By Stuart Mitchner
Robert Beck’s exhibition which opened on July 30 at the James A. Michener Art Museum is called “It’s Personal”. As Beck explains: “The majority of my paintings are done directly from the subject in one sitting. They portray where I am, what interests me and what it feels like to be there… The reason I was drawn to a subject has become part of the picture. It has become very personal.
I feel the same as I write about exhibitions, books or movies, or any other artistic subject, and that is why I consider these weekly adventures as chronicles, even though they have been categorized as “reviews.” Since I started writing them 17 years ago.
The state of mind of cinema
In Beck’s stormy, overflowing street scene Notions of love and novelties you can almost hear the strong wind and the water rushing through the gutter. Immediately I flashback through a stream of cinematic images, the heavy rainy night with gunshots. The great sleep, swept by shiny film noir headlights on wet pavement, to a 21st century TV series like AMC’s Stop and catch fire, where a father braves hurricanes and lightning on a Christmas quest to buy Cabbage Patch Kids for his children.
After 17 years of covering art exhibitions, including over 30 visits to the Michener, I also find allusions to Edward Hopper in the red brick building that houses Notions and novelties of love; dinner in Nightjars could be around the corner in the same neighborhood, maybe that’s where the man is heading, hat tight against the wind. Free associating other scenarios (The woman at the window on a double bill with He walked at night), it could be the consequences of a quarrel between the man in the street and the standing woman framed by one of the two lighted windows on the third floor. And what about the store with the large, bright, clean and well-lit display case? What kinds of “notions and novelties” are sold in such a store on a dark and stormy night? When I posed a version of this question to the artist, he told me, “Love has at least one thing that everyone who enters is looking for.
The second time
You could say the same of Second crossing (oil on panel, 1998). When I saw him up close and in person last Thursday afternoon, Beck’s drastic staging of a great American image took me by surprise. Unlike the familiar side view of The Christmas crossing from Delaware to Washington painted by Emanuel Leutze, it was a dark, phantasmal, semi-intelligible, vaguely threatening mass, emerging from the December shadows like a harsh beast rushing towards New Jersey to be born. The more I think about it, the more I am intrigued by Beck’s in-your-face alternative to the iconic original; and it is in fact more true to the documented fact that Washington left not during the daytime but at 2 a.m.
After searching in vain on the Net for a reproduction of Second crossing, I find myself doing a version of “memory painting” similar to what Beck does in his boxing series, Blue horizon. When I mentioned the mysterious absence online that tempted me to take liberties with interpretation, Beck pointed out that Second crossing is “very difficult to reproduce on paper”: “No one in the production believes the painting is so dark and they are always fiddling with it. “
There is a poor man’s O’Henry ending to this saga. When I looked at Beck’s Wikipedia page, hoping to find a link to the image, I found one to my own August 6, 2008 review of the group show “Art and the River” at the branch of short duration of Michener’s New Hope, where I described the painting that “took me by surprise”: “Second crossing is one of the most impressive works in the exhibition – a night scene in which you gaze head-on at the dark bow of the most famous ship that has ever crossed the Delaware.
I keep going back to the big bright window in Notions of love and novelties which stands out so brilliantly and so suggestively from its stormy setting. Beck’s suggestion that the store has “at least one thing anyone is looking for” might apply to the embarrassment of wealth that I have enjoyed over the years at Michener. The first show I covered, “The Art of Alan Magee” in January 2004, provided “a pictorial narrative” which gave me the opportunity to bring in Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Franz Kafka and the ” magical realism ”in the conversation, with a quote from Barry Lopez’s comment that“ walking through the gallery door you think how much you love your wife. How? ‘Or’ What? Because you have come back to life in the presence of the painting. You could put this on a sign and hang it on Love’s window.
Later that same year, I “came to life” by covering “Rock On! The Art of Music Poster, ”which I accompanied with Richard Avedon’s portrait of The Beatles as a four-man mountain range. The following shows featured the visions of Red Grooms of Astaire and Rogers, and Gertrude Stein; a Looney Tunes tour with Bugs Bunny; a walk to Broadway with Irving Berlin; visionary imagery by Ansel Adams; and Romare Bearden’s “visual jazz”.
One of my favorite Michener shows was “American Icons,” a Muhammed Ali / Elvis Presley feature double. Because Ali’s exhibition was still in progress when I arrived, I spent some quality time with the intimate photographs of Elvis of Al Wertheimer transformed by master printer David Adamson into works of grand magnificence. format.
“From Swords to Plowshares”, about the art of the metal trenches of World Wars I and II, was part of a series of stimulating Michener performances during the first decade of the new century. In 2005, it was “Impossible to forget: the Nazi camps fifty years later”, and in 2007, the extraordinary portraits of soldiers of Suzanne Opton returning from deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq, without forgetting the complementary exhibition “Fire and Ice: Marine Corps Combat Art From Afghanistan and Iraq, ”featuring drawings and watercolors by Marine Warrant Officer Michael Fay.
A study in the rain
Regarding Notions of love and novelties (24 × 30, oil on panel 2004), Robert Beck writes: “At the time, I had a studio and gallery on the second floor of the Masonic Hall building on Bridge Street in Lambertville. What started out as a study in the rain, involving episodes where I stood in front of doors and under awnings outside during thunderstorms, trying to figure out what a downpour looked like, evolved into something of a little more personal. It was a stormy time, and I already knew that incorporating images from my own experiences often found agreement in others, and I encouraged that memory in my images. This dual objective: developing a vocabulary and sharing common understandings has propelled my work for three decades.
“It’s Personal: The Art of Robert Beck,” curated by David Leopold, will be on view until January 2, 2022. Open Thursday through Sunday, the museum is located at 138 South Pine Street in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. For more information visit michenerartmuseum.org.