Artist Robert Richenburg marched to the beat of his own drum exploring the possibilities of artistic style.
By William Corwin
Positioned between the mysterious shadows of Ad Reinhardt and the exuberant, frenetic, but controlled brushstrokes of Willem de Kooning, Robert Richenburg (1917-2006) found his sweet spot. He created intense fields of color that he then obscured in a thick and opaque coating of black, which was scraped, etched into and peeled away to reveal a blinding plasma-like presence just below the surface. He painted at least 60 of these canvasses, and noted collectors bought up the works. But Richenburg notoriously turned his back on this avenue to lasting success and followed many fascinating and various directions; some successful, others less so. His decision to do this was based partly on a conscious rejection of the “rules” of an art world that demanded consistency, but also on a restless spirit, as well as circumstances that were beyond his control.
Like many of the Abstract Expressionists, Richenburg pounced on the European notion of painterly abstraction, and for much of his early career wrestled with the formalistic concerns of color, significant form and texture. The AbEx movement came to life with the injection of postwar American angst into painting; as the paintings of Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Mark Rothko and Richenburg began to bristle with unstable energy the art world and wider public recognized and embraced the painters’ emotional honesty. Each painter found a distinctive niche or a path to follow. Rothko utilized the vibrating dissonance between patches of color as a vehicle of his painting’s intensity, Barnett Newman had his Zips, while Pollock’s seemingly wild and uncontrolled paint splatters were deemed to be traces of some primal urge to create. Richenburg fell into this model, and then fell out.
Homage to Valery (1960) is a bit larger than 8 by 7 feet, so it overwhelms the viewer, especially with its initial impression as an uncontrollable fiery presence barely contained by an impassive black grid: We bask in its glow. Richenburg had been painting all-over fields of splotchy diaphanous color as in Soft Landscape (1954) or fluid accretions of miasmatic brushstrokes as in Energy Stream (1955), which had the brooding energy of early Philip Guston or de Kooning. In the process of painting out earlier pictures, he began to draw back into the blank white and black surfaces. The process of discovery in these paintings is infectious. Richenburg began revealing rectangles of color with a spackle knife, or ripped the dry, black paint off the substrate of bright color when everything had dried. He would also take a point and draw through the still wet surface. On the one hand, the artist began a dialog with ideas of regularity, matrixes and grids, and presciently laid down a theoretical visual foundation for succeeding artists who would play with the myriad ideas of repetition, banality and mechanization. We can see Agnes Martin’s grids, Twombly’s texts, and Warhol, Lichtenstein and Sigmar Polke’s fascination with dot-printed grids. The black filigree also seems akin to the thick, black paintings Pierre Soulages was making in the early ’50s. Art historian Bonnie L. Grad, a champion of Richenberg’s work, has also drawn connections to Francisco Goya: his black paintings, Los Caprichos, The Disasters of War and, in particular, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (ca. 1799).
Richenburg was born in Boston and took art classes as a child at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. He studied art and art history at George Washington University from 1936 to 1939, and then in 1940 at the Art Students League with George Grosz and Reginald Marsh. He was drafted in 1942. Perhaps most influential on his painting were the classes he took with Amédée Ozenfant and Hans Hofmann in New York in the late 1940s. Critics and collectors projected the artist’s life onto the canvas—a childhood burn accident, his service in the second world war, burning cities, skyscrapers at night, the interpretation of Richenberg’s paintings nestled very comfortably into the cosmology of Abstract Expressionism of psychology and mythology.
But Richenburg was much more than his black paintings—in his mind the black topcoat was simply another lens through which to view color and gesture. He had several interconnected but distinct series of paintings on the go during the 1950s and ’60s. In Soft Landscape and Green River (1959), the artist began adding sand to his paints and building up the surfaces, in keeping with the innovations of Jean Dubuffet. As with many of Richenberg’s paintings, while the placement of brushstrokes and color patches seem to be random, they also appear to be approximating repetitive pattern, which he then feels the need to interrupt with a burst or larger gesture. Soft Landscape, with its repetitive darker circles and splotches on a field of complementary pinks, yellows and oranges, and patches of white peeking out from between the overlying colors, is pure Blurry pattern, while Green river seems to take its name from the thick sand-infused Hunter green coursing over the surface obscuring scraped patches of red, yellow and pthalo green. Then there’s a painting such as Broadway #1 (ca. 1940s), a grid of 315 carefully painted dots. The dots are multiple colors, and the background is divided into rectangles and bars of different tones as well—but there is an algorithm at work here, or the implication of one, as certain dots are matched with certain bands of color.
Richenburg was getting bored being pigeonholed, and he experienced two career setbacks that curtailed his success and forced him to leave New York City. The immediate obstacle to the painter’s continued success as an Abstract Expressionist was the transition of the painting market from AbEx to Pop Art. This was a sea-change that had a devastating effect on many painters. It was ironic in Richenberg’s case because many of his painterly innovations, in particular with the use of repetition and dots as in his early pieces Twelve O’clock Blink (1946), an abstract landscape punctuated by 16 neatly painted dots, and Dotty (1948), a kind of intersection between Piet Mondrian and Damien Hirst, his later series of more precisely painted dot paintings had their finger on the pulse of the fascination with printing methods that marked pop and later Neo-Geo. Some painters begrudgingly accepted their relegation to the sidelines and decided to wait it out, others did not. Richenburg decided, not out of the blue, to focus on experimentation. He also became embroiled in a free speech controversy at the Pratt art School in Brooklyn.
In retrospect, the imbroglio at Pratt was the artist’s shining moment in which he defended the right of a student to express herself in the face of academic and social conservatism; but it cost him and forced him to accept a job outside of New York City. In a conversation with Maya Harakawa for The Brooklyn Rail (October 2016), Mierle Laderman Ukeles says, “[Robert Richenberg] was just marvelous. He spoke about freedom. He said that the artist has to be free and I just lapped that up…In Richenburg’s class, I started doing this wrapping, pouring, and stuffing, and he saw that that was my first original artwork. I didn’t know what I was doing but I knew more than anyone else about it. That was my work…But the administration told Richenburg that he had to stop me from making them. He ignored the administration and he got fired.”
In point of fact, Richenburg was forced to resign by the administration but after the loss of his teaching job after 13 years, the expenses of a family and artistic practice, he took a teaching job at Cornell. Richenburg had been an influential member of the Abstract Expressionist movement receiving accolades from Dore Ashton and Irving Sandler; he had participated in the Ninth Street Show in 1951, curated by Leo Castelli and featuring fellow AbEx stalwarts like Franz Kline, de Kooning, Perle Fine and Krasner. But he had seen how the market and collector’s proclivities could confine artists to a recognizable style, and then cap their knees when the prevailing winds of taste changed direction.
In the Autumn 1958 issue of the short-lived magazine It Is. founded by Philip Pavia, Richenburg published a piece called Sundries. In this short manifesto of 25 statements, the artist makes declarations in keeping with Abstract Expressionism’s allegiance to mytho-poetics as well as Jungian Psychoanalysis: “The space in a picture is right when it contains a full psychic charge,” “To think while painting is a form of degradation,” and “We paint mostly what we don’t know.” But alternately, he expresses a determination to avoid any sense of finishing a painting or completing an idea: “A painting is finished when the passion is extinct.” He also condemns an artist forcing themselves to paint in a specific style: “In painting, consistency is the coward’s best defense.” And he also includes a jab at the institution of criticism: “Describe a picture and you destroy it.” It was clear that Richenburg felt hemmed in by the art world, and that he was disappointed in no longer being part of the dominant school of art in New York. Defending Ukeles had allowed him to fulfill the precepts he had outlined in Sundries and had made clear the immoveable walls that protected notions of taste and decorum in the art world. He left, and stylistically began to pursue other trajectories in painting.
There is the distinct possibility that the black paintings, after 60 iterations, had run dry. In pieces such as Biased Notion (1959), the artist skews his grid and directs his flickering rectangles in a primal Brownian movement. In Syria (1959) he thickens the black filter to the point where the magical fire inside the painting seems to be waning. In Broken Continuity (1962) and Slash (1961), Richenburg does the opposite and the grid is pierced, revealing a technicolor floret of creeping and whirling tendrils of yellow, red, orange, pink or green. It is in the odd hybrid piece Broken Continuity, a four-sided monolith made of wood and canvas and originally placed outdoors, that we sense the artist’s growing frustration with his self-built stylistic cage. Broken Continuity resembles what looks like the Seagram’s Building if fabricated by Red Grooms. A rectangular volume with neat rows of scraped and incised rectangles of light, each side then marked with a flamboyant (as in the architectural term), or biomorphic color burst, as in Splash. Could the black paintings move into space? Richenburg needed to find out. Broken Continuity ultimately doesn’t offer the same transformative visual experience as Homage to Valery or Syria, and Richenburg moved on.
Richenburg is known for being a maverick and playing with several different types of painting, mostly because he didn’t stick with the signature Abstract Expressionist style for which he was acclaimed. At times he didn’t need to paint over his bright colorful explosions with black paint: Energy Stream (1955), Soft Landscape (1954) and Alizarean Thrust (1951) all chronicle his experiments with all-over colorful abstraction. He created collages of ripped newspaper, pasted together with oil paint—a process he shared with de Kooning, as in Econoline (1966). In the ’70s and ’80s, the artist experimented more with metal sculpture and non-traditional materials like plastic. As Richenburg stated quite harshly in his Sundries, “we get from a painting what we deserve.” The artist seems to have taken this adage seriously, at times giving us carefree radiance, at other times demanding we look into a dark mirror.