The Work of Renowned Painter Robert Beck Is On View in Two Important Exhibitions
CONVERSATION AND COMMUNICATION: “Every painting I do, I set a challenge for myself, something I hope to learn and solve. It’s all part of my life and the viewer’s. I try to give my viewers something to think about. It’s a conversation — purposeful communication.” Painter Robert Beck is shown in his Solebury, Pa., studio. (Photo by Bob Krist).
By Jean Stratton
Beauty, it is said, is in the eye of the beholder. So it is, also, that the meaning of a piece of art is unique to each beholder. It may stimulate one’s imagination, evoke a special memory, or introduce a new way of looking at something that appears familiar.
The work of painter Robert Beck does all of this. With their immediacy and compelling communication, his paintings engage the viewer’s attention and mindfulness, and indeed, recognition.
Currently, his work is the focus of two exhibitions: “It’s Personal: The Art of Robert Beck” at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pa., and “Robert Beck: Recent Works” at Morpeth Contemporary, the gallery in Hopewell.
Having taken up painting professionally at the age of 40, he has been remarkably successful. The recipient of many awards and honors, Beck has exhibited his work in numerous museums, galleries, and other locations. His paintings are sought by art lovers, both knowledgeable collectors and individuals new to the world of art. He has something to say to everyone.
His creative journey actually began when he was a boy. His family enjoyed the arts, and as he recalls, “Art was a part of life in my family. My father was a scientist, but talented with a pencil, and he would often draw his colleagues and others, including actors.
“He did beautiful pencil drawings from photos of famous people, many on Navy stationery, while on a Pacific island in World War II. This was a huge influence on me as a child. I recognized early that visual imagery was a powerful language.”
Beck was also exposed to art classes in school, and enjoyed sketching and painting, but he had other interests too. Sports and music were important, and with a wide range of activities to engage him, he didn’t focus on any one pastime exclusively.
His family moved from New Jersey to Bucks County, Pa., when he was 13, and this was to have a significant influence on him, both personally and ultimately professionally.
His interest in painting continued over the years and, during his business career as a graphic artist for a packaging company, he regularly painted on weekends. As he says, “I’d see something, and I’d wonder if I could paint it.”
Then everything changed when, at the age of 40, he left his job, and enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. While he had already had success, including earning commissions for his portraits, he felt he needed more education in art. “I knew that if I wanted to paint for a living, I had to learn from good people.”
In addition, he points out, “At 40, I thought there was an opportunity to move forward. Could I be successful? I felt I could make a difference, that I had a voice, had something to say.”
In 1992, after two years at the Academy, he decided to venture forth, and see what the art world had in store for him. He gravitated to the New Hope/Lambertville area, which was a gathering place for many artists, and he became a part of that community.
He also began moving away from portraiture, and found that the location offered many opportunities for his creativity — whether landscapes, on-site documentary painting from life, or studio work.
The Bucks County area is known as the Birthplace of Pennsylvania Impressionism, and has a storied artistic history. But as curator David Leopold, who organized and catalogued the “It’s Personal” Michener exhibit, notes, “He did not want to recreate the paintings done by so many other historic artists of the area.”
Instead, Beck often emphasized everyday scenes and places, such as bars, restaurants, shops, sports events, etc. “I focus on things we could all recognize and that we have in common during our time,” he explains.
Because of the wide range of his work, he doesn’t fit neatly into any particular category. As he points out, “I referred to myself as an ‘everything painter’ because my subject pool is vast. Of the ‘isms’ in art history, I best fit into the Ashcan School, an early to mid-century turn towards the every day. Subjects of our time and place, and occupations.”
Style and Subject
“I’m describing my life as it unfolds and the world it reveals,” Beck continues. “It’s the singularity of my work in style and subject that makes it hard to categorize by comparing it to other artists or movements. It’s my attempt to describe things that I respond to which is, as the museum title says, personal.”
As he writes in the Michener Museum catalog, “I am not a landscape painter, a Bucks County painter, or the next whoever. I paint the things life parades in front of me: nudes, bi-planes, moonlight on the river, and a Volkswagen bug. It shows how much I enjoy a parade.”
The “relatable” aspect of his work is one of the reasons it is so appealing to many viewers. Leopold points this out, “Rather than try to categorize his work, the question becomes ‘why does it resonate with so many viewers?’ I believe that besides the quality of his technique, he creates compositions that people can relate to.”
Adds Laura Turner Igoe, chief curator of the Michener Museum, “Beck is adept at capturing not just the look but the feeling or impression of a moment. His paintings convey a strong sense of community and belonging that resonates with many of us…. Bob does not simply paint what he sees, he paints to understand, interpret, and reveal.”
Whether it’s a rainstorm in Lambertville, a boat in a Maine fog, or a Manhattan blizzard, the scenes Beck creates become very real. “His work can make your feet feel cold when looking at his painting Blizzard,” notes Leopold.
He paints a woodworker in his work setting; a gas station; a boxing match; a railroad yard; an icy pond at night with skaters; a Bucks County road in autumn; sheep and lambs; and his dog, Jack; as well as New York City’s Carnegie Hall and Woolworth Building, and Second Crossing, his own interpretation of General Washington crossing the Delaware. His range is so extensive that selecting favorites is a challenge.
In addition to his work focusing on the Bucks Country/Lambertville area, Beck has a selection of paintings from the American west, Europe, and Africa. These journeys offered new experiences, opportunities, and subjects for his brush and vision.
Another new adventure for him was his travel to Jonesport, a remote fishing village on the Maine coast, which he encountered for the first time many years ago, and continues to visit regularly.
“I go to Jonesport because there is a truth I don’t find elsewhere,” he has said. “Theirs is a demanding and prescribed existence.”
“Beck embarked on a series of paintings whose goal was to examine the many different facets of how life is lived in a working town along the Maine coast,” writes Leopold. “He painted fishermen and boat builders, church dinners and lobster boils, all with his distinctive short, sharp brush strokes and suggestion of details.”
When the Maine Maritime Museum mounted a show of Beck’s Maine work in 2016, executive director Amy Lent, referring to his observation of life in Jonesport, wrote: “He translates those observations into images that tell a story — and he does it as the best artists do, by finding and capturing the spirit of the scene. The viewer doesn’t just see the moment as represented on canvas, but also feels it.”
This ability to translate images into feelings is a special gift, and it may stem from Beck’s desire to understand what he himself is looking at, as he begins to paint, and to be open to the ways in which it may unfold.
“The way I work is that if you know exactly what you’re going to paint and the pathway to get there, it’s not creative. Things will unfold haphazardly, although we can add some control — after 30 years, I do have a tool box (figuratively, with the experience of knowing how to create a particular image) but the good stuff (and the bad) can come out of nowhere. It just happens.
“I have hunches about what will work. How to express a scene. I do have a narrative in my head. But every brush stroke is a consideration. Those things an artist learns when continuously chasing new and different ideas: discoveries, approaches, mistakes, solutions — all become part of a method. A lexicon.”
This can be true whether he is painting on site from life (plein air) or in a studio.
“It starts with a launching point, a challenge, an interest,” he explains. “My painting Love’s Notions and Novelties started with rain, a downpour. How to paint it? Once I decided on how the rain would look, I had to create a setting and then a narrator.” So then came a building, and a figure pushing forward, hat brim pulled down against the rain in his face.
“I love weather,” adds Beck. “Rain, snow, fog!”
Documentary paintings done on site can produce their own challenges, he reports. If it’s an event within a time frame, he must work to complete it under that pressure of time. Objects, light, etc. can come in and out of the frame. Things may change all the time, adding still more challenge.
He enjoys that aspect of his work, however, and the focus that is necessary to achieve the desired outcome. “I am proudest of those paintings when the path I took was the hardest, but I was able to achieve what I set out to do.”
Awards and Honors
Beck is also proud to be the recipient of many awards and honors (29 significant painting awards), including his selection as Honored Artist at the Phillips Mill Exhibition in 2017, and the New Hope Art Center Legacy Artist in 2018. His work has been presented in 30 solo gallery exhibitions, and his paintings have been accepted to more than 70 juried exhibits.
He is especially honored to have his work selected for three in-depth solo museum exhibitions: the Michener Art Museum, the Trenton City Museum at Ellarsie, and the Maine Maritime Museum.
He is honored, too, to be the current subject of the Morpeth Contemporary gallery in Hopewell, which will include both studio images and on site work from life.
“You know right away they are Bob’s paintings,” says gallery owner Ruth Morpeth, who first exhibited Beck’s paintings in 1997. “They have always connected with people, and each exhibition reveals an expansion of depth and eloquence. The images are engaging and deftly painted. They mean something.
In addition, she continues, “What I most appreciate about Bob as an artist is basically what I admire in him as a person. There is no formula. With his gift, he could easily paint with less intention, but he never has. His paintings are direct and sincere, just like him.”
As meaningful as the awards and exhibitions are, he is particularly grateful to all those from the community who have supported and enjoyed his work. “There has been so much support evolving from the community and area. The way people respond to my work means so much to me.”
“A Thousand Words”
He adds that he enjoys the interaction with the public at his museum and gallery exhibitions. “I like to meet the visitors, and talk about the art. They have a chance to hear about the path that led to those things on the wall. And they may understand my work in a different or new way.”
In addition to his painting, Beck writes a monthly column, “A Thousand Words,” for ICON, the art magazine published in New Hope, Pa. The irony of that title is not lost on him, and he says that writing the column is an enjoyable endeavor for him, one that he looks forward to continuing.
He is certainly a communicator, whether through his written or visual essays. His amazing body of art work is impressive on many levels, and as he says, “I love painting, and I want people to enjoy looking at my paintings.
“Art is all about imagination and discovery, free from the rigorous pursuit of objectivity and proof. Art is us at our best, experimenting with ways to communicate complex thoughts, and constantly asking, ‘What if?’
“In addition to being all-embracing, art is eloquent. A thought of immense proportion and reach can be conjured up by a few touches of a brush, and understood by people anywhere in the world.
“As I get older, the territory changes, and my work adjusts to the contour of my life. There is no road map. I couldn’t have guessed I’d be where I am, and I don’t know what’s next. I don’t want to put myself somewhere. I want it to unfold in front of me. That has worked so far. I consider myself the luckiest guy on the planet!”
The Michener Art Museum exhibition will run through January 2, 2022. It is located at 138 Pine Street, Doylestown, Pa. For further information, call (215) 340-9800, or visit michenerartmuseum.org.
The Morpeth Contemporary exhibit will be on view October 8 through October 31. It is located at 43 West Broad Street in Hopewell. Hours are Wednesday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and by appointment. (609) 333-9393. Website: morpethcontemporary.com.