There is a profound poetry in the way Robert Kelly describes the personal process behind his paintings. Balancing a deep self-awareness with a constant practice of looking outward, Robert pieces together the “odd elements” that uniquely interest him to create large format abstract works of art in his New York studio. Accompanied by photographer Marc Hom we visited Robert here, while having the most interesting conversation.
“I really honor the young artist in me, or in anybody –
that fresh beginning of trying to piece together those odd elements
that you and you alone find interesting.
You have to make your search personal somehow.”
Raised among a community of artists and writers that clustered in New Mexico, the likes of D.H. Lawrence and Georgia O’Keefe, Robert absorbed notions of creative living from an early age. Humbled by the sheer beauty and imposing vastness of that landscape, he also learned that to be an artist meant to look within first, and to then position and express oneself in the world, based on that inner understanding.
You grew up a long way from your current home New York City, in the Southwestern town of Santa Fe, New Mexico. How did your early years in this vast landscape prepare you for life as an artist?
Growing up in New Mexico was very special. My grandparents always had poets and painters for dinner and there were always gatherings. Most of the people who ended up in New Mexico wanted to be away from something, whether emotional or physical. They came for the dry air, or the big sky. This attracted a lot of creative people. D.H. Lawrence spent time there, as did Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keeffe and a host of the great writers and painters from New York. It was a very creative community to grow up in. The earliest hippies were out in New Mexico - the commissaries who helped stage the Woodstock concert gathered there. Being that its heritage is essentially Spanish and Native American makes it particularly unique. I think the lasting effect of the place was that it instilled in me a sense of humility and an awareness of the extraordinary and the unusual. It is also a gorgeous and a vast landscape, so one’s ego is kept in healthy perspective, which is important to me.
“Santa Fe has a gorgeous and a vast landscape,
so one’s ego is kept in healthy perspective, which is important to me.”
How has travelling, as much as you have, informed your art?
I am particularly drawn to the accumulation of memory within objects. When travelling in countries with deep cultural roots that have been around for a long time, I’m struck by how the walls, the buildings, the streets, have this accumulation of memory, almost as though they can speak themselves. The floors of my studio, too, have accumulated fifteen years of mark making and by doing so they have become objects of great beauty and pleasure for me.
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Your later work has evolved into a more pared down celebration of line, form and colour. Less, it seems, is more for you these days. Would you agree?
I think youth is a period of overstatements, and it is very natural to want to be affirmed. The beauty of working for a long time and becoming familiar with the very difficult process of making anything - and making anything well - is in creating a very subtle, very intimate and very personal arrangement with your notion of congruency with yourself. Hopefully, there emerges an alignment with who you are and what you do. What that is might not be relevant to anybody else but it’s a deeply personal thing. You have to make your search personal somehow.
“With time, your eye also becomes very refined,
which makes it very sensitive and, in turn, less forgiving.”
This alignment between thought and action, which might also be called integrity – does your focus on this also make you your own fiercest critic?
I have become very demanding of myself, yes, because I know my craft so well now. I had ideas of things I had to measure up to for so many years, so it took a while to give myself permission to do something that is seemingly so simple. With time, your eye also becomes very refined, which makes it very sensitive and, in turn, less forgiving.
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You recently turned 60. How has your work improved with experience?
The dream for any artist is to come into a degree of maturity - as well as a certain degree of irreverence alongside the reverential - after many years of work. I don’t think anything valuable comes without a tremendous degree of trial and error, but one hopes to achieve what might appear to be an almost effortless quality. By transcending an overly mindful approach one can hopefully allow a naturalness to imbue itself into the process, which in turn creates these expressively magic moments.