“What It Feels Like To Be There”: Celebrating the Art of Robert Beck
By Stuart Mitchner
The Robert Beck exhibit that opened July 30 at the James A. Michener Art Museum is titled “It’s Personal.” As Beck explains, “The majority of my paintings are done directly from the subject in one sitting. They depict where I am, what catches my interest, and what it feels like to be there .… The reason why I was drawn to a subject became part of the image. It got very personal.”
I feel the same way whether I’m writing about exhibits or books or films, or any other subject in the arts, and it’s why I think of these weekly adventures as columns, even though they’ve been categorized as “reviews” ever since I began writing them some 17 years ago.
In Beck’s stormy, mood-drenched street scene Love’s Notions and Novelties you can almost hear the gale-force wind and the water rushing in the gutter. Immediately I’m flashbacking through a stream of cinematic imagery, from the heavy-rain-with-gunshots-night of The Big Sleep, swept with film noir headlights gleaming on wet pavement, to a 21st-century television series like AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire, where a father braves hurricane winds and lightning on a Christmas quest to buy Cabbage Patch Kids for his children.
After 17 years covering art exhibits, including 30-plus visits to the Michener, I’m also finding intimations of Edward Hopper in the red-brick building that houses Love’s Notions and Novelties; the diner in Nighthawks could be on a street corner in the same neighborhood, maybe that’s where the man’s headed, hat-held-fast against the wind. Free associating other scenarios (The Woman in the Window on a double bill with He Walked By Night), this could be the aftermath of a quarrel between the man on the street and the standing woman framed by one of two lighted third floor windows. And what about the shop with the big bright clean-well-lighted display window? What sort of “notions and novelties” are being sold in such a shop on a dark and stormy night? When I put a version of this question to the artist, he said “Love’s has at least one thing that anyone who enters is looking for.”
Second Time Around
You could say the same of Second Crossing (oil on panel, 1998). When I saw it up close and in person last Thursday afternoon, Beck’s radical restaging of a Great American Image caught me by surprise. In contrast to the familiar side view of Washington’s Christmas crossing of the Delaware painted by Emanuel Leutze, this was a dark, phantasmal, semi-intelligible, vaguely menacing mass glooming out of the December darkness like some rough beast slouching toward New Jersey to be born. The more I think about it, the more I’m intrigued by Beck’s in-your-face alternative to the iconic original; and it’s actually truer to the documented fact that Washington set off not by day but at 2 a.m.
Having searched the Net in vain for a reproduction of Second Crossing, I find myself doing a version of “painting from memory” akin to what Beck does in his boxing series, Blue Horizon. When I mentioned the mysterious online absence that has tempted me to take some interpretive liberties, Beck pointed out that Second Crossing is “very difficult to reproduce in print”: “Nobody in production believes the painting is that dark and they always fiddle with it.”
There’s a poor man’s O’Henry ending to this saga. When I checked Beck’s Wikipedia page, hoping for a link to the image, I found one to my own August 6, 2008 review of the group exhibit “Art and the River” at the Michener’s short-lived New Hope branch, where I described the painting that “caught me by surprise”: “Second Crossing is among the most impressive works in the show — a night scene in which you’re staring head-on at the dark prow of the most famous boat that ever crossed the Delaware.”
I keep returning to the big bright window in Love’s Notions and Novelties that stands out so brilliantly and suggestively against its stormy setting. Beck’s suggestion that the store offers “at least one thing anyone who enters is looking for” could be applied to the embarrassment of riches I’ve enjoyed over the years at the Michener. The first show I covered, “The Art of Alan Magee” in January 2004, provided “a narrative in images” that gave me a chance to bring Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Franz Kafka, and “magic realism” into the conversation, along with a quote from Barry Lopez’s commentary to the effect that “as you walk out the door of the gallery, you’re thinking how much you love your wife. How so? Because you came to life again in the presence of the painting.” You could put that on a sign and hang it in Love’s window.
Later the same year I “came to life” covering “Rock On! The Art of the Music Poster,” which I accompanied with Richard Avedon’s portrait of the Beatles as a four-man mountain range. Subsequent shows featured Red Grooms visions of Astaire and Rogers, and Gertrude Stein; a Looney Tunes visit with Bugs Bunny; a walk up Broadway with Irving Berlin; the visionary imagery of Ansel Adams; and the “visual jazz” of Romare Bearden.
One of my favorite Michener exhibits was “American Icons,” a Muhammed Ali/Elvis Presley double feature. Because the Ali show was still being set up when I arrived, I spent quality time with Al Wertheimer’s intimate photographs of Elvis transformed by master printer David Adamson into works of large-format magnificence.
“From Swords to Plowshares,” about metal trench art from World Wars I and II, was one in a series of thought-provoking Michener shows in the first decade of the new century. In 2005 it was “Impossible to Forget: The Nazi Camps Fifty Years After,” and in 2007 Suzanne Opton’s extraordinary portraits of soldiers back from deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention the companion exhibition, “Fire and Ice: Marine Corps Combat Art From Afghanistan and Iraq,” featuring Marine Warrant Officer Michael Fay’s drawings and watercolors.
A Study in Rain
Concerning Love’s Notions and Novelties (24×30, oil on panel 2004), Robert Beck writes, “At the time, I maintained 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 rain, involving episodes where I would stand in doorways and under awnings outside in thunderstorms, trying to understand what makes a downpour look like it does, evolved into something a little more personal. It was a tempestuous time, and I already knew that incorporating imagery from my own experiences often found agreement in others, and I was encouraging that recollection in my images. This dual purpose: developing a vocabulary and sharing common understandings has propelled my work for three decades.”
“It’s Personal: The Art of Robert Beck,” which was curated by David Leopold, will be on view through January 2, 2022. Open Thursday through Sunday, the museum is located at 138 South Pine Street in Doylestown, Pa. For more information visit michenerartmuseum.org.