus Saunders Receiving Lichtenstein Resignation in Alternate Reality, Spring 1960

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2019. Oil on canvas, 20 x 16″

I think I have formulated a revisionist art history. It’s time to take our PhD’s in other hopeful directions. Enough with the “masters”, who were never more master than any other prolific creators—just richer. Either while living or posthumously, it was millionaires and billionaires (sometimes even the CIA) that made them masters through celebrity and finance. We must get off this track, derail the train if necessary. Because Picasso was a man, not a marker. And Jeff Koons is a monstrosity from a hell made by ignorant billionaires, who are so dirty it hurts my brain so to think about them. Yet both set standards for the multitude of creative geniuses practicing arts not of the celebrity mold. And these standards are anti-art for those seeking master status in a subjective medium, aka: judgemental world.

I suggest a people’s history of art. Art always made by people for people, locally (until the Internet), not for Christies® and Hyperallergic®, which are very unpeople-like, especially in the realm of art making and sharing. They are co-parasites in a “look-at-me-now!” bubble. Like Donald Trumps and Kim Kardashians, show poodles at the poodle show—nothing more, and much less…

Last Saturday I stumbled upon a local antiques shop in a residential neighborhood of my small town. My wife is the driver of such things that I usually avoid, that is, until of late, when I suspect there might be a treasure of a painting to rediscover. Since I am searching locally for paintings made by colleagues of Roy Lichtenstein, I have been frequenting garage and estate sales, and now antiques shops too. By lazy Saturday chance I found the pot of gold to art history, or what needs to become the new art history, if people of substance are to matter ever again.

The usual artifacts—vintage tools, tchotchkes, and roller skates, record albums, post cards, coins, 19th century books, costume jewelry, tables, a chair, and yes, paintings on the walls. Mostly framed prints, a few originals by who knows who—rarely art historians, of course, because they’re not searching for the obscure lessor knowns…

Up in the corner of a far wall was the treasure. I thought I recognized the style. Sure enough, a Dr. Aulus Saunders original, signed and dated, 1981. A painting of a then local restaurant long ago out of business. On the tag was written “Not for sale. For future exhibition”.

In 1937, Aulus Saunders was picked by Ralph Swetman to head the art department at the State Teacher’s College of Oswego. He was instrumental in the hiring of every art faculty member until his retirement in 1978. He hired Roy Lichtenstein in 1957.

Unfortunately, via the uber-influential cult of celebrity, Lichtenstein got fame and fortune because millionaires were conned by other millionaires to buy his trinkets, to be in the know, to have collections in their names, and be spoken of with respect at high parties—the ones just like others, with toilets and sinks, and careful conversations. And the painting practice and pedagogic genius of Dr. Saunders bound to obscurity in an antique shop. The majority of Oswego professors Saunders hired to teach art and art history abandoned the man who gave them license to perpetuate the fraud of modern celebrity art. Thousands of students loaded to confusion with facts, interpretations and style about nothing really—impressionism, expressionism, surrealism, ad nauseism… Future art historians churning out more coffee tables books than a solar system could possibly want, unless necessary for house building during the final throes of the sixth extinction.

And then Steve the proprietor came over to me while gazing at the Saunder’s painting. He bought the entire collection years ago from the professor’s son. 80 paintings, cornered and covered in Steve’s home basement. He thought maybe one day he would have an exhibition, or maybe the college would be interested in acquiring a few for its collection. 80 original paintings by a man dedicated to art practice and pedagogy. Ho boy! And local to boot. An absolute dream to any non-convoluted historian. A radical concept. Art history without art celebrity. Painters who practiced literally what they preached. That is, a dedication to art and art-making. Productivity through creativity, and then shouldering the responsibility to carry on art traditions to a younger generation.

I tried to conceal some of my excitement. I’d take a loan out to secure these 80 paintings safe passage out of Steve’s musty basement. I just think I might.

So should any art historian worth his or her salt. Roy Lichtenstein made pop art a popular name. Aulus Saunders hired Roy Lichtenstein and many other practicing teacher-artists, and himself practiced art until he died. Both have value to the future. However, I shall always argue that one is of lessor substance, even if it happened to purchase a mansion in the Hamptons, and abandon art for commodities’ sake.

Dear art historians of today and tomorrow. Kill the Buddha to see how many million Buddhas are popping up all over the place. If I can find dead collections to come alive, so can you. Start searching estate sales and in your local antique shops. A people’s art for the future, and the little rich dandys can continue their prostituting to Sotheby’s of Dubai. They are so much old news, like Picasso in his underwear and Michelangelo lounging about the Pope’s brothel.

Two David Campbell Pieces For the Price of Meaningful Art History

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Print by David Campbell: Toledo 1964. 28 x 22″

On a Saturday in May I visited an estate sale a few doors up the road and discovered two works by David Campbell, professor of art at the State Teacher’s College at Oswego, and colleague to Roy Lichtenstein from 1957 to 1960.  A signed print (48/49), titled Toledo, and a lithograph, titled Loch Ness, both from 1964. On Toledo, the owners cut the signature, date and print run and pasted it on the back to fit the frame. I am thrilled by this great luck. I shall auction Toledo off at the Lichtenstein exhibition in October. All sales from this and my paintings will go to a one time local high school senior enrolled at SUNY Oswego, and intending to major in art history or studio art. The Tyler arts building is going through its second stage of renovation and this will give something back to a place that has been a mentor house to my family for thirty years.

David Campbell is a fine painter. He has a website and prints available for those Oswego affiliations who wish to be as lucky as me. The bulk of art history is lost to the cult of celebrity. Roy was no dummy. He must have known his fame and fortune was lottery-like luck. No one passes through Oswego without humility. Van Morrison has mentioned time and again that his world recognition, and wealth stemming from it, is owed to his early departure from obscurity. He left the small town for the big city, and never looked back.

That is brave, but it isn’t art. Art is work, and like Van Morrison, Roy got recognition in a busy city and then worked very hard to keep it.

To me it always seems like unnecessary struggle, often making a circus or a brand out of a person. To please myself is a daily exercise sweating determination and will power. I cannot imagine any sanity maintained with the pressure to please an entire world.

This discovery of David Campbell work hanging on lower middle class walls next door in small town, 2019 is true art history because it touches my own story in some real way, far beyond fame and money. No one really wants to possess a painting by Lichtenstein for any other reason besides fame and money—whether that be a museum or a mountebank. No one besides members of his family, friends, descendants, subjective hobbyists and connoisseurs, and the occasional historian who feels the need to tell a story, without all the wild speculation and false promotion, should be interested in another person’s art. A museum can hold paintings if they have contributed towards the uplifting (or degeneracy) of civilizations. However, art movements are never art history if promotion was the only reason for their coming to recognition. That’s art marketing, and mostly an industrial invention.

Leo Castelli was a rich art marketer in 1962. Larry Gagosian is one today, and Christies and Sotheby’s, Inc. are the banks of lies. None of it is art like David Campbell is art, yet to express this more clearly, I’ll need another 35 pages of time.

You can buy the book at the opening on October 11th, 2019.

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Backside of “Toledo”. Buyers cut out signature and pasted it on back.

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Sheldon hall (“Old Main”), from Washington Blvd.
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Sheldon Hall from estate sale.
1960 faculty photo
Roy, David and other wonderful people.
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My painting: David Campbell Painted “Lewis Bluff” in 1958, and Roy Lichtenstein Did Not 2019. Acrylic on paper, 15 x 23″

Roy Lichtenstein and Vernon Tryon Share a Stink

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Looking north through Splinter Village at Oswego State Teacher’s College, 1959.

This 1959 photograph shows temporary buildings that were constructed at the end of World War II, and used initially for housing to accommodate the influx of returning G.I.’s, and then as classrooms when enrollment went back to normal levels. They were called “Splinter Village”. Roy Lichtenstein shared one of theses boxes with Industrial Design professor Vernon Tryon. I met the latter last Tuesday afternoon in a local restaurant. He told me a story about the time an animal died under their classrooms and it smelled real bad.

The students used to ask, What is that stink, Professor Tryon?” I broke into Vernon’s reminiscing to quip, “Probably Roy’s ambition”.

 

Cosmic Pineapple Coolatta Large, 120 Grams of Sugar

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2019. Oil on canvas, 40 x 50″

The American Heart Association limits sugar intake for children between 12 – 24 grams per day. The corporate leadership at Dunkin’ Donuts thinks that, at 120 grams of sucrose, this cosmic happy drink to outer space will take thoughts away from the methodic and very lazy filicide that is happening across the United States. I hate Dunkin’ Donuts, more so since its crazies have opened the gate to psychopath for parents who once cared if their children got premature diabetes. Duncan Devilnuts and his/her apologists are yucky bad.

What does this have to do with Roy Lichtenstein?

The things that “made” Roy Lichtenstein are the same things that push sugar on children.

And it’s painted in oils.

In 1958, Miss Frances Oler Did Not Frequent the Opportunities Offered to the Art Department Boys Club

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2019. Acrylic on paper, 19 x 25″

Frances Oler is seated in the 1958 art faculty photo for the yearbook. She was allowed to teach future teachers how to teach art to elementary school children. Cans of safety scissors, crayons, and dream potential squashed because she peed sitting down.

For years, Miss Oler lived kitty korner to our house. She taught our neighbor Helen’s children at the Campus School in Sheldon Hall throughout the 1960’s.

This painting is how Roy and the other boys probably saw her in the flesh.

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Roy Was So Jealous of Harvey Harris Because He Went to Yale and Looked Like It

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2019. Open Acrylic (Golden Paint) on paper, 17 x 21″

Harvey Sherman Harris (1915 – 1999) was a painter and teaching colleague of Roy Lichtenstein at Oswego State. I imagine professional jealousy was a persistent worm in the minds of artists in 1958 as it is today. I think that’s because artists in America think individually (at times) that they are great with verve and originality—better than the rest even—when really, what they’re privately pining for is an Elvis Presley fame with a Wayne Newton effort at expression. Truth is, everyone is free to achieve the inner peace and realization that there was only one John Coltrane, and we all should be happy enough with that satori, making things and drinking beer.

But few of us reach this happier place. Hence, university art departments nationwide, born from the seeds of children loving to make art, yet growing twisted and gnarled up, to be professional children chock full of groundless envy and pride.

We all suck. Now, back to work!

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I Learned More About Lichtenstein in One Hour at Williams College Sawyer Library Than I Have in Four Months Researching in a Town Where He Taught and Lived

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In 1958, Lichtenstein Must Have Felt Like This: Painting Abstract, Then 18th century Native, Then What, And Who Will Care? 2019. Oil on canvas, 20 x 16″

In spring, my family visited beautiful Berkshire Williamstown and I stopped in the Sawyer Library at Williams College to see what it held on Roy Lichtenstein. I walked up and down the pristine Dewey decimal rows and grabbed several books off the shelves. I was prepared for the usual art historian pinpointing of everything unimportant to the artist in 300 pages of big words and thousands of hours of time wasted on attempts to define the undefinable. I pray one day I open to a page in one of these esoteric tomes of mumbo-jumbo, and get a sense that the author is(was) a human like me. The rise and popularity of celebrity modern art and its People magazine history follows a predictable pattern. Youth, geography, and connection are the markers used to pin each artist on the value scale. The published art writers (socialists usually) act as scribes to the priestly class of capitalists who make(made) a set number of image-makers into commodities worth trading in a tuxedo auction house. Who publishes these books, over and over again, for coffee tables and multi-million dollar libraries? And why?

I was ready to flip through the stack and find no mention of Roy in Oswego, which would have confirmed my bias that the majority of PhD art historians unwittingly prop up the valuable expression of the artist with agonizing page after page of subjective interpretation. Detailed abstractions on art to uplift the offshore accounts of Christies, Inc., Larry Gagosian, and other gross millionaires and billionaires slamming the door shut on the eager studio art students ready to earn their place on library shelves of the future. I was going to add it to my book as a side theme proving my hypothesis that art historians pay much less attention to the biography of the artist than they ought to. As if an American Civil War historian found it more interesting to write ten pages interpreting the Gettysburg Address and made no mention of Lincoln’s dreadful thoughts while on the train traveling to the slaughter fields. Life happens to human beings and some make the effort to express themselves. Art history often lacks the life story of the artist, which is why I believe a few of the books I flipped through at the library were crisp and new and never opened after the Williams College stamp was pressed. Art without life is pretty damn boring.

All the books kept to the pattern, except two. One, which critiqued Lictenstein’s pre-pop (early 1950’s) paintings of Native Americans out west, and another book of essays, with one by Avis Berman, which, unlike any I have read thus far, actually makes an effort to understand the world of Roy Lichtenstein in Oswego. I spent half my research time copying a piece of the essay word for word, upside down-left-handed with a leaky pen, until I realized I could use my wife’s smartphone to take a picture of the pages and copy later. I quote pieces of my copy from the Berman essay in Roy Lichtenstein: All About Art:

“Isabel did not leave Cleveland willingly.”

“There were three new faculty members to the art department in 1957. David Campbell, Harvey Harris, and Bruce Breland.”

Bruce Breland: ” Roy was very popular with them (the students). They liked him because he wasn’t dealing with art as a mystery. He was dealing with art in the present, and they could understand that. Here’s how you make it.”

Bruce Breland: “He didn’t spend a lot of time speaking art history speak, he spent a lot of time with, ‘How does this go together? And how does this come apart?’ He was constantly thinking up different kinds of what he called ‘art marks’. ‘Art marks’ was a term I heard a good bit of. That impressed me because I never thought of the words ‘art mark’. Art that comes directly from ‘every mark you make modifies what you already know,’ from the old teacher.”

Roy re-introduced the “Flash Room” to SUNY Oswego students.

Bruce Breland: “He taught two-dimensional design, which turned into a flash room. He even had a machine that he converted to a kinesthescope, which is a strobe that flashes, and the shutter goes at a twentieth of a second, or something like that. The idea behind that is that when you see something high contrast, fast… and it’s very bright, there is a long afterimage, and you draw the after-image.

That was the whole thing—what’s going on… in the head. We carry around images in our head, and we can draw from these. Every mark modifies what you already know. There’s almost a catechism with it. I was taken with that. So Roy and I were just great conversationalists with each other. We tended to reinforce.”

So, Roy Lichtenstein was a human being in Oswego—a professor of art with his own interpretations, applications, and cool tools.

“Irrelevant!” is the cry from the art establishment (mafia). “We know he left that agonizing stagnation of wonder and growth to cut out advertisements and comics, and copy them onto canvas. And, of course make us more profit exchanging his celebrity commodity for generations to come.”

 

 

 

 

 

As An Amateur Art Historian and Gossip, I Believe Fame Took Its Toll On Roy Lichtenstein, And Nobodyness Kept Carolyn Blish’s Ease of Living In Tact

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2019. Oil on board over image by Carolyn Blish ’68, 35 x 24″

The best celebrity history story about Lichtenstein happens in 1957, five years before his ascension to international fame and small fortune. During that fateful year the Lichtensteins bought their first house in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. A mini-palace in a land of beautiful houses. Six bedrooms, a few baths. Isabel might have been employed still as assistant interior decorator at Jane L. Hansen, Inc., however, doubtful while shouldering responsibilities of two preschool boys. The younger Mitchell, not yet a year on earth.

Roy never kept a job for more than six months during the bulk of the decade, and his new job as engineering draftsman making furniture for the Republic Steel Company was work, but not work that could afford a 1950’s down payment on an upper middle class property.

Was there a recent inheritance to the nuclear family? Something to look into for those who look deeper into things.

But the big question is why, in August of the same year, did Roy take a job as assistant professor at Oswego State Teacher’s College, 350 miles away from his new home? The family rented an apartment in a duplex at 11 West 6th Street before the start of the Fall semester.

What a year of tumult, for better or worse! Things must have been pretty desperate on some level for such a drastic uprooting. Perhaps frantic. Eight paintings produced during the whole year. Eight paintings that took no time away from a harried move. Rushed work. Lazy work. Stolen hours’ work.

At 34 years old, I believe Roy was settling in for the duration. Baby boys, a wife who had always supported him, financially… He didn’t make this move to “get closer to the NY art scene”. So many historians make the claim in their usual paragraph (maybe two) written on the most significant change in the artist’s life to that point in time. Obviously, none have made the trip to Oswego, nor thought much about being an unknown painter in obscurity during the American year, 1957.

Everything that happened then created what was to come.

In the painting above, Roy and Isabel appear to be dancing. Both figures are copied from paintings he made in 1952. The house and address take you to the grounded reality of their lives, and no thing at that moment in time had the power to predict a future Elvis Presley fame in an international art world. No thing. Not even the omnipotent Artnews of the era.

Babies need to be fed. Rents and mortgages must get paid. At a starting salary of $6,300/year, Roy was well on his way to surviving barely in a cruel world.

Why did he move? To be in Cleveland or not to be in Cleveland? That is the question!

 

The Assistant Professor Turned ‘Girl With ball’ Into Some Freudian Perversion Maybe Because He is Very Lonely

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2019. Oil on canvas, 16 x 20″

Sometimes I think art historians don’t do art history very well. In 1961, Roy was a family man, raising two little boys. He wasn’t making paintings (copying magazine, newspaper and comic clippings) to emphasize orifices and blow up dolls. The following excerpt is taken from Hall of Mirrors by Graham Bader, assistant professor at Rice University. Great writer, but what a bunch of kinky balderdash!

Professor Bader does not have a degree in Subjective Interpretations of Someone Else’s Art, and yet society supplies him an office with a desk and streams of students who pay with their time and money to one day take their seat beside him. Imagine if Howard Zinn, American history historian, wrote that Robert Kennedy used to dress up as a duck and make love to chicken wire. He had no proof—no recorded interview, not even personal anecdote from enemy Brezhnev’s autobiography. Would MIT Press publish wild speculation? Would Rice University tenure such nonsense?

Here is my subjective interpretation, knowing what I know about the world of 1961. Roy was a year and a half out of Oswego. He was a teacher in New jersey, and his youngest boy a wannabe Mouseketeer. Mouths were not sexual orifices to Roy. Not openly anyway. Not yet. There is no pre-pop evidence that he was a sexual-thinking person. He took his “Girl With Ball” to the Leo Castelli Gallery, and it was the first painting the latter purchased. Maybe Leo thought she had a sexy mouth hole. Roy just copied his girl straight from a Poconos Advertisement in the New York Times. He made the mouth look like the ball, maybe.

Anyway, read for yourself. Good writing can be convincing. Bad writing too. I just wish professor Bader wasn’t awarded a hundred grand a year to help push the hordes of living artists further into obscurity holes. We have a lot to say about our work. Maybe professor Bader can shift gears in career to spearhead a pedagogic movement in art history a lá Studs Terkel. Teach the young to interview the prolific, professional, living painters. The ones to load their borrowed cars up with work and schlepp their creations all over hell, usually for payment of non-recognition with a pittance for a tip. Once the word is out that there are multitudes ready to tell a story about their lives as artists, total subjectivity (lies) will not dominate the mostly irrelevant, though highly profitable world of contemporary art “scholarship”. Always a win for high end galleries, museums, millionaire speculators, and just a few living artists who “get made” in their time. I bet there are many of us unknowns painting erotic blow up doll holes onto the faces of beach bathers. Some can even do it without a newspaper clipping for help.

Do you know of any not dead, but alive? Send out a grad assistant to dig.

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