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 Robert Bartlett Richenburg  (1917 - 2006)

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Lived/Active: New York/Massachusetts      Known for: abstract expressionist painting, art educator

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
An Abstract Expressionist painter and also a long-time art teacher, Robert Richenburg was known for "ominous paintings in which fields of black were punctuated by bursts of color and line."  Of his signature works, a critic in a 1959 review wrote: "This painting must symbolize the most terrifying aspects of metropolitan life."

Richenburg was a student of Hans Hofmann, and was very much a part of the hey-day activities of Abstract Expressionism in the mid 1950s in New York City.  In 1951, after serving in World War II, he was invited to exhibit at the Ninth Street Show, which was the exhibition, supervised by dealer Leo Castelli, that helped establish the New York School of painting. 

He earned money at that time by teaching at Pratt Institute, but resigned in 1964 over the administrations objection to him encouraging a student who was making assemblages out of rags and tin foil.  He then took a job teaching at Cornell University and moved to Ithaca with his wife and son.  This change meant that he focused more on his teaching than his art work, but he never stopped painting.  In the 1980s, thanks to the support of Bonnie Grad, an art professor at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, exhibitions were held of his work.

In 2006, a 60-year retrospective was held at the Sidney Mishkin Gallery at Baruch College in Manhattan.

Robert Richenburg died at age 89 at his home in East Hampton, New York.

Randy Kennedy, "Robert Richenburg, 89, Artist of Abstract Expressionist Works", The New York Times Obituaries, October 13, 2006, A23

Biography from David Findlay Jr. Gallery:
"Robert Richenburg has a romantic style in which perceptual experience is reconstructed.  An image flicks on: a city at night lit up by grids of light, then off: just paint?a matte black skin peeled off to let through a substrata of shiny oil and high-key color.  The two levels are as antagonistic as rocks and the sea; however, there is a unity of opposites.  White and black separate from the attributes of substance and produce an illusion of light. It is not a painted illusion of light. It is not a painted illusion but a perpetual one that is culled from the naturalistic accidents of paint. Orders such as rows of window shapes and brick patterns make the illusion specific. Buildings are seen?sometimes at night, sometimes blurred by movement, sometimes so close that romantic epigrams and erosion are visible."
Natalie Edgar, Art News (1961)

Robert Richenburg, one of the more forceful Abstractionists in New York, explores the conflict between a forbidding repression and a flamboyant sensuality, between masculine will and feminine passion, and between dark and light... [His] abstractions are intense, original and commanding.
Irving Sandler, Art News (1963)

What exactly did it mean for a painter like Robert Richenburg to be labeled a "romantic" in early sixties New York?  The redolent language used in Natalie Edgar's review quoted above continued a line of commentary?by then popular for well over a decade?often used to characterize the best of Abstract Expressionist achievement.  To cite two precedents out of many, when artist-critic Elaine DeKooning was given the opportunity (in 1950 in the same magazine) to showcase sculptor David Smith's authenticity as a three dimensional equivalent of Action painting, she presented his "authority" as deeply intertwined with "romantic" isolation and new methods of industry. Robert Motherwell's reply to The Museum of Modern Art Bulletin's 1951 question "What abstract art means to me," found him describing advanced New York painting as "a fundamentally romantic response to modern life," both rebellious and individualistic.  Thus Edgar was situating Richenburg in good company indeed.

As Caroline Jones has explained, the standard for "artist at work" photographs taken c.1950-c.1962 (right up to the point when Pop Art burst upon the scene) likewise indicates that the romantic ideal of the solitary individual in his "semi-sacred studio space" exemplified, during that period, a revered prototype of American individualism at work.  Hans Namuth's photos of Pollock are the best known example of this persistent stereotype and they set the model for everybody else.  Once again, Richenburg was no exception. Working in Provincetown in the summer of 1952, he too was captured (by Maurice Berezov) in the de rigeur romantic mode of the day: framed by two of his recently finished large works, wearing dark T-shirt and jeans, a cigarette dangling from his lips, the lanky young artist concentrates his attention on preparing to paint another of his "original and commanding" creations.

In line with the tenets of romanticism first developed in the late 19th century, both Natalie Edgar and Irving Sandler highlight the play of oppositions in their praise of Richenburg's signature canvases, the "Black Paintings" he developed during the decade the that followed Berezov's photograph.  One of the very best of these, his magisterial 1960 symbolist canvas Homage to Valéry, forms the centerpiece of the current exhibition. Matte black versus color, substance versus light, repression as opposed to sensuality, masculine will versus feminine passion, and nature in contradistinction to the city: all seem to be at play in the motivation and facture of these distinctive not complacent composition.  In fact, the year before Homage to Valéry was completed, reviewer Lawrence Campbell suggested that the crux of Richenburg's very personal modus operandi was his involvement in "guiding" his canvases "to their destination through a series of catastrophes."

Following the interest of critics of that day in delineating artistic process, Campbell judged that Richenburg "seems to work in an automatist trance weaving a wonderful complexity, tossing paint into a sea of multi-colored surf.  Then he pulls across it a curtain of paint as black as Egypt's night. When dry, he digs back into it, discovering bit by bit the forms of his painting."  He likens the ensuing effect to encrusted jewels beneath the rubble of later civilizations; "the signs and symbols one discovers" layered into Richenburg's canvases, Campbell proclaimed, have all the magic of primitive art.  Others detected a religious metaphor that Richenburg himself (romantically) allowed as possibly playing an unconscious role: "For me", he wrote at the time, "the city at night is a vast graveyard of illuminated stones...Perhaps my work partakes of all three: the religious, the decorative, and the city night. If the decoration comes in at all, I hope that it comes in as it does in the early stained glass windows which were made to adorn a cathedral and pierce its bottled darkness with illuminations of the evening soul." (Quoted in Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Paintings by Robert Richenburg, August 1-27, 1961)

Semi-abstract works of the late forties and 1950s, such as Centerhold of 1948 (another poetic reference, this time to Yeats); Ship of Fire, a mythic allusion of the following year; and the semi-figurative, deceptively bright Peril of 1951?all seen in this exhibition as well, prepare the viewer for Richenburg's efflorescence in the early '60s.  Trying out (and then effacing) the lessons of Pollock in works like 1959s Dark Opening provided a final step necessary for undertaking the content inherent in another opposition, this time of style.  As Sandler points out, (in works like Homage to Valéry and Peacemaker of 1961) Richenburg sets up a tension between "rigid quasi-geometric structures and abandoned Action Painting (and such symbols of man's nakedness and vulnerability as the bare footprints in End of the Trail)." In his parenthetical statement, the critic refers to another of the "Dionysiac counter-motifs" that shines through the inky latticework of Richenburg's most intense "Black Paintings."

What a surprise then (or is it?) to find the artist Having a Good Time by the 1980s with more loosely organized repetitions of runic forms worked out in the lighter mediums of plastic or enamel on paper on masonite.  Sometimes these pictographs are combines with figurative and?as is also the case with Lost in Thought of 1988?deceptively cartoon-like autobiographic references.  Certainly less "disturbing" or "insistent and crazed" (terms Dore Ashton employed to describe Richenburg's passionate late 50s compositions), but in their own way no less visceral and associative in their effect, these more recent works extended the implications of his Hofmann-influenced fascination with the counter pointing of improvisation and control.

Concurring with a comment made by Stuart Preston in 1961 in The New York Times, I believe that Richenburg's choice in one of the key works of his career to pay homage to the French poet Paul Valéry remains an apt metaphor for his own artistic beliefs.  As Preston points out, "Valéry's conviction that the creative act is in itself the subject and theme of artistic creation is certainly paralleled in abstract painting." Following in the footsteps of both Valéry and Goya (another of his personal heroes), during a career that has spanned over six decades, the art of Robert Richenburg continues, as Ashton once remarked, "to disturb the eye, forcing it to look between the crusts for the real painting beneath." Now, that's what I would call the prime attribute of romantic art in its very best sense.
Ellen G. Landau
Case Western Reserve University

Reviews Cited:

Dore Ashton, "Robert Richenburg," The New York Times, March 14, 1957

Dore Ashton, "Works by Richenburg Shown," The New York Times, October 29, 1959

Lawrence Campbell, "Robert Richenburg," Art News, February 1961

Stuart Preston, "Ends and Means of Abstract Art," The New York Times, February 12,1961

Irving Sandler, "Robert Richenburg," Art News, April 1963

Biography from McCormick Gallery:
In 1942 before serving for three years in the US Army during WWII, Robert Richenburg studied at the Corcoran Gallery and the Art Students League.  Upon his return from the war in 1947, he settled in New York to study with Amedee Ozenfant and Hans Hofmann.  He was then introduced to artists Ibram Lassaw and Willem de Kooning.

In 1949 when the Artist's Club was formed, Richenburg was an active member.  He showed in the Ninth Street show and was included in three Stable Gallery Annuals.  In 1964, Richenburg accepted a position at Cornell University; he also taught at Hunter College and from 1970 to 1983, at Ithaca College.

In 1983, he retired to East Hampton, NY with his wife, the artist Margaret Kerr. Richenburg's work continues to be exhibited in such venues as the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University and the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center in East Hampton.

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