by Barry Walker, Associate Curator of Prints and Drawings, Brooklyn Museum
Editor’s Note: The following is reprinted, by permission of the author, from the exhibition catalogue Robert Gordy, which was published by USF Art Galleries, University of South Florida, Tampa, in conjunction with the 1985 exhibition of the same name. As the essay was written in 1985, the text has been updated.
For an artist, no event is more significant than a retrospective exhibition. As the word implies, a retrospective provides an occasion for looking back, for identifying themes, both stylistic and pictorial, that characterize a body of work. Usually, a retrospective inevitably entails reflection and reassessment. While everyone has such moments in life – a major anniversary or a birthday marking a decade – an artist is confronted with a tangible record that must be faced with prevarication or self-delusion.
For an artist to “dry up” in his/her primary medium after a retrospective is not at all unusual. Often a painter or sculptor will work only in drawings or prints for a few weeks or months on the heels of this hiatus. For an artist to make a radical and prolonged change, not only in style but in medium as well, however, is indeed unusual. But that is exactly what Robert Gordy did after his 1981 retrospective at the New Orleans Museum of Art.
Before 1981, Gordy worked primarily with acrylic on canvas in a style combining both decorative and narrative elements. His paintings were elegant, witty and refined. The pictorial space was almost totally flat, with depth indicated by overlay and patterning, or by devices of perspective so deceptively simple that they called attention to themselves in a tongue-in-cheek manner. Gordy emphasized the essential linearity of the work by repeating the extremely economical outlines in closely-keyed colors either dark to light or the reverse.
Gordy’s use of line in these paintings reduced form to the purest essential. Although usually the line was flat and of unvarying weight, occasionally, as in Tortola Stomp, No. 6 (1977), he made effective use of a jagged, nervous line to convey a sense of pulsating energy and movement. A typical Gordy painting involved repetition to create an overall patterning, but occasionally he would paint a strong central figure, usually a head. These heads were never a dominant note in his oeuvre, but appeared now and again, almost like small acts of rebellion against the complex pieces involving repetition as compositions.
Following the 1981 retrospective, Gordy sensed that he had reached a stalemate in his painting. On a trip to Albuquerque to make screenprints, he was invited to Santa Fe to try monotypes. After a discouraging day and a half, the medium began to work for him, starting him in an entirely new direction. Working in monotype, Gordy was able to push beyond the formal concerns of his paintings into a looser, more emotionally direct style in which intensity replaced the ironic detachment which characterized his previous work. The monotype, the most painterly of all printmaking forms, became his primary medium.
Most practitioners of the discipline, when asked why they work in monotype, discuss its immediacy and the almost mystical moment of uncertainty when the image on the plate is transferred by pressure to the dampened paper. For Gordy, the attraction was much simpler. Whereas one of his larger canvases would often entail days upon days of work that had become somewhat routine (Gordy called it “knitting”), he finished a monotype in a day. Additionally, the non-absorbency of his formica plates allowed false starts; areas, or the entire plate could be wiped clean with turpentine and a new image painted in.
Gordy’s first monotype images were heads, but unlike the head paintings he would occasionally paint, these were much more three-dimensional. Some of the most powerful of this series, such as Female Head (Duck Girl) and Study for a Suspicious Head, employed a direct reference to African sculpture, which Gordy collected. Study for a Suspicious Head achieved a heightened tension by the cropping of the image. In it, he made effective use of the additive and subtractive potentials of the medium, especially in the wiping of the bridge of the nose and the nostrils in assertively gestural strokes. The diagonals of the nose and mouth effectively balance the stylized horizontality of the eyes and the brows.
Gordy used the same techniques to create textural patterning in Female Head (Duck Girl). Against the exaggerated three-dimensional quality of the nose and lips of the image, he drew a deliberately flat representation of eyes in a linear style which only can be a reference to the playful style of Paul Klee. Duck Girl illustrated an important aspect of Gordy’s monotype technique. After twenty years of painting opaquely, he made full, almost purist, use of the transparence of the oil-based inks used for monotypes. For this reason, he hardly ever mixed white, which creates opacity, with his colors; the exposed paper in the wiped areas is his white. He consequently often used yellow, the lightest, hence most transparent, color for his flesh tones.
Head with Closed Eyes illustrates Gordy’s mastery of building layers of differing densities of transparent yellows, combined with clearly wiped areas, that, in the context of his work, created eccentric but credible flesh tones. This piece is particularly successful because of the way he breaks up the different planes of the face into geometrical forms—the triangularity of the nose, the horizontality of the eyebrows and eyes, the reverse arch of the chin and, especially the two rhomboids of the forehead, divided by the red band.
Both Study for a Faceless Head and Female Head (The Letter Opener) continued the theme of the African ritual mask. Study for a Faceless Head is, again, pared down to its geometric essence, yet the brio of the textures relieves the mathematical precision of the formal concerns. In The Letter Opener, Gordy shifted from yellow to a very transparent brown for the skin tones. This color began to dominate the work from late 1983 on, the artist often using it monochromatically, the density of the layering creating shifts in values. The economy of the extended lines that form the nose and eyebrows of The Letter Opener is Matisse-like in its elegant simplicity, exemplifying Gordy’s skill as a draftsman.
Not all the heads have a mask-like quality. Both Head of a Young Man and Female Head, though far from flat, are carried principally by line. The linear treatment of the hair in Head of a Young Man and the arabesque of the line forming the bridge of the nose show the artist’s knowledgeable enjoyment of the wide variety of marking technique.
An important development in Gordy’s monotype imagery occurred in 1983 with Interior with Two Male Figures. By this time he had purchased a large bed press, so he was able to increase the scale of his monotypes significantly. More important, he began to work with full figures; in this case, the interaction of two figures. He was able to capture the same compressed tension and emotional intensity with the full figure that previously he had been only able to achieve in the heads. The almost mannerist distortion of the two figures is used for rhythmic effect. Here again, Gordy’s cropping of the image adds to the dramatic tension of the image.
Gordy’s use of line was never more ideosyncratically effective than in Male Nude. The unbroken line that defines the whole left side of the figure is remarkable for its variety, especially considering its unvarying weight. The elongation of the torso and the exaggeration of the buttock shifts the focus from the truncation of the arms to the articulation of the legs. The quirkiness of the line endows the monotype with great vitality and sense of movement despite the limited and subtle use of diagonals.
In Female Nude, one of the very large monotypes, Gordy again used the nervous, pulsating line he had infrequently employed in his painting. Here again, as in Male Nude, the force of the line carries the image. The stippling, a passing reference to pointillism, serves not only a decorative function, as it would have the earlier work, but also a textural one, reinforcing the pulsating quality of the line. In this piece especially, it becomes apparent that Gordy was able to translate certain of the techniques of the paintings into a wholly different idiom. The flatness of the figure is reminiscent of the paintings, but the frontality and immediacy bespeak the later style.
Gordy’s ability and willingness to change from a successful and highly recognizable style reflects an all too rare artistic integrity. Not content to rest with a safely established reputation, he strove to break through the elements which he felt brought his work to a state of stasis. Had he not discovered monotypes, he might well have done it in another medium. But how fortunate that he did discover them, for he gave us a wonderful and exciting body of work.