I treasure the studio visits I’ve had the good fortune to conduct since 2013 in my role at Main Street Arts. As a curator, it is incredibly helpful to see work in progress in its natural habitat and to greet artists on their home turf. I’ve enjoyed many hours talking about art and motivations for making it, personal histories, studio ‘shoptalk’, artists who we collectively know or admire, and so much more.
As a painter, a visit to Robert Marx’s studio was as inspirational as it was educational. There’s something special about getting the chance to talk about painting with someone who’s been doing it for longer than I’ve been alive. Robert would always talk about his work but not for too long and would only go so deep into a conversation about it. What he had to say was already there on the canvas. The things I loved to hear him talk about weren’t as much about the content of the work but about his process. Through continuous manipulation of the surface of the canvas, Robert would subtract as much as he would add. He was always sanding through layers of oil paint to reveal parts from previous compositions.
While I paid many visits to the studio, he usually wasn’t painting while I was there—aside from one visit to his old studio at Anderson Alley in 2016—but I have heard from others that the longer he worked, the more likely it would be that he forgot you were there! He was able to keep distraction at bay and immerse himself fully into his work and this is evident, especially in his paintings.
His work was ever-evolving—often, finished paintings would be reworked or repainted all together. Taking some of the paintings in this show as examples, No Regrets was once called No! and Dim-sided Duncan once looked a little more like a straightforward portrait of a cleric.
On a studio visit, I would usually try to photograph paintings as they were in progress. I found that they change so much over the course of their creation and as a painter myself, I found it so interesting to see his creative process.
After Heavy Metal was installed and after speaking with so many people about Robert’s work and his unique process, I found myself curious of how many images I had taken at various studio visits over the past few years.
One painting in particular, Stilling the Human Voice—the largest in the show—turned out to be in progress during a November, 2018 studio visit. The records in Robert’s archive and the date listed on the inventory sheet at the gallery indicated that the painting was from 2012. While the painting was first done in 2012, I found an image from my visit in 2018 and this painting was not yet finished. The finished result, seen in this exhibition has a similar composition but overall a bit less rigid and static. I don’t know his intent with repainting this piece in particular but I feel that he wasn’t satisfied with his statement from 2012 and felt he could say it more effectively in 2018–2019.
What was he saying with this painting and why did he choose to repaint it? Only Robert knew… Perhaps he was further contemplating the importance of thinking before speaking; or speaking through actions instead of yelling from a soap box. In Robert’s own words, “we are trapped by the conventions we have chosen to impose upon ourselves.” While this speaks more to the themes in his work, it’s also interesting to think of this line in his artist statement in relation to the creation of the work itself. His repainting and reworking of canvases—sometimes over and over—was a way to break with conventions that were self-imposed. He developed a distinct way of painting and spent decades working within the confines of his own process, but he was always shifting, changing, refining and evolving.
I feel honored to have known Robert and to have been able to visit his studio so many times. I am appreciative of the way that he worked and for the unanswered questions in his paintings. Whether the questions are about his motivations for repainting a canvas or the scrambled letters at the bottom of a painting that seem to spell a word, the questions that remain keep the conversation going.