National Museum of American Art
Eyeing America: Robert Cottingham Prints
Frankfurters - Hamburgers (from the Cottingham Suite), 1980, color lithograph, 10.2 x 10.2 inches, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, gift of an anonymous donor.
Eyeing America: Robert Cottingham Prints celebrates the recent acquisition of a set of the artist's prints spanning three decades. This exhibition, on view from Sept. 25 - Jan. 31, 1999, marks the National Museum of American Art's first occasion to present this new collection to the public.
Cottingham is best known for his crisply depicted representations of the urban American landscape. He came to prominence in the photorealist era of the late 1960s and '70s, inspired by Pop artists' use of commercial imagery, but also influenced by earlier realists such as Edward Hopper and Charles Demuth.
Cottingham calls his work in which signs predominate "Facades." The signs, marquees and storefronts have significance for him beyond their literal message.
Left: Barrera-Rosa's (from the portfolio Barrera-Rosa's ). 1986, color lithograph, 13 1/4 x x 37.2 inches, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, gift of an anonymous donor.
"My interest in these commercial curiosities," he says, "stems from my Brooklyn upbringing, my fascination with letter forms as symbols, and my interest in the use of language as a means of persuasion."
Born in 1935, Cottingham grew up in Brooklyn. He studied art at the Pratt Institute in New York, and from 1959 to 1968 he worked, first in New York and then in Los Angeles, as an art director at an advertising firm. This background in advertising, as well as the artist's fascination with Los Angeles' deteriorating downtown, shaped Cottingham' s vision of America' s vanishing urban neighborhoods.
Like many 20th-century artists, Cottingham uses photography as a starting point for pictures. Despite the remarkable perfection in his rendering of images and the relentless "realism" of the photographs that are the basis of his compositions, Cottingham is a creator rather than a copier of American signs. He considers his camera a "high-speed sketchbook," and shoots hundreds of slides that serve as precursors to a formal composition.
Right: Hot, 1973, color lithograph, 21 x 21 inches, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, gift of an anonymous donor.
The artist sees printmaking and painting as complementary acts. He finds that subtle variations in each process suggest different approaches to the subject matter. The formal exercise of establishing the composition reveals something different to Cottingham each time he reconstructs familiar scenes.
"Robert Cottngham is a wonderful printmaker and a wonderful painter whose imagery and approach to composition give his work a distinctive look," said Jacquelyn Days Serwer, the Museum of American Art's chief curator and organizer of the exhibition. "This exhibition is a terrific opportunity to see the same artist creating and reworking his images in different media"
Left: Orph, 1972, color lithograph, 20 x 30 inches, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, gift of an anonymous donor.
The lithograph "Orph" (1972), Cottingham's first print, was created for Documenta 5, an art conference and exhibition that provided his first opportunity toproduce an edition of prints with other contemporary realist artists. "Orph" was preceded by a watercolor and a drawing. For almost 30 years, Cottingham has continued this interplay between his painting and his printmaking.
The "Barrera-Rosa's" series (1984-1986), depicting a once-typical city block, not only displays Cottingham's interest in different creative processes and the subtle differences in his subject that can be revealed through the processes, but also his interest in America's past. His scene of a Mexican restaurant, a German beer hall, a neighborhood barber shop and a liquor store preserves a multicultural aspect of twentieth-century American cities in a way that he defines as homage, rather than nostalgia.
"The subject of 'Barrera-Rosa's' has significance for America's rich and complicated history. 'Barrera-Rosa's' is not just a series of commercial signs," said Serwer. "Cottingham suggests an era when the local downtown was a gathering place for everyone."
Left: Candy, 1979, oil on canvas, 78 1/8 x 78 1/8 inches, color lithograph, 10.2 x 10.2 inches, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment
In addition to 70 prints produced from 1972 to 1991, "Eyeing America" includes the Museum of American Art's painting "Candy", the only oil on canvas in the exhibition. Cottingham's recent railroad pictures, "Heralds" and "Rolling Stock", round out the show. Like Cottingham's signs, the railroad series elevates a decaying aspect of the American landscape into a heroic symbol of America's past. Quotations and commentary by the artist accompany many works. This exhibition is supported by the Smithsonian's Special Exhibition Program.
The Artist As Printmaker
Cottingham made his first print in 1972 in conjunction with Documenta 5, an exhibition of contemporary art in Kassel, Germany. Working at the print studio Shorewood Atelier, Inc., in New York City, he produced the seven-color lithograph, Orph, initiating a new area of activity that would continue throughout his career.
Cottingham's enthusiasm for printmaking coincided with a resurgence of interest in the field by such well-known contemporary artists as Jasper Johns, David Hockney, and Chuck Close. Since then, Cottingham has worked at several prestigious print studios, among them Landfall Press in Chicago,Tandem Press in Madison,Wisconsin, and Harlan and Weaver in New York, producing over sixty editions in various media.
The interplay in Cottingham's work between printmaking
and painting has been a hallmark of his development. Paintings often lead
to prints, and the prints have affected his paintings by suggesting new
applications and relationships of color and scale. Cottingham continually
rethinks his images: his 1971 painting Art provided the image for
a print issued twenty years later; likewise Fox, a successful lithograph
from 1973, became the inspiration for a 1988 painting.
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