Tuesday, August 2nd, 2011

Pattern, Decoration and Tony Robbin

This essay is taken from the catalog of the exhibition, Tony Robbin: A Retrospective Paintings and Drawings 1970-2010, that runs at the Orlando Museum of Art, August 20 to October 30, 2011.  The publication, which also includes contributions by Carter Ratcliff, George Francis, and Linda Dalrymple Henderson, is available from Hudson Hills.

In March 2010, painters Joyce Kozloff and Robert Kushner sat at their computers to write an appreciation of Tony Robbin’s work and his participation in the Pattern and Decoration movement of the 1970s and 1980s. In reviewing the P & D reunion exhibition at the Hudson River Museum, the critic Holland Cotter called the work of these artists “the last genuine art movement of the 20th century, which was also the first and only art movement of the post-modern era and may prove to be the last art movement ever” (New York Times, January 15, 2008). Kozloff, Kushner, Robbin, and the other artists identified with this group have gone on to distinguished individual careers, yet all of them retain the energy and imagery of their original enthusiasms.

Tony Robbin, Persian, 1973. Acrylic on canvas, 70 x 140 inches.  Courtesy of the Artist
Tony Robbin, Persian, 1973. Acrylic on canvas, 70 x 140 inches. Courtesy of the Artist

The early 1970s was a period of intense exploration, on a societal as well as an individual level. The “anything goes, everything should be questioned” attitude of the 1960s was still in full force, not just the simple feel-good quality of Woodstock but, more importantly, a thoughtful analysis of every social system. The art world and the responsibility of the individual artist were no exception. RK

For me, it was the women’s movement, which exploded in my life in 1970. We questioned all our relationships, everything we had ever learned in school, and the very nature of art. Many of us cut our activist teeth in political groups; despite their moments of conflict, there was so much joy, optimism, energy, even utopianism. Tony Robbin was part of maverick curator Marcia Tucker’s improvisational theater group and a member of a men’s consciousness-raising group, before we formed the Pattern and Decoration movement. JK

For those who did not experience the art world of those years, it is nearly impossible to envision the monolithic acceptance of minimal and formalist thought. For gallery and museum acceptance, if the art was industrial-looking, rectangular, and gray, black, or white, it was shown. Grids, so long as they remained uninflected, were acceptable. Everything else (except color field painting, which today can be viewed as Technicolor minimalism) seemed to be marginalized. This simply did not fit many of our temperaments. Gray was boring. We wanted our art to be a lasting experience that took a great deal of time to decode fully. RK

But this dominant aesthetic was out of sync with the rush of pleasure emerging from the counter-culture and the sexual revolution. Adventurous artists were searching for role models in nontraditional arts, and gender boundaries were becoming porous. We were seeing films from all over the globe and listening to world music. The hermeticism and provincialism of the New York art world became painfully obvious. JK

Art that led out of the “art box,” away from a cold Minimalism, was essential as a reflection of our desire to create a rich, complex and encompassing art. We were even willing to accept that taboo word—decoration. Earlier, to say that a work was “decorative” signified a trivial intention. We all took on that burden and declared that the decorative was the only way to fully describe the kinds of sources we were looking at and incorporating into our art. RK

In the fall of 1974, there was a Pattern Painting panel chaired by Mario Yrisarry at the Artists Talk on Art series (public discussions that took place every week in Soho). Valerie Jaudon described it: “The other artists on the panel were grid, color, geometrical, or hard edge painters, so there was a lot of talk about systems, modules, and mathematics as we met several times that fall to discuss the panel agenda.” [Valerie Jaudon, Robert Kushner, and Joyce Kozloff, “Pattern and Decoration,” in Patterns: Monstring (Odense: Kunsthallen Brandts Klaedefabrik, 2000), p. 72.]

Then, in early January 1975, a small group convened in Robert Zakanitch’s studio. He and Miriam Schapiro, who had been teaching in California and had recently returned to New York, were talking to one another about pattern and decoration, and that was invigorating their painting. Robert invited painter Tony Robbin and critic Amy Goldin, who was struggling to find a language to address and describe non-Western and decorative arts. Miriam brought me. Two weeks later, there was a second gathering, to which Amy invited Bob Kushner and Kim MacConnel. I remember that they brought pieces of fabric with them and had already developed a close dialogue. We each recall those days differently, but there were two powerful subjects that wove through our discussions: a rejection of current art modes and an excitement in the discovery of other forms. Some had early memories that resonated deeply (Zakanitch’s grandmother’s wallpaper, Schapiro’s yard sales, and trips up and down the escalators at Bloomingdale’s). Tony had spent his childhood in Japan and Okinawa, and he lived in Iran for several years as a teenager, because his father worked as a lawyer for the U.S. government abroad. JK

Both Japan and Iran are cultures that have evolved and valued their own decorative traditions over centuries. These experiences of a foreign land, where two-dimensional pattern fills such an important place, were not lost on Tony. There may not have been an agreed-upon definition for the decorative, but each of us, following our individual paths, had stumbled on a manner of art making that was full of information and reference to other cultures; and we had abstracted statements about the varying complexity that we liked to look at. Tony Robbin was right in the middle of this dialogue. RK

After a long exchange, we named ourselves “Pattern and Decoration,” an unwieldy mouthful, but one that encompassed our disparate passions. Soon the meeting was larger, with twice as many participants from both “pattern” clusters, but there was such a variety of aesthetics and points of view that it was harder to find a common discourse. JK

The dialogue in those early days was heady and exciting. Many of us approached the decorative as an extension of a strongly fought feminist agenda, a celebration of the anonymity and sometimes desperate escapism of what had been called women’s work. Many had traveled abroad and seen work that inspired us to go home and replicate the complexity of that Mesoamerican carving, weaving, or wall decoration in our own paintings. RK

The Islamic wing opened at the Metropolitan Museum in 1975, and in 1976 the Smithsonian launched its decorative arts museum, the Cooper-Hewitt, in New York. We would rush to the many important shows of world ornament and discuss them at length. Tony was profoundly affected by Indian Painting at the Asia Society in 1968; A King’s Book of Kings at the Met in 1972; A Flower from Every Meadow, Indian Paintings from American Collections at Asia Society in 1973; and Four Centuries of Fashion: Classical Kimono from the Kyoto National Museum at the Japan Society in 1977. In the early 1970s, Tony and his wife, Rena Kosersky, collected quilts, which were still affordable then: they especially liked a wedding-ring quilt and another with a fan pattern. More significantly, they traveled to Mexico in 1970, where he witnessed the ingeniously varied bands of geometric stone patterns on the temples at Mitla; on a longer excursion to Japan during the summer of 1972, they saw lots of kimono and obi, woodblock prints, and Nara decoration. JK

Members of the group participated in several public panel discussions at the Artists Talk on Art series and another session at the annual meeting of the College Art Association in Los Angeles, where there were heated arguments with artists in the audience. Our ideas had become controversial and timely. We soon had champions and detractors in the art press (besides Goldin, the champions included Jeff Perrone, Carrie Rickey, Carter Ratcliff, April Kingsley, and John Perreault). The first show, 10 Approaches to the Decorative, was curated by Jane Kaufman at the Alessandra Gallery in 1976, and Jeff Perrone wrote a thoughtful article about it in Artforum. He argued that there was not much commonality in the way the work looked, as we each truly approached the decorative separately, but we were connected by a desire to adapt decorative impulses into a contemporary art practice. RK and JK

Tony Robbin, 2008-O-6, 2008.  Oil on canvas, 56 x 70 inches.  Courtesy of the Artist
Tony Robbin, 2008-O-6, 2008. Oil on canvas, 56 x 70 inches. Courtesy of the Artist

From the beginning, Tony Robbin’s involvement with four-dimensional geometry was seen as a distinguishing feature. Perrone wrote: “This three-sectioned work is partially covered with a hexagon pattern filled in with sections of spotted spray paint. But the overall impression is of a deep, opaque, outer-space-like color range situated in the rust, dark and olive green range. It has outright illusionistic, receding geometric forms which are rendered in outline alone, and create ambiguous readings of the space. . . . .Robbin’s interest in illusion and ‘pleasure through visual complexity’ does not isolate him in this decoration show. For those artists using shiny materials, there is the illusion of light through reflection and the illusion of real jewels; there is the illusion of space defined by flat forms that are made ambiguous through segmentation; there is the illusion that is disguised allusion (original forms which look like traditional forms). . . .The illusion may occur in the eye, but it is neither manipulative, nor an end in itself.”JK [Jeff Perrone, “Approaching the Decorative,” Artforum (December 1976). P. 30]

A large, early survey of Pattern Painting at P.S. 1, curated by John Perreault in 1977, presented the full range of these strategies. A few of the braver gallerists showed our work. In those early years, Holly Solomon represented Robert Kushner, Robert Zakanitch, Valerie Jaudon, Ned Smyth, Kim MacConnel, and Brad Davis; Tibor de Nagy represented Richard Kalina and Joyce Kozloff and later Tony Robbin; Tony Alessandra represented Miriam Schapiro, Tony Robbin, and Jane Kaufman; and Pam Adler represented Cynthia Carlson and Barbara Zucker. JK and RK

Tony Robbin had come to those early meetings with a fully formed aesthetic, an infinitely expanding linear grid with three- and four-dimensional geometric references. His color sense, a series of jewel-like tones: amethyst, sapphire, turquoise accented with triangles and wedges of pure cadmium reds and yellows. The plane of his paintings glimmered and sparkled with textured areas of color. His aesthetic of more rather than less visual information fit right in with the general concerns of the entire group. While some of us talked about dollhouses, doilies, Islamic tessellation, and tribal weaving, Tony brought to the table his explorations in the cerebral world of fourth-dimensional mathematics. RK

Robbin’s interest in space dated back to his student years with Al Held, but he bent that macho aesthetic to incorporate flattened passages of tender, delicate pattern and orientalist undertones. He experimented with 3-D glasses and began to collaborate with engineers and scientists. The paintings expanded and pushed those shapes further and further, back and forth, and there was even a series in which wires extended out of them. In 1979 he wrote: “For two thousand years, over half of the globe, art has been pattern art. Pleasure of lyric color and calligraphy, whether expressed figuratively or geometrically, is intrinsic to the confidence gained in knowing the multiple, simultaneous structure. Omniattentive seeing—knowing space—may be a specific form of consciousness originating in a different and more powerful part of the brain than we usually use.”JK [Tony Robbin, “Patterned Space: The 2nd through the 4th Dimension,” exh. cat. (Jacksonville, FL: Art Sources Inc., 1979), inside front cover.]

We listened to each other, expanded our range of references, mildly disagreed at times, but the most important factor was that we were all on a quest: to change the art world, and perhaps the world at large for the better. RK

Tony Robbin, Japanese Footbridge, 1972. Acrylic on canvas, 70 x 144 inches. Courtesy of the Artist
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Tony Robbin, 2004-4, 2004. Acrylic on canvas, 56 x 70 inches.  Collection of the Artist
click to enlarge