Robert Mango is a long time artist who lives in New York City. I met him online through art curator Robert Curcio who suggested I look at his website http://robertmango.com/ and consider interviewing him. Mango has a very fluid and informed style that harkens back to artistic greats who’ve come before him. Here’s our cool chat…
“… Artistic talent and vision require several decades to develop, no matter what medium … There is no shortcut or easy way. One may as well accept our fundamental tools; Brush, pencil and chisel ...”
MICHAEL: Hello Robert, You are quite a prolific artist and you've been at it for quite some time. What would you say are the top three things that you've learned that have enabled you to survive and even thrive as an artist?
ROBERT: 1. As a very young man, my fundamental way of being in the world was as an artist. My family heritage was one of builders and designers. My father and his three brothers were first generation Italian Americans. Their professions involved transforming the physical with their hands; building houses, bridges or styling industrial products. We were a very close family, together every weekend and holiday.
Starting in adolescence, I related to my father and his brothers as primary role models. Basically, innovating and creating, was the imperative displayed for me by a set of heroic men who existed in my immediate setting. My father taught and demonstrated for me how a vision in your mind’s eye is transferred into reality; from imagination-drawing-model making to a finished design. I worked in his design studio on a drawing board or in a model shop every Saturday and summers during high school. Ironically, he did not consider fine art as a suitable path for me. He understood the hardships that were inherent, from European art history and wished to protect me from it. Coming to America from Sicily was an escape from oppression and hardship for his father.
2. As an early teenager, I encountered the great European Impressionists at the Art Institute of Chicago. In Degas, Manet, Monet, Renoir, Lautrec and Cassatt. I was smitten hard and that would be an understatement. I virtually copied their works, simultaneously learning figure drawing with live nude models, in classes with college students and instructors. I was about 16 years old. The day came when I encountered the Dadists and then Surrealists. I read the manifesto by Andre Breton and finally Duchamp; the light of European existential philosophy illuminated my mind. Sartre and Nietzsche were not far behind, introduced by my mother. She is an extremely literate and self taught reader. She nurtured an interest in words and ideas.
By 17 years of age, the skills and techniques I had been developing by imitating 19th Century Masters became tools, not to copy but to invent. Rather quickly (the next several years), I burned through all the major influences in 20th Century European painting and the on to the post WWII American giants: Larry Rivers, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg.
3. While expanding my mind through visual art and my mother’s books, I went out for the high school track team. Racing speed was also something my father possessed and he encouraged it in me. Art and racing seem to feed one-another. They were odd, but sustaining components in my life. Excelling in track featured a badly need simple and beautiful outcome; first one to the finish line wins definitive and objective. While the vast carnival of experimentation, which was my art in the sixties and seventies, was indefinite and subjective in the extreme. Therein exists a balance which remained for several decades. The training gave me an opportunity to think and imagine while ingesting unusual quantities of oxygen. I came to rely on the mental states induced by running 40, 50 occasionally 100 miles a week by 1971. The truth is creativity and the accompanying flight of imagination was a pursuit of pleasure as well means of establishing my identity in the world. My fitness which was a natural outcome of training, leant itself to a level of productivity which was normal to me, but prodigious by my instructors and friends. Art was a many-sided muse for me.
MICHAEL: Do you think it's possible for a contemporary artist to be great without some knowledge of the Old Masters or at least some artists from the immediate past?
ROBERT: The key word in your question is “greatness.” There is a undeniable gulf between greatness and effective marketing. For most contemporary artists and students, ‘Old Masters’ is a group of dead guys with whom they have never had any intimate knowledge or vicarious contact, whose names they would be hard pressed to produce. Yet in past centuries, as now, reaching the human heart remains the singular worthy challenge for artists. In the history of art this has been accomplished by a distinguished fraternity of artists and most have suffered for their genius. These artists are our revered comrades.
Even the most remote ‘outsider’ comes in contact with truly fine art at some time. A single glimpse of a master’s artistic genius to the seething soul of an artist sparks a revolution within, at any age. For a painter or sculptor to leave a meaningful legacy, a small group of characteristics are important. You can trade a few, but a potent composition remains:
Desire, curiosity, technique, discipline, respect and love of the audience; these are required. An artist must learn and that requires modesty and determination.
Finally, an artist must do his own work. There is no substitute for the imprimatur of a single, human hand.
MICHAEL: Very interesting. I see lots of influences in your body of work. Your recent paintings really have this motion-like, flowy, fluid quality. What's inspiring you to create this way?
ROBERT: Thanks for recognizing the movement and fluidity. It is essential to me. The fundamental way a painter or sculptor allows the viewer to escape from reality is through the manipulation of space. The space a viewer occupies when he stands before the rectangle, his immediate space, is the room he is standing in. A painter can create the illusion of deep space in the picture plain through classical techniques of light, dimension and chiascuro.
The viewer is invited in, as in my painting, “Millennium,” where one actually feels like he is falling into the picture OR the space may be real-space which I’ve been attempting to accomplish in the many 3-D paintings of the last ten years. Inducing a moment of confusion, the viewer’s eye fluctuates, moves between the flat surface and the 3-D surface. Momentarily sorting that out, his rational mind is suspended, while his perceptions define that unexpected transition back and forth. That suspension of reality is an escape for the viewer.
In the ‘flowy’ figures which you refer to Michael, the movement of the model as painted is derived from five to ten sketches in graphite on paper, where I am concentrating on the design of the figure. Invariably, it goes through an unforeseen evolution in sketch form. I’m seeking a simple blueprint in line that will harness color and form later. While drawing, I am reflecting on mood, induced by color relationships and light. When I decide to move forward into paint, I can initially focus completely on inducing movement -that thing which the audience needs - a formula or set of directions to escape their own reality and follow or leap into the one provided in the painting. I believe that is why the audience looks into the painting window - to escape.
MICHAEL: What role do you think painting plays in this digital age? Is painting becoming obsolete?
ROBERT: Human nature has not fundamentally changed so how can its original art forms, Painting and Sculpture? Word processors do not make better writers and adobe software does not make better painters. The technical expedience of these devices may modify the resulting style to a degree, but not the pathos.
The receivers in the NFL catch the ball, where gloves that act like glue. They will catch a ball with one hand while leaping in the air and falling backwards. They are no more skilled than the receivers of the 1960’s who had no gloves. Football audiences know this, as art audiences account for the intervention of iPad and Photoshop. We have become unimpressed by special effects in film in the same way. They are a yawn.
The product of the brush, pencil and sculptural tool, powered by the human hand is craved and sought more by audiences more than ever before, as is the precious line and meter of the true poet.
We have seen a migration of participants into modern art, primarily because the imperative to develop skill has been dismissed in school and societal institutions of art. Painting and sculpture has largely been a form of play for dilatants at the university and too often at the gallery level. Genius may assume different forms, but there will not be a change in the amount of artistic genius active in the population. The discerning eye of the audience remains a constant. Artistic talent and vision require several decades to develop, no matter what medium. For the audience, ease of access to visual art is accommodated by a computer screen, but the texture and reality of it is absent. For the artist, reliance on computer-generated imagery and effects will be perceived as such by audiences and appear to be reliant on a sophisticated device which exists outside their own sensibility. Should it replace their sensibility, they are lost.
Obsession, passion and technical mastery; these are the traits of artistic genius. There is no shortcut or easy way. One may as well accept our fundamental tools; Brush, pencil and chisel.
The path of artistic genius has been illuminated by Caravaggio, Van Gogh, Picasso, Frank Stella and Jasper Johns to mention a few. They would shine as brightly now or in future eras as they did in the past.
MICHAEL: Bravo. Aren't you in New York? What influence and inspiration does the city have on you? Would your work be different if you lived in Boise, Phoenix or Seattle?
ROBERT: I am a New York artist by virtue of working here in Lower Manhattan for more than 30 years. I came here in 1977 because of the combined attraction of a few mythic artists who preceded me and the allure of the city itself. I felt myself to be a progenitor. I inherited, it seems, a stubbornly independent stance as an artist and as a man. After all, I am a Midwesterner, born in Chicago and educated in Champaign-Urbana and I have not relinquished that imprimatur. It has been a double-edge sword.
I settled in a raw warehouse district, an area being vacated, abundant in abandoned lofts and storefronts, with broken windows and sparse or non-existent utilities. These were unkempt Civil War era buildings previously occupied by butter and egg wholesalers, known as Washington Market. It was renamed Tribeca.
I was able to procure a ground floor storefront, which I converted into a studio/gallery. This was an initial and lasting independent act. The neighborhood evolved rapidly into a region of upscale lofts and became known for renowned restaurants and VIP residents. There was a good deal of pressure on me to get out, with the escalating cost of living and endless eviction proceedings, but I did not give-in. Instead, I battled on and hatched a rather unconventional strategy to not only remain, but prosper as an artist.
Simultaneously, in the early ‘80s, my work became an un-categorical blend of both realistic and expressive paint handling, intricate drawing and 3-D assemblage, often involving neon, moving parts and kinetics. It appeared to be years ahead of its time, but within the constraints of painting-sculpting-drawing. The new work was hatched in about 2000, but for an artist, mental space/time can be footed in centuries of past or future time. It drew guffaw from my peers.
I was hungry, insatiable in every respect and my new work reflected a robust and unconfined sensibility, brewed from European symbolism, existentialism with the imperative of practiced technique. The seamless combination of these elements had really not ever been seen before or since.
The works from this period could have been made in Boise, Phoenix, Seattle or a tree house in Tibet, as your question inquires. Having said that, the following decade saw me dissect my oeuvre and recalibrate it in such a way that it could be digested by a wider audience in a more familiar format, which is where I’m at now. It was a difficult process. At risk was the creative angst. Although I have since found that my angst arose from a bonfire whose fuel was inherent and seems inextinguishable. And my muse? She walked barefoot through that fire. Yet I felt I must I parse in such a way to make it plausible to a wider audience without diluting its premise. This indeed did occur and proved to be an asset for my survival, the answer to the inevitable imperative; sell.
MICHAEL: What do you think about the art world/art market today and how they function?
ROBERT: There is an odd macro/micro factor to selling one’s art. Tangential factors apply greatly to the micro art market, unlike markets for other commodities; the importance of subjective response.
At the local market, a man might love the painting while visiting the gallery, studio or street fair, his wife might hate the same painting. The man might negotiate with a price advantage, based on the moment’s needs of the dealer or artist, and the lack of apparent demand. In the end, the couple may be stuck with it. If her sentiments prevail, it goes into storage because a secondary market does not exist. At the macro level, an established artist has a known value and far less price variance is possible. That is not to say in the art auction strata the man might love it and his wife still hate it, but they can trade in and out with less risk.
Unlike stocks and real estate, the aesthetic of a work of art proffered to the collecting audience can be of radically different ‘value,’ but infinitely large quantities of the stock can be bought. There may be only a few paintings available; a true artist has a relatively limited inventory, mitigated slightly by whether he/she was productive, living or dead. There will always be more GE, Ford, Apple and Miami condos available for purchase. Those considering acquisition of a painting are consulting vastly different criteria when assessing its value, mitigated by availability and aesthetic appeal. It’s nlike the value at any given time of a stock or piece of real estate, although constantly in flux, within a small variance is finite, and accessible to all instantly 24/7.
Two comments I have recently encountered by two very fine art dealers come to mind. Mary Boone said: “The art world is very event driven now” and Frank Bernaducci, in your interview with him says: “There are so many distractions today that it's hard to get a younger audience to look at a still image for very long.”
The short attention span factor, if you will, referred to by Mr. Bernaducci is endemic to our epoch and bears greatly upon how the current generation experiences art objects now. Having said that, the challenges, which face dealers and artists, have always been insurmountable throughout history, but still, we remain.
The reality that human beings live and work in a room may spell survival for painting. Rooms have walls - an inalterable truth, which will give paintings a place to exist and a forum, probably forever. Speedy laptops may alter the pace of consciousness slightly, but the stillness of a painting is most essential.
MICHAEL: Finally, What's the point of art? Why should people even care? Contemporary art isn't curing cancer.
ROBERT: Ask any cancer survivor, they will intone the travail of chemotherapy, then elucidate the significance of ‘the spiritual part.’ Most will emphasize that this was what “got them through it” and the more important component in attaining remission. Their eyes will shine as they explain how it changed their life.
If art, literature, poetry, film and theater are anything, they are the manifest life of the human spirit. The artist dips the ladle into the unconscious, alchemizes it through his/her intellect and doles it to the audience out of love. Without art, the hole in the ground, which awaits each of us would be filled much sooner.
Art illuminates and accesses for us the hidden realms that the daily struggle for food, shelter obscure. After a day of toil and the inevitable beating that accompanies the bartering of one’s soul, to walk in the house where Brahms, The Beatles or Beastie Boys fill the air, art thrusts one’s consciousness to complete beatific distraction and fills it with the restorative power only art can supply.
MICHAEL: Thanks for chatting Robert.
ROBERT: I have enjoyed it. Thank you for allowing me to respond to your questions.
Check out Robert Mango at http://robertmango.com/.