Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on September 27, 2006 with the permission of the Georgia Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the please contact the Georgia Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:
October 21, 2006 - January 7, 2007
This exhibition presents more than 30 works by Robinson, including one of his most recognized paintings, Billie Holiday Sings the Blues, from 1947. It also features other images from the 1940s jazz scene, as well as his non-objective paintings and constructions and his work about Africa and the other places he has visited over his career.
Curator: Paul Manoguerra, curator of American art
by Paul Manoguerra
Making his New York solo debut in an exhibition at Milch Galleries in late 1948, the artist Jay Robinson received favorable press from New York Times reviewer Aline B. Louchheim, who wrote that in Robinson's first major New York exhibition he presented "a facility which allows him to move from a simplified realism in landscaped views to an imaginative semi-abstraction for his interpretation of jazz themes." Referencing a French post-Impressionist, Louchheim continued, "the simplification gives the best of the landscapes a serenity and solidity, as if done by an Americanized Utrillo." Most probably noting paintings like Billie Holiday Singing the Blues (no. 11) and Jump Band (Pete Brown on Alto Sax) (no. 12), Louchheim had high praise for Robinson's art: "In the jazz themes, Robinson imposes a taut, excited line on splashing areas of bright color. He suggests the clanking noise of cymbals, the penetrating whine of the wind instruments and the beat of the drums with extraordinary vividness." 
Born in Detroit in 1915, a resident of Kentucky during his youth, and currently living in Virginia, Jay Robinson earned a B.A. from Yale University in 1937 and attended Cranbrook Academy of Art, where he studied under the guidance of Zoltan Sepeshy, Charles Eames, and Harry Bertoia. During World War II, Robinson worked in the Office of Strategic Services in Washington, D.C., as a U.S. Navy Training Aids Officer. He received a Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Fellowship to travel to Africa in 1950, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the National Institute of Arts and Letters purchased seven of his paintings through the Childe Hassam Fund for presentation to institutions. This exhibition presents his images about the 1940s jazz scene, his non-objective paintings and constructions, and his work about Africa and other locales he has visited.  Jay Robinson features thirty-one works of art -- sculpture, egg tempera paintings, drawings, oil paintings, and mixed media works -- from the 1940s to the 1980s by the artist. All the works in Jay Robinson are on extended loan to the Georgia Museum of Art from the Schoen Collection, Miami, Florida.
Robinson's art documents a period of transition in American culture, a moment that reflects the critical impact of the displacement of European artists by World War II and the popular emergence of American abstract painting. Robinson's own work announces itself in its diversity of styles and subjects, drawing on both European and American influences. Abstraction dominated the art world in the mid- to late 1940s, brought to America through the work of European avant-garde artists such as Piet Mondrian and Francis Picabia. The European styles merged with native American abstraction grew from John Marin, Marsden Hartley, and John Sloan and influenced artists including Jackson Pollock and Stuart Davis.
Trained at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in the years prior to World War II, Jay Robinson learned at one of the few institutions in the United States dedicated to design. The Cranbrook ethos, as taught by Sepeshy, Eames, Bertoia, and others, demonstrated an approach to art that valued tradition while utilizing avant-garde concepts of production, form, and technique. These professors at Cranbrook had a strong influence on the methods by which Robinson produced his art. Eames's interest in organic design and in materials had an impact on Robinson's paintings and other early works of art. Bertoia's concentration on numerous methods of working metal found its way into Robinson's compositions and color choices. During the thirty-six years that Sepeshy spent at Cranbrook, he developed a distinctive use of egg tempera.
In his 1946 art treatise Tempera Painting, Sepeshy promoted the unique qualities of the medium: "In tempera, however, I have found the possibility of combining the qualities of . . . other media. It may be used with the transparence and translucence of watercolor. It may be used with a fine cross-hatching of lines so that the eye mixes and blends the colors two-dimensionally on the surface. It has the 'body' for application in layers; yet, when applied in a certain way as pure colors, no layer hides the layers underneath." Egg tempera became a favorite medium for Robinson, too, in the early 1940s, for example in Art School Model (1941; no. 1), executed while he attended Cranbrook. 
The translucence of tempera, the crosshatching of lines, and the layers of color all appear in Robinson's paintings of the 1940s. Three of the more significant paintings, Composition in Red (1946; no. 3), Forms in Gray-Green Space (1946; no. 4), and Gold and Silver Coins (1946; no. 5), plus a handful of other works in this exhibition were created using egg tempera as the primary medium. These three tempera paintings, along with Motion in Dark Space (1946; no. 6) and twenty other works by Robinson, all appeared in the "Museum of Non-Objective Painting" exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in New York in early 1947. 
Art critic Clement Greenberg, writing in Partisan Review, describes the meaning of American non-objective art and its cultural importance: "The history of avant-garde painting is that of a progressive surrender to the resistance of its medium; which resistance consists chiefly in the flat picture plane's denial of efforts to 'hole through' it for realistic perspectival space. In making this surrender, painting not only got rid of imitation -- and with it 'literature' -- but also of realistic imitation's corollary confusion between painting and sculpture." Of particular relevance to appreciating Robinson's non-objective works is Greenberg's description of the act of abstraction: "Line, which is one of the most abstract elements in painting since it is never found in nature as the definition of contour, returns to oil painting as the third color between two other color areas. Under the influence of the square shape of the canvas, forms tend to be geometrical -- and simplified, because simplification is also a part of the instinctive accommodation to the medium. But most important of all, the picture plane itself grows shallower and shallower, flattening out and pressing together the fictive planes of depth until they meet as one upon the real and material plane which is the actual surface of the canvas . . . . Where the painter still tries to indicate real objects their shapes flatten and spread in the dense, two-dimensional atmosphere." 
Two more egg tempera paintings on gessoed panels from 1946, Spuyten Duyvil (Upper Tip of Manhattan) (no. 7) and Survival (no. 8), emerge from Sepeshy's influence and Robinson's time in New York. In Spuyten Duyvil, clouds and sky dominate most of the image. The skyline of New York, the Hudson River, and its banks form the background of the bottom of the painting. Robinson's primary subject is a bit of grass, stretching its arm- and handlike stems into the cloudy sky. In a painting that resonates with the destruction wrought by World War II and the opening of the atomic age, Survival depicts lonely clumps of grass amid massive rock forms.
Robinson's drawings of the 1940s jazz scene and his non-objective compositions show him not as an illustrator but as a master draftsman. In both graphite and ink, these drawings articulate strongly Robinson's absolute control in selecting the correct composition and focusing his ideas. Robinson exhibits an understanding that composition depends on the management of object relationships, on the manipulation of forms, and on a clear sense of unregulated space. In Quality Music Shop, Washington, D.C. (1943; no. 2), his undated study of the Sidney Catlett Jazz Band (no. 30), and his preparatory work for Billie Holiday Singing the Blues (no. 10), drawing operates as a way for him to capture the moment and to preserve the memory of the scene, the music, and the emotions. In a letter in which he recalls his process, Robinson writes, "Many times I made sketches -- mainly of the players, the surroundings of the place where they were playing, and the instruments; but mainly it was all in my mind and memory. Then I could compose the scene as I got to painting and let everything take a natural course so as to be spontaneous, like the music itself." 
In the early 1950s, Robinson executed a series of works based upon scenes and people in his native state of Kentucky. His grandfather, a "wheeler-dealer" and sheriff, drove him "all over, any place, for as long as I wanted to work down there." Prosperous Farmer (no. 19), made of carved and incised wood; White Mule (no. 22), a mixed media composition; and Deep Hollow (no. 18), an oil and encaustic on panel with metal, for example, reflect the emotions, memories, and experiences of life in Kentucky. Robinson notes that "'White Mule' is another name for moonshine (with a kick like a mule) whiskey . . . . This composition is not intended as a chart but as semi-description, a semi-abstract scene of an aspect of life." Deep Hollow represents the Kentucky landscape, "the lines of hills, rough edged by trees, various elements . . . such as owls, cabins, human figures, a chimney shapeworked into the paint surface . . . . It is strictly a mood piece, trying to convey the somber mood of the hills and people way back in." In Saturday Night in Albany, Kentucky (1952; no. 16), one of the larger compositions in this exhibition, a tent revival preacher offers a fire-and-brimstone rant. Robinson abstracts and compresses several episodes from the Saturday night events he observed -- traffic, the crowd, the sermon -- into a single composition. He displayed his works from the "Kentucky series" in two exhibitions at Milch Galleries in New York in 1953 and 1954.
In 1955, again at Milch Galleries, Robinson exhibited art he had created based upon his travels to the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and other parts of Africa, on a Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Fellowship. In the brochure for the exhibition, Robinson described the series of works as "based on a few of the drawings made last year in French West Coast territory, the Belgian Congo, and Ruanda Urundi." Jungle Village Congo (no. 15), metal and enamel on board, resulted from the travel afforded by that prestigious fellowship.
Robinson continued the use of metal in later works, including his Japan Series #9 (no. 29), a construction that uses copper, gold, and fired enamel. Other works from later in Robinson's career, including Colony (no. 28) and Winter Peace (no. 14), use both gold and silver leaf to enliven the abstract surfaces and content of his constructions.
Jay Robinson seeks to engage the vital aesthetic issues of his time in his art. His works proclaim his fundamental concern with conveying meaning through constructive order and abstraction. Robinson's paintings, drawings, mixed media constructions, and sculptures reflect his instinctive feeling for his environment and enrich our experience with the genuine aura of Africa, small Kentucky towns, and the New York jazz scene.
1 Aline B. Louchheim, "4 Artists Display Works At Salons," New York Times, December 4, 1948.
2 Jay Robinson's Billie Holiday Singing the Blues was featured in Coming Home: American Paintings, 1930-1950, from the Schoen Collection, exh. cat. (Athens, GA: Georgia Museum of Art, 2003), 27071.
3 Zoltan Sepeshy, Tempera Painting (New York and London: American Studio Books, 1946), 13.
4 For more on the Cranbrook Academy of Art during Robinson's time there, see Robert Judson Clark et al., Design in America: The Cranbrook Vision 1925-1950, exh. cat. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1983).
5 See the pamphlet for the "Museum of Non-Objective Painting" loan exhibition, February 12, 1947, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York.
6 Clement Greenberg, "Towards a Newer Laocoön," Partisan Review 7 (no. 4, JulyAugust 1940): 296310, and republished in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, eds., Art in Theory, 1900-1990 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992).
7 Letter from Jay Robinson to Jason Schoen, June 10, 1987, Schoen Collection.
8 Letter from Jay Robinson to Jason Schoen, June 8, 1988, Schoen Collection.
10 Paintings and Panels by Jay Robinson of West and Central Africa, The Milch Galleries, New York, November 14December 3, 1955.
About the Author
Paul A. Manoguerra is Curator of American Art at the Georgia
Museum of Art Please click
here to view his biography at the Georgia Museum of Art web site.
(above: Jay Robinson (b. 1915), Billie Holiday Singing the Blues, 1947, Oil on canvas, 20 1/2 x 16 inches. GMOA 2005.213E)
(above: Jay Robinson (b. 1915), Jump Band (Pete Brown on Alto Sax), 1947, Oil on canvas, 34 x 40 inches. GMOA 2005.94E)
(above: Jay Robinson (b. 1915), The Coal Miner, 1954, Fired enamel and oil on board, 20 3/8 x 30 3/4 inches. GMOA 2005.104E)
(above: Jay Robinson (b. 1915), The Visitors #17 , n.d., Acrylic, gold leaf, copper, and acid on board, 18 3/4 x 22 1/2 inches. GMOA 2005.105E)
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