An Interview with Artist Robert StraightAugust, 2006
Robert Straight received a BA from California State University at Long Beach and an MFA from the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, MI. He has taught art since 1972, including at Spellman College in Atlanta, GA, Connecticut College in New London, CT, and, since 1980, as Professor of Art at the University of Delaware in Newark, DE. Straight’s work has been included in over 100 group exhibitions. It been featured in 28 solo exhibitions, most recently in Toroids and Plaids: The Paintings of Robert Straight at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC. His upcoming solo exhibition, Mystical Geometry: Webs and Structure, will be held at the Rehoboth Art League in Henlopen Acres, DE, from Sept. 15 through Oct. 29. Straight’s work is found in numerous private, corporate and public collections, including the Delaware Museum of Art, Wilmington, DE; the Cranbrook Academy of Art Museum; and the Downey Museum of Art, Downey, CA. He currently lives and works in Wilmington, DE.
Julie Karabenick: Has your work always been nonobjective?
Robert Straight: During my first year of graduate work, I realized that I was interested in creating my own world and images rather than depicting the existing world.
|P-390, acrylic on canvas, 91 x 208 cm (36 x 82 in), 2004|
I also became more interested in the process of painting and the materials associated with painting mediums. Since that point, I’ve pretty much challenged everything associated with painting. I’ve worked on various shapes of canvas, with different media—including encaustic, oils, and acrylics. I’ve also created my own paints from powdered pigments and binders. At different points in my history, I’ve felt a need to invent my own version of painting so that it seemed even more my own.
|P-366, acrylic on canvas, 157 x 127 cm (62 x 50 in), 2001|
JK: And you prefer to avoid signature brushwork?
RS: Every element in a painting becomes a signal that has a particular meaning relating to history and ideas—and it becomes necessary to decide which signals clarify your work in the most straightforward way.
|P-371, acrylic on canvas, 94 x 86 cm (37 x 34 in), 2002|
My goal is to create an anonymous surface. While there are nuances and imperfections in the paint, my preference is for a manufactured, machine-like painting. At one point, expressionism was fresh, sincere, and honest, but now it feels ironic. Now it’s just a look. That’s one of the reasons I try to eliminate signature brushwork. And while I try to make paint application as perfect as I can, there are always things that happen beyond my control. The imperfection adds an unstudied human element.
JK: Over the years, you’ve experimented widely with how you apply your paints.
RS: I’ve always been involved in paint application—figuring out ways of applying paint other than using a brush. I have at times made tools for certain passages in a painting. For example, concentric circles that appear to spin are made with a handmade tool. I often use squeegees to take paint off, leaving a very thin layer of color. Sometimes I’ll notch the squeegee to make ridges or lines. I generally prefer paint application that can be done in one swipe—which goes along with my preference for simplification and the absence of a signature brushstroke.
|Robert Straight working with a squeegee in his studio|
JK: And you’ve sought a great deal of stylistic variation as well.
RS: I’ve never wanted to be an artist who had settled into a style. To me, the excitement of painting is the unknown. I want my work to be evolving and changing. Each of my paintings is a single and individual statement that can and should be seen on its own. While the work seems to fall into groups, I don’t set out to create a specific series of paintings. Each painting informs the next; ideas grow, and this tends to make the paintings become more complex.
JK: Your work also reflects your openness to wide-ranging sources of visual information.
RS: Sound, the history of art, current events, Euclidian constructions, number sequences, images and objects from diverse cultures are all elements that have informed and influenced my work. I am inspired by nature’s endless structures and systems. Recent world events and a feeling of chaos within contemporary society have also affected my paintings.
|P-406, acrylic and string on canvas, 152 x 122 cm (60 x 48 in), 2005|
I also truly enjoy seeing a lot of art and feel responsible for knowing about historical artists and their ideas as well as being familiar with current artists and their concepts. Some artists want the isolation of not seeing the work of many other artists. I don’t think isolation protects your originality or your own sensibility. Knowing what’s going on in the world—not only the art world—can change how you perceive things. Just as scientists take advantage of their peers’ discoveries, I believe that as artists, we also are entitled to share information.
JK: Despite the visual variety in your work over the years, geometric form seems a constant presence.
RS: Geometry has so many possibilities that the potential is unlimited. To me, it’s like an alphabet. On its own, it’s meaningless; the way it’s used gives it meaning. I love nature, but have always felt that as an artist, I want to invent my own world. Geometry is one element that allows me to do that.
|P-389, acrylic and on canvas, 61 x 56 cm (24 x 22 in), 2004|
JK: When did you first realize that you wanted to be an artist?
RS: As long as I can remember, I have loved to draw and to make things. Even in elementary school, I wanted to be an artist. My father’s two sisters were both exhibiting artists and taught at the university level. My father was talented, but, as the oldest son in a farm family, he had to work to help support his mom and 4 brothers and sisters. But the whole family was creative—either artists or musicians.
My mother was a talented seamstress. She took my brother and me on her fabric shopping excursions, and I think this had a large impact on my visual education. Subliminally, I probably have an entire catalogue of fabric designs, patterns and colors from those many trips. I’m very aware of visual textures, and this must be related to all those years of looking at fabrics. My aunt would take me out to paint from the landscape when I was quite young. In the sixth or seventh grade, I went to adult college painting courses for several years.
JK: As early as graduate school, we can clearly see the importance of geometric form in your work.
|PA-64, acrylic on canvas, 173 x 264 cm (68 x 104 in), 1971|
RS: At that point, I was influenced by the Color Field painters and by Clement Greenberg. This is when constructing a painting with geometry came into my vocabulary. Basic geometric shapes were elements I could manipulate to invent my own more elaborate shapes.
I was certainly influenced by Navajo blankets here. I was also interested in artists like Paul Feeley, Jack Youngerman, George Sugarman, Frank Stella and Myron Stout. These artists used geometric forms, but in a more quirky way than someone like Mondrian whose mature work seemed more straightforward.
JK: And a sense of quirkiness is important to you?
RS: I hope my work has a bit of quirkiness—and something unexpected or playful. While I’m entirely serious about my work, I enjoy humor and surprises in it.
JK: You soon began to experiment with painting materials and substrates.
RS: Exploring the possibilities of painting mediums was very exciting to me, and this is still important in my work. Simplification has been an ongoing concern as well. In P-18 I was using the spiral as well as a vertical line that bisects the painting. One layer of paint would be flat and over that would be a very impasto layer that let you see the spiral. The spiral suggests infinity—without beginning or ending.
|P-18, acrylic on masonite, 46 x 46 cm (18 x 18 in), 1976|
JK: Bisecting shapes and formats became a visual strategy that you were to call upon frequently over the years.
RS: Yes. In this case, I felt the spiral was too simplistic on its own. The bisecting line also asserts the two-dimensionality of the painting—much as the grid does in my later work. As I look back, I’m surprised how often this bisection crops up.
JK: For a while, your work became quite sculptural.
RS: The next thing was to make the impasto really thick so the form looked as though it was totally made of paint. I decided to make papier-maché forms and then paint them. I was using pastry tubes to apply the thickened paint and these were sort of like layer cakes—divided and constructed on the front, sides, and cross sections by concentric geometric circles.
|P-44, acrylic on papier-maché,|
30 x 30 x 15 cm (12 x 12 x 6 in), 1977
The construction of the armature started to become more important than the painting. It seemed if I continued, the reasonable thing would be to make free-standing sculpture—which I wasn’t interested in doing.
JK: Next came shaped canvases—something that you’d revisit later in your career.
|P-63, acrylic and encaustic on canvas and wood,|
61 x 107 cm (24 x 42), 1978
RS: That’s right, I was still interested in making my own format, but wanted a surface that was flatter. P-63 was the first in this investigation. It’s one-third of a circle that has three concentric circles. The fact that both the fans and the papier-maché pieces were physically constructed is the important feature of both groups of paintings.
As these paintings developed, I started drawing an arbitrary, enclosed shape that was left unpainted. It became a window to the earlier layers of the painting, exposing its structure. Most people read them as fans and they fit into the Pattern and Decoration dialogue, though I was really concerned with structure and simplification.
|P-75, acrylic, encaustic and papier-maché on canvas,|
56 x 112 cm (22 x 44), 1978
JK: You soon returned to a more traditional approach to working on canvas.
RS: Early on, the idea that Clement Greenberg fostered that a painting had to be flat and two-dimensional with no illusionistic depth was something that I had to come to terms with. Introducing actual physical space in the form of a constructed canvas had been my way of solving this dilemma. Once I let go of these constraints, pictorial space became an option that gave me more latitude for invention.
My next paintings were part of a struggle to figure things out. Neo-expressionism was in the air, and I was looking at Marsden Hartley and Arthur Dove. But these paintings, like P-189, felt conventional due to their relationship to still life or the figure. Their deep space seemed pictorial. I was still using geometric shapes, but they were not used in a purely constructed way. In retrospect, it seems that I was making a picture as a window rather than a painting that referenced only itself.
|P-189, oil on canvas, 30 x 38 cm (12 x 15 in), 1986|
By simplifying the space and forms, I found that I was again in a realm that was more to my sensibility.
P-232 is more indicative of work to come—it feels more settled or resolved and represented a conscious effort to be direct. Simplification was important, and symmetry starts to assert itself. This was a liberating strategy for me. I started cutting stencils and being decisive about shape. The stencils could be used in several canvases, and these shapes became an alphabet for me. I also simplified the paint application so the handmade mark was less important.
|P-232, oil on canvas, 76 x 61 cm (30 x 24), 1990|
JK: And again, you’re dividing shapes and areas of the canvas.
RS: Yes. There is something about two pieces that fit together, but at the same time are separate, that’s intriguing. I have used the device of bisecting a painting for quite a long time—it’s a way to get more than one idea into the format of the painting.
JK: The simplification you favored was an important driving force in your next works.
RS: Just as the first fan-shaped painting seemed to be a pivotal point, P-233 was a breakthrough as well. This is a rejection of Expressionism and a break from the earlier paintings that were so packed with images. At this point, I was interested in numbers and number sequences. This led to seven- and nine-sided paintings that I’ve done on and off since that time.
|P-233, oil on canvas, 33 x 33 cm (13 x 13 in), 1991|
Simplification may be the most important thing about this piece. The format determines the shape within the painting. I made a nine-sided stretcher and a nine-pointed star was formed by connecting the midpoint of each side of the canvas. The star stands on two points, but the painting stands on a single point. And again, the painting is bisected. I was using oil paint at this time, and would trowel the paint through a stencil, which made a slight relief. This gave the shape a physical presence, and made it feel flat.
JK: In addition to variations on the star, circles would continue to populate your work.
|P-238, oil on canvas, 183 x 213 cm (72 x 84 in), 1991|
RS: Yes, at one point, I felt like I would be using circles and combinations of circles forever. On the left side of this divided painting, there are three circles that function as windows. There are eleven circles in all—a prime number—and the circles also become a patterning device.
I want to make work that has a sense of rational perfection. Prime numbers can’t be reduced—which is a kind of perfection or absolute so these numbers have often become a rational anchor in my work. Aiming for rationality and perfection eliminates a purely emotional or arbitrary kind of decision-making, which was the problem I found with the paintings illustrated by P-189.
JK: Another important form for you is the pinwheel.
RS: I see the pinwheels as playful. Also they suggest movement—like the spirals. Here in P-257, the blades of the pinwheel on the left also appear as smaller circles within larger circles—like a Cintamani motif, a design used in the Ottoman Empire. And there’s a pattern of staggered circles on the right.
|P-257, oil on canvas, 69 x 69 cm (27 x 27 in), 1993|
JK: Circular forms serve a major structuring role in your next group of paintings.
|P-282, oil on canvas, 91 x 97 cm (36 x 38), 1996|
RS: These paintings are based on constructing cartouches or framing elements—using circular forms that are both positive and negative. The paintings often appear to have an empty area—like windows into an unending space or void, contained and uncontained at the same time, which seems related to the Buddhist idea of emptiness and fullness.
The repetition of circles or ellipses in these paintings creates an all-over quality that to me is like printed fabric or wallpaper—it can continue endlessly. These paintings suggest time and continuum. They might be connected to cycles, seasons, or lifetimes. While I don’t feel there are specific religious connections in my work, I do think there are spiritual feelings involved.
JK: Some of them have quite an ornamental feeling.
|P-277, oil and acrylic on canvas, 198 x 198 cm (78 x 78 in), 1995|
RS: In P-277, I was thinking of really baroque French interiors and gold leaf mirrors. Compared to my earlier star-shaped paintings, this painting is really full and elaborate. And the repetition of shapes is the real beginning of the grid in my work.
JK: As your work was becoming more complex, were you doing much preparatory planning?
RS: Nothing is planned when I start, and I don’t do studies for my work. I may have a thought or an image in my head that starts the process. If there are rigorous things that need to be drawn out, I usually will do that on the back of the canvas. For example, for the paintings that have petals or star shapes, I will establish the number of points on the back and keep track of these points using very small pins. I usually start with an arbitrary color and then it becomes about reactions to that color. In this way, the progression and resolution of the painting become rather organic.
JK: When you returned to shaped paintings, they were more elaborate than their predecessors.
|P-307, acrylic on canvas mounted on wood,|
30 cm diameter (12 in diameter), 1997
RS: This is one of the first paintings where a web or complicated line system comes into play. P-307 has seventeen sides—a prime number—and establishing these points on a circle was pretty crazy. When I was young, we did projects where you placed nails around a piece of wood and connected each point with a string. I was recalling those projects when I was working on this and similar paintings. The use of strings to form lines also appears in some mid-century designs—in Noguchi, Eames, Nelson and others. I like the connection to an earlier time and to sources other than the fine arts.
|P-313, acrylic on canvas, 198 x 183 cm (78 x 72 in), 1998|
RS: In P-313, the concentric circles appear to be spinning. The painting has shapes that change from positive to negative—something else I use to keep the paintings from being stagnant without necessarily resorting to illusion or deep space. These circles reference ionic capitals from Classical architecture and the star or floral images celebrate nature and constellations.
JK: Once again, your use of prime numbers can be seen in the 13-pointed stars of P-345.
|P-345, acrylic on canvas, 91 x 91 cm (36 x 36 in), 1999|
RS: In this painting, the star is actually made from a series of circles that move around a central point. These start to form a globe or three-dimensional space. The grid continues throughout the entire painting, though again, the painting is divided, and the bottom is like a flat ground on which the star balances. The grid and the floating rectangles show up in future paintings as a transparent two-dimensional screen.
JK: As we move forward, familiar shapes from your earlier works are used in new ways.
|P-354, acrylic on canvas, 137 x 137 cm (54 x 54 in), 2000|
RS: Here, the star has 11 points—again, a prime number. Transparency allows the architecture and construction of the forms to be seen. This painting brings to mind a mandala, with the surrounding yellow circles arranged to form a framing device. The circles are reminiscent of clouds in Chinese art. There is a sense that the painting continues outside the frame, but at the same time, an isolated event is in focus.
|P-357, acrylic on canvas, 152 x 122 cm (60 x 48 in), 2000|
In P-357, I’m using a grid or plaid along with the central star or floral image. Plaids are essentially man-made patterns that are both structural and decorative. They reference tartans and also are related to pixels, which brings them into the computer age.
Sometimes the grid fills the space around a central shape and sometimes it’s superimposed like a screen, as in P-378. The way the grid or screen is used in this particular painting might also suggest a measuring device such as latitude and longitude.
The prime number two governs the alternating sequence of blue and white rectangles as they are placed both horizontally and vertically in the grid (see detail). The spinning and whirling forms in this painting are related to toroids—curved lines that never meet—and also to the spirals that I’ve used consistently in my work.
|P-378, acrylic on canvas,|
152 x 122 cm (60 x 48 in), 2002
JK: In later work, you begin to undermine the regularity and sense of stability typically conveyed by the grid.
|P-398, acrylic on canvas, 95 x 244 cm (37.5 x 96 in), 2005|
RS: As the paintings have progressed, I have skewed the grid so that it doesn’t line up with the perimeter of the painting.
|P-391, acrylic on canvas, 152 x 244 cm (60 x 96 in), 2004||P-391 detail|
I’m communicating the idea of speed. Showing movement in a still image is an idea the Futurists used, but it seems relevant today with the speed of communication and the fast exchange of information.
JK: The skewed grid might also suggest a world perilously tipped on its axis.
RS: The chaos and complexity of our world have affected my work. My grids have been skewed to refer to the way our world has recently been turned upside down. P-391 is one of the largest of these paintings, and size does make a difference. Because the viewer is confronted and immersed in the painting, I’ve been told that it makes them feel a little queasy.
JK: You then began inserting webs of lines in counterpoint to a grid that has become less skewed, though still quite variable in its structure.
|P-397, acrylic on canvas, 62 x 56 cm (24.5 x 22 in), 2005|
RS: I’m using more subtly skewed grids to surround string constructions or webs that I sew into the canvas. Here, the grid is a way of making some sense and order out of what may be perceived as the chaos of the string constructions. The rectangles based on this grid also suggest maps or an architectural space. Because the grid is skewed, there is still the suggestion of speed.
|P-412, acrylic and string on canvas,|
69 x 61 cm (27 x 24), 2006
The webs reference our everyday bombardment with information. I also think about how the populations of the world are concentrated in clusters attached by the webs and nets—of the Internet, highways, streets, communications, and airways. These clusters, webs and nets also show up as structural devices in nature.
JK: Quite recently, the string networks have become tangles of overlapping circular forms.
|P-413, acrylic on canvas, 61 x 51 cm (24 x 20 in), 2006|
RS: Here, I’m thinking of the interior as being like a nest or scrambled wires. It’s similar to the webs, but not as geometric. These lines are like the paths of atoms. They also recall passementerie—decorative embellishments—which probably goes back to all those visits to fabric stores.
To make the lines I use a tool made for glazing ceramics. It has a needle-like point that I can fill with acrylic paint. Earlier, the curved lines in my paintings had always been scribed into the wet acrylic. This tool gives me the capability of making continuous curved lines in a direct manner.
JK: You often do smaller gouache works on paper.
|D-322, gouache on paper, 30 x 41 cm (12 x 16 in), 2005|
RS: These are a change of pace for me—relatively quick and direct. I’ve found that making changes in procedures, media, or techniques helps keep things fresh, and I feel a little more adventuresome with the works on paper.
JK: You seem to continue to reinvent yourself in your work.
RS: My questions are usually “How can I push this further?” or “What can I do with this?” rather than “How can I refine this further?” Ultimately, I’m expansive in my thinking, and I like to have the mental space to move around rather than the constraint of small details. I’ll probably never reach the goal of total simplicity—which is fine, it gives me a kind of base. I don’t like labels, but my thinking probably falls into a sort of post-modernism. I can be as excited by high art as I can with pop culture, folk art or any of the numerous other things that we’ve talked about in our conversation. Donald Kuspit’s book, The End of Art, echoes many of my thoughts. He talks about a fresh start in art that allows all of history to be part of this new beginning. We’re in a time where anything seems possible.
|Robert Straight with several recent paintings|
More about Robert Straight at robertstraight.com
Interview images and text copyright©2006 Julie Karabenick and Robert Straight. All Rights Reserved.