Isabel & Roy


Isabel & Roy

Prior to his Pop-art fame in New York, Roy Lichtenstein struggled to find work and raised a family in Cleveland. His wife Isabel helped support him as he developed his signature style. But, before he could establish his career, she had to give up hers.

AIRED: May 20, 2021 | 0:26:46

- [Announcer] Funding of the WVIZ PBS ideastream production

of "Isabel & Roy" was provided

by the William M. Weiss Foundation.

(lively orchestral music)

- We built our house in the 1950s.

We didn't know anything, it was our first house.

I decided we should get a modern person

to do the decorating.

And Isabel was well-known at that time.

And she understood what we were doing perfectly

which amazed me.

- Isabel Lichtenstein was a decorator.

And she was the decorator

of my parents' home in Shaker Heights.

- She was a very nice, very sweet, very smart lady.

And she just loved the fact that she had an artist husband.

The fact that he was starving to death didn't seem to matter

because she was making a very good living.

- She made the money, Isabel.

She was one of the most interesting people I ever met.

Her ending was tragic.

- [Woman] 'Cause nobody knew at that point

who he was going to become.

(upbeat jazz music)

- Lichtenstein fundamentally changed the way we understood

and understand painting.

Now, of course, his work sells for astronomical figures.

(upbeat jazz music)

(goat bleating)

- Some of these older pictures, I'm not sure who they are.

These right here.

- [Mike] That was her senior picture.

- This was my aunt Isabel's graduation picture

when she graduated from high school.

Oh, she's so pretty.

She looked pretty in whatever she had on.

She was just like that, you know.

(upbeat music)

- Isabel Lichtenstein was someone

who was extremely enterprising, extremely intelligent

and somewhat frustrated by her youth in a small town.

- Haviland, pretty booming little town,

was always a little town, but they had a general store,

you could get all your groceries there.

Everybody was pretty content.

Lived a happy life there as I grew up.

Things have changed a lot over the years

but still on the map.

(upbeat music)

- These were women in the, ladies in the church.

Everybody knew everybody else.

Everybody else knows everybody else's business.

- [Avis] She grew up in a very religious family

and she became a natural rebel because of it.

And she didn't want to live in the country.

- Her nickname was Queen Isabel.

And she didn't get her hands too dirty

and she was a little bit above the others,

as far as she was smart enough

to get out of a lot of the old heavy farm work, you know,

but she wasn't really of the intellect

to be real content on the farm.

- I know one thing I'll tell you

what they used to have to do,

they used to have to milk the cows

before they went on a date.

Now you wouldn't like that, I wouldn't either.


Nobody ever said anything about why she left.

I think that she just probably just wanted to get away,

you know, pursue her career.

- Roy's New York parents

wanted him to have a four year college degree.

He wanted to go to art school presumably in the city

but they wouldn't allow that.

So Ohio State had a studio program and a four year degree

because they felt that he had to be able to teach,

if he couldn't make it with his art.

Isabel did get into college, but there was so little money

that she didn't make it past about a year.

And she got a job as a waitress in Cleveland.

(upbeat music)

Being very creative, not knowing quite what to do with it,

she volunteered at the Ten-Thirty Art Gallery

which was an artist co-op gallery.

And I think she found what she wanted to do.

(upbeat music)

She was working with artists.

She was helping sell things.

Things were being made.

She was really part of the community

and really learning as she went.

- I know on occasions I've had works come in

with Ten-Thirty labels.

I feel that people behind it, that were running it,

you know, they had a good eye.

And I think they were here to promote the Cleveland art

and they weren't just out chasing popular names to have.

I just really admire the works that came out of there.

- Algesa O'Sickey was the director

of the Ten-Thirty Gallery.

And then in 1949 through Algesa and Joseph O'Sickey,

who were good friends of Roy's,

Isabel was introduced to Roy.

(gentle upbeat music)

(birds chirping)

And they were married in June, 1949.

(people chatting and laughing)

(gentle upbeat music)

Everyone I spoke to who knew Isabel

always described her as dramatic, flamboyant, generous,

life of the party,

whereas Roy was very quiet and reserved.

And so I think it may have been a case,

cliche though it is, of opposites attracting.

He always was very, very shy in high school.

He couldn't get dates, but yet had a great focus

'cause he always wanted to be an artist.

In the Cleveland days, he had to work during the day,

so often he had to paint at night

'cause he had all sorts of jobs.

He taught at the Cooper School

which was a commercial art school in Cleveland.

He worked on this magazine project

to make a before and after of a model city

of a neighborhood in Cleveland.

And Roy did not want to do the new model city,

he wanted to do the before, the slums,

so that's what he worked on,

and distressed the buildings and did all sorts of things.

He was a window dresser at Halle's Department Store.

And eventually he ended up

as an engineering draftsman at Republic Steel.

But he was not really expressing himself

as an artist on a day-to-day basis.

Isabel wanted to work, too.

And she learned about the interior design business,

and really within about a year or so,

went out on her own and was really in her element.

(gentle piano music)

- [Narrator] Homes have more than new plans,

they have new patterns for living

made attractive by luxurious interiors.

- [Avis] She really was an exponent

of what we would call today, mid-century modern.

And she had a lot of upper-middle-class families

in the Cleveland area,

like Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights.

- These are how many years old?

That's how she would tell people what colors, I guess,

to use for their homes,

their chairs, their sofas, what colors to use.

It's raw silk, it's beautiful.

And then he would hang their curtains, that's what he did.

- [Avis] If the drapes needed to be hung,

he did hang the curtains

because of course that would be free.

(gentle upbeat music)

- He came to our house to hang the drapes

because you had to get the drapes hung,

that was part of the deal and he was free.

And he hung them and they didn't do too well,

he came back and hung them a second time.

He was very quiet

and said all the things you're supposed to say,

"Oh hello, how are you?

"Good to see you again."

You know, but beyond that,

he didn't make any attempt to mingle with her clients.

And he asked us if we wanted to buy a painting.

And I must admit that the paintings,

I thought were the worst things I'd ever seen.

And we always say we were so smart,

we didn't buy one of his paintings, you know.

I never got him to sign the drapes, that's the trouble.

- We're looking at The Knight, parenthesis,

Self-Portrait by Lichtenstein.

It's from 1951,

the first year that he lived in Cleveland.

Lichtenstein's knight is hardly a knight in shining armor.

He's rendered in a childlike hand.

He looks more like a toy.

Common themes, common subjects

in the 1950s are tropes of medieval Europe

and ideals of the American west.

And he subjects that to the lens of children's art.

That's his lens for bringing down high culture.

It's this relationship to the high and the low.

In the 1960s, he's deflating ideals of fine art

through the lens of commercial culture and mass media.

Some of his audience might have been put

off by the fact that wait a minute,

this isn't art as we expect it to be.

- In 1952, Lichtenstein had a show in Cleveland,

and the critic of the Cleveland News

was a woman named Louise Bruner.

And she caused the biggest controversy

that Lichtenstein had ever had to date.

She wrote that he "draws like a child.

This is foolish.

It was terrible."

And what happened after that

is that all of the more progressive local artists

were interviewed and said this is good.

(lively orchestral music)

Then there were people were saying this is bad.

To have this much quote unquote news

about an art show was unusual.

(lively orchestral music)

- In the 1950s, you see him absorbing, you know,

the 1950s brings a proliferation of television.

There are record sales of television sets.

- E-Z Pop pops in its own pan.

- [Cartoon Voice] You mean E-Z Pop pops in its own pan?

- [Announcer] Now you're swinging, daddy, you crazy man.

- I watched TV while he did my portrait.

TV was the instant babysitter.

That's the only way I would sit still.

He was so shy.

I remember when he did that portrait,

my mother begged him twice to sign,

and finally he did.

My parents really became very close friends with them.

- One of the very few portraits that Roy painted.

He really didn't like painting portraits

but he was very friendly

with Carol's parents.

And Carol's father,

Carl Salus, was a psychiatrist

and Roy gave him some painting lessons.

- [Carol] For some people

he made mosaic tables for their homes.

- The mosaics were definitely something that was connected

to Isabel Lichtenstein's business.

I don't think he would have made them otherwise.

And there really are maybe between nine

and 12 different sorts of mosaic tables that he made.

And there are some really terrific ones.

- This is the mosaic tabletop

that Roy did for my bedroom as a child.

You can see already in 1951

the prefiguration of Ben Day Dots.

- Ben day dots.

One of the major innovations that's associated

with his career.

In Lichtenstein's hand

this is a painted rendering of a print code.

The Ben Day Dots were invented by Benjamin Day in 1879

as a technique to produce a printed image

by means of gradations of shading.

With the Ben Day Dots,

Lichtenstein is confusing the distinction

between the unique painted image

and the mechanically reproduced one.

He's taking the imagery that we're surrounded

by in our daily newspapers

and he's using that to reflect back to us

these facts of contemporary visual culture.

And that's actually to my mind

one of the things that's very exciting

about contemporary art, that it offers us new ways

to see the world that's surrounding us.

- I remember going to their house and what a mess it was.

They had paintings everywhere.

They had cupboards and they had paintings

on all the cupboards.

I never saw a house like that.

And she had fabric samples everywhere.

- Roy also encouraged her to paint.

So she actually did paint a little bit, too.

Roy taught her a little bit, but she was mostly self-taught.

So they're kind of a faux primitive.

But how much time she had

for that because she did eventually in Cleveland

in 1954 and 1956 have her two sons

and a very busy design business there, which she loved.

And she was the primary breadwinner for a while.

♪ When I was just a little girl ♪

♪ I asked my mother what will I be ♪

♪ Will I be pretty ♪

People used to tease Roy about her being the breadwinner.

I think he never minded, not just about the money

but he was perfectly happy with her success.

People thought they were weird.

♪ The future's not ours to see ♪

♪ Que sera sera ♪

♪ What will be will be ♪

- [Carol] He called him poppy.

He loved Picasso.

- Originally, apparently they wanted to name me Pablo

after both Picasso and Casals.

And they always called me Pabby up to a certain point.

And then I guess once I started school

and had to use my official name.

So I can kind of date people I knew

from early child who would still call me Pabby.

- I think Isabel loved being in Cleveland.

I think it was the apex of her career.

I don't think she minded running

a business and being the breadwinner.

Both of them were evolved enough

that they were okay with it.

But Roy Lichtenstein was unhappy.

Not because his wife was successful

but because he was spinning his wheels professionally.

The only way Roy Lichtenstein

was going to advance professionally

was to move away from Cleveland.

And the only way Isabel Lichtenstein

was going to be so fulfilled professionally

was to stay in Cleveland.

And of course that didn't happen.

The obverse of Isabel Lichtenstein being

the life of the party was that she was an alcoholic

which was not something that was understood

as a disease or treated well.

That was obviously a growing problem in the marriage,

although I think in Cleveland

while she was professionally fulfilled,

she was functioning quite well.

But when they moved to Oswego

and she lost her design business

she filled the time with drinking.

- I don't remember when I became

really aware of her drinking

but once I was aware of it

I don't know that she was ever not drunk.

It's just to what extreme.

There was the functioning part,

and then there was the conked out on the sofa part.

- [Avis] I don't know how much Roy Lichtenstein

could or couldn't do to stop it.

I mean, she was never to my knowledge

in AA or anything like that.

And women in those days often hid being alcoholics.

You could be at home drinking

and people wouldn't know.

You wouldn't have to go out on the streets.

- He had a job at Rutgers.

And then he ended up in Manhattan.

And the last time I remember being in his studio,

I think that was 1961,

and he made the rotisserie cooker

which you can see in every book now.

That's a pop art.

And I thought he was out of his mind.

- There was a big indigo blue chest of drawers

that was in the garage or utility room or something

and it was full of upholstery fabric

and curtain fabric and whatever.

They got mildewy-er and mildewy-er

as the years went on.

- I remember she said, "Roy's becoming so famous."

And then they were getting divorced.

(solemn piano music)

- Roy Lichtenstein always wanted to be an artist.

And that particular painting is almost the fable.

It's the archetypal fable of the dream come true.

It represents what happened to him and very few others.

But in his case,

reality actually outstripped his imagination.

All he ever wanted to do was get to New York

and have some kind of respectable career

and maybe not have to work all the time,

just be able to paint a little bit more.

And what happened was far more spectacular.

- You know, I remember arguments.

And then I remember when he sat us down

to tell us that they were going to separate,

and it was very upsetting.

I don't remember the words.

I just remember sitting on our beds

in our room and him telling us,

and I got very upset.

(gentle piano music)

- [Avis] She became more incapacitated

and I think kind of angry and sarcastic

and began to be resentful of Roy Lichtenstein.

- I think he couldn't take a alcoholic anymore.

I think it's good he got out.

For her whole life she never really tried to quit.

So he was right to get out and, you know, save himself.

She did love her kids.

Some of her paintings have us as kids and her

and they're kind of intertwined.

They're are primitive paintings.

And one that I'm thinking of has my brother and me

and her in the middle, and they're all kind of one person.

We grow out of her, basically.

Resurrection was the first film I directed.

It was a short film.

I'd been writing some short stories and stuff

so I had some material that could be made into a movie.

The look of the room is the last place

in Princeton that we lived

and the mother kind of drunk on the couch

and watching old movies with her son

and the pet monkey which she had

and the goat that we get in the house every once in a while.

So it was sort of the whole environment was accurate.

We had to milk the goat twice a day.

We kept it.

We did drink goats milk, not exclusively.

And I think most of it went down the drain.

She grew up on a farm

and she kind of tried to recreate the farm

in this suburban place.

(gentle piano music)

- And there she is, Aunt Isabel, and there you are.

And this was, what did we say that was, in 1976?

- I think that was her last visit.

- [Myrna] That was the last visit, you're right.

She don't look anything like she did when she was younger.

Well, first of all, she's wearing glasses.

- You remember, Myrna, talking to her

at all during that visit?

- [Myrna] I talked to her some

but I think the women kind of took over.

- She wasn't thinking very straight at that time.

She was mentally deteriorating.

She didn't understand, you know, all that.

It was just kind of a sad thing

but it was even more sad to me

to think that, you know, my sister

was failing mentally like that.

- Well, yeah, 'cause she was so sharp.

- I think you also have to understand

after they separated is that Roy Lichtenstein

in '63 did begin to make money.

All of the 60s paintings were sold

very soon after they were painted,

but he always supported Isabel

beyond alimony, beyond the children,

all the time from the beginning to the end.

- Her liver was about to go and she was hospitalized.

And I remember basically when she was taken away,

then her friends kind of saying,

"Okay, she's not gonna make it, get prepared."

And then she would come back.

- [Avis] Even when she was dying,

Roy was taking her to doctors

to see if there was anything she could do

because she eventually did have cancer.

And he paid for the funeral

and he got in touch with the relatives.

So he never forgot her.

(uplifting orchestral music)

- Who knows what the trajectory of her life would have been

if my father had gotten a job in Cleveland

so that she could stay and continue her business

and grow her business, or it had been a more modern time

and she didn't have to go

with her husband because he had a job

and give up hers.

- Roy Lichtenstein is one of the pioneers

who challenged convention

and opened our eyes to new styles of expression.

I hope that the pioneering spirit exemplified

by Roy Lichtenstein will always, always live

in the artists of America.

(audience applauding)

- Yeah, I have fond memories of her.

She was full life.

That's why probably why she was so good at decorating.

I think she lost her spirit there when she got older.

You know, things happen in your life

that makes it harder sometimes.

You don't know what you're gonna go through in life.

You have no idea.

(whimsical string music)

(slow gentle music)

- [Announcer] Funding of the WVIZ PBS ideastream production

of "Isabel and Roy" was provided

by the William M. Weiss Foundation.