About This Exhibition
A Love Supreme – Robert Mars featuring Jay West highlights a series of portraits of African-American icons that include Martin Luther King, Jr., Muhammad Ali, Lena Horne – Mars and West collaborated on this piece – John Coltrane and Michael Jackson. King is the key figure in the series, for he dared to publicly dream of a better future for African Americans, one where his “four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Portrayed with a photographic realism, these icons are shown at the height of their fame and in the glory of their youth.
About the Artist
Robert Mars' artwork chronicles an evolving fascination with the Golden Age of American popular culture and celebrates the icons of the 1950’s and 60’s by taking inspiration from this culture long past. Through the application of a rich color palette and tongue-in-cheek attitude, Mars’ paintings evoke a vintage quality of design and pay homage to the idealized age of growth and hopefulness that was prevalent in the USA at the end of the Depression. A time before the internet and mobile technology, where information was not instantly available to millions and there was no such thing as instant internet celebrities, and instead people lived with the myth of the unique, untouchable and unforgettable personalities of Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, Audrey Hepburn and Elvis Presley.
By merging his own concept of personal idols with those of mainstream culture, Mars is able to focus his work on a deeper analysis of the Golden Age of American personalities. As an artist, he has always been fascinated with 1950’s and 60’s culture, and his early work reflects many of the architectural and mechanical icons from this era. Muscle cars, motels, logos and hulking monuments to the "modern" feeling of the time permeate his early canvases. More recently however, Mars’ artwork has shifted toward the culture of celebrity and he is amazingly attuned to the fact that these instantly recognizable and larger-than-life personalities continue to resonate with contemporary American culture.
A graduate of Parsons School of Design in New York, Mars begins the creative process by preparing his surface with multiple layers of brown paper in order to define the edges and delineate the background planes of color. He then alternates layers of paint and vintage paper ephemera, sanding away portions of the layers as he works, revealing the desired portions of under painting with the overall intention to provide the viewer with a muted window into America’s past. Chronicling this fascination with 1950’s and 60’s iconography, Mars has produced a body of artwork from his studio in New York that celebrates the commonplace objects and icons of an America long past, in a thoroughly modern and exquisitely constructed manner. His eye for a distinct facet of American history is impeccable and his ability to manipulate the color and wordplay of vintage printed material has earned him reference with the likes of Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and Richard Diebenkorn among other masters from the School of Pop. Robert Mars’ artwork is exhibited worldwide including museum collections in Munich, Tokyo, Amsterdam, London, Boston, New York, Los Angeles, Laguna Beach, Paris, Aspen and Naples. His artwork was also selected for the Absolut Vodka Blank campaign alongside Damien Hirst and his largest sized piece to date was recently acquired by Philip Morris/Altria for their corporate headquarters in Virginia. Mars has been confirmed as a guest artist to participate in the Coca Cola bottle 100 year celebration in 2015.
Jay West subverts the grandiose aura of art history through his adaptation of pop aesthetics. Using both the expressiveness of abstraction and surrealism, and the stylistic rendering of graphic illustration.
African American Dreamers: Robert Mars’ Portraits by Donald Kuspit
…there has been also the American Dream, that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.
James Truslow Adams, Epic of America, 1931
We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands…when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American Dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dig deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” 1963
Martin Luther King, Jr. is the key figure in the series of portraits of African American icons made by Robert Mars, for King dared to publicly dream of a better future for African Americans—the better future signaled by the success of such African Americans as Mohammed Ali, Lena Horne, John Coltrane, and Michael Jackson, among other African American “winners” portrayed with photographic verisimilitude. (Lena Horne was made in collaboration with Jay West.) For King stated, with creative explicitness, the African American version of the American Dream: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” He made his “I Have a Dream” speech—he also dreamt of the sons of former slaves and of former slave owners from the state of Georgia sitting “down together at the table of brotherhood” and of the transformation of Mississippi, “a state sweltering with the heat of injustice...and oppression…into an oasis of freedom and justice”--in our nation’s capital on August 28, 1963. He was reminding the nation’s rulers that he, and every other African American, had the same basic right—birthright—to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as every other American. He was reminding them of the founding American conviction that “all men are created equal,” including African Americans. King’s African American dream is Worth Fighting For, as Mars tells us, declaring King to be the Superman who will lead the fight—they also show us a Black Panther fighter, truculently enraged in contrast to the calm and steady King, a man of God rather than of the Street—but the picture of King suggests that the fight may not be won, and may be futile. As though in ironical commentary on the possibility of realizing King’s dream, several words of his speech, in small print, are scattered across the American flag behind him, adding to the power of his presence by informing his figure, yet also fragmenting it. His raised hand is cut by a blood-red stripe, which also cuts across his face, while another one seems to cut through his heart, as though prophesying his assassination. King was a prophet speaking truth to power, and like all prophets he was not welcome by those to whom he preached.
Mars’ portraits, which variously combine newsworthy publicity photographs, color field abstraction (the American flag, a sort of vernacular, commonplace abstraction), comic strip characters, and pithy, headline-like, sloganeering phrases (a multitude of signifiers from different languages ingeniously united in a common expressive cause)--are subtly ironical. All of his African Americans are celebrity entertainers—perhaps even King, who has a certain theatrical flair about him—shown at the height of their fame and in the glory of their youth. The black models advertising Yves Saint Laurent and Chanel are beautiful, and so is Lena Horne. Mohammed Ali is a masculine powerhouse—a “Champion” spark plug—and Michael Jackson, shown as a smiling child, is already an “Epic” figure, miraculously talented. So is the “cool” saxophonist John Coltrane and the “hot” Lena Horne. They’re all naturally gifted, naturally charismatic. Yet there’s always something wrong in the picture, something disturbing and unsettling. The few words of King’s speech blur into an unreadable smear, as though they were dirt flung at the American flag on which they appear, like a sort of biblical handwriting on the wall. Lena Horne is juxtaposed with Olive Oyl, Popeye the Sailor Man’s girl friend, suggesting that Horne belongs in a comic strip, all the more so because she’s as oilily seductive as they are. Juxtaposed with the graffiti image of a grotesquely distorted face the serious Coltrane also becomes a kind of cartoon. (Juxtaposition establishes what psychoanalysts call cross-identification.) Subversively mocked, both become bad jokes, their serious artistry reduced to mindless popularity. The first and last letters of “Champion” are cropped in Ali’s portrait, suggesting that there is something missing from him. Similarly, the first three letters of “prestige” are missing from Coltrane’s portrait, suggesting that he is also peculiarly lacking, however determined he looks, like Ali. Looking at Ali’s youthful portrait, showing him at the beginning of his triumphant career—like the portrait of the young Michael Jackson, who also met with an unhappy, not to say catastrophic end—I could not help thinking of Hitler’s remark about the African American Jesse Owens, the star of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Of course Owen would beat a German runner, Hitler said, for Owen was a black panther not a human being. Degraded in the act of being celebrated is an irony that haunts all the portraits.
They are peculiarly tragic, all the more so because they suggest that the African Americans who make it may have sold out. The painting of the dollar sign in the exhibition suggests as much. The fact that the seductive, beautiful African American models are in the business of selling products for firms started by a white American man and a white French woman suggest they have sold out—or is the right word “accommodated”?—to the white world. “Blackness” has become chic and trendy, “Otherness” a selling point in the so-called free market. All the figures are artists—masters in their field—but are they in it for the money or the art? To recall James Truslow Adams’ words, do they do what they do in pursuit of the American Dream of “material plenty”—do they, like most Americans, worship what William James caustically called the “Bitch Goddess of Success” (after all, the streets of America are paved with gold)—or do they do what they do “to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable” through their art? Do we respect and admire them for the “content of their character” or because they have become successful despite the odds against and difficulties of becoming successful in a white man’s world? Are they “characters” playing a role in a social theater, as the fact that they are all entertainers suggests? Weren’t African Americans always regarded as “entertaining,” as vaudeville and minstrel shows imply? Aren’t they simply another “exciting” part of what the sociologist Theodor Adorno called the “culture industry?” Are they really being themselves—True Selves, as their remarkable authentic creativity suggests—or are they False Selves, compliant cogs who have earned themselves a notable place in the social machine by way of their talent to amuse, to use the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott’s distinction? Or are they a paradoxical uncanny synthesis of both? The color of their skin may be their calling card, but they are more than skin-deep.
The brilliance of Mars’ portraits of memorable African Americans—all we need is to see their faces to recognize them and acknowledge their importance—is that they leave us stuck on the horns of a dilemma, and with that remind us that Martin Luther King’s American Dream, whether it be of material success or of self-fulfillment, might not come true, not just for African Americans but for every American. Mars’ African Americans are idols, but they are peculiarly fallen idols. Yet they form a constellation of eternal stars in the firmament of American history.
Image credits: Robert Mars & Jay West, Out In Style (Lena Horne) 2014, Mixed media on wood panel with epoxy resin, 48" x 68" x 2"