by Mackenzie T. Nichols
Thank you all for coming here today to “Rohm” around these beautiful sculptures, I know that the Norton Center Staff and I really appreciate it. What did you come to see today during your common hour on the last day of classes? Well, you came to see five modern abstract sculptures from the 20th century by none other than Robert Rohm, himself. Here are a few things about Rohm that I think are important to know…The artist was born not too far from Danville, in Cincinnatti, Ohio in the year of 1934. He was raised by his father and mother, Hermann G. Rohm and Anna K. Sager, both of whom immigrated from Germany in 1923. He worked for his Bachelor of Industrial Design Degree from Pratt Institute in New York, in 1956, and received his Master of Fine Arts degree from Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, in 1960. He is survived by his first wife, Patricia Arrow, a fellow artist and dancer that he collaborated with on many occasions, along with his current wife, Candy Adriance—whom I actually was lucky enough to be able to converse with on multiple occasions. He is also survived by a big beautiful family all across the globe.
Rohm’s career spanned across more than five decades, full of solo and group exhibitions at musuems and galleries, with works that are both nationally and internationally known. Some of these institutions include: The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, the Whitney Museum of American Art, The San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, The Seattle Art Museum, The Kunsthalle, Zurich, Switzerland and the O.K. Harris Gallery in SoHo…his vitae goes on and on, listing the different museums, galleries and publications that he was in, but for time’s sake we will stop here. Over the years, his high quality work has evolved in both materiality and in form, with suggestions of both narrative and figurative imagery.
In 1964, Robert returned to his alma mater, Pratt Institue, as an educator, before moving to Rhode Island after receiving a Guggenheim Grant. There, he settled in as a faculty member in the University of Rhode Island’s Art Department—helping establish the modern practice of sculpture education in Kingston. Furthermore, he among others, contributed to the early success of the University of Rhode Island Gallery that is there today.
Aside from sculpture, one of his other passions was travelling. In talking to his wife, Candy, I learned that she owns her own travelling agency and because of this they travelled frequently. She said that those trips around the world, being able to experience different cultures, had a very powerful impact on his art, specifically the imagery and forms of his sculptures. Later on, Candy and Bob moved to Charleston, Rhode Island, where they were surrounded by open fields, natural woodlands, and even a unique Zen-inspired garden close to their home. Sadly, Robert passed away a few short years ago in 2013.. Although, he was not a very religious man, and wouldn’t identify as one who practiced Buddhism, he meditated and studied these practices the last years of his life when he grew ill and eventually chose to stop the medical intervention. Through his meditation and his strong connection to the Asian culture, his last years and work began to reflect the connection with the mind and body. Still, his art lives on and Centre College is lucky enough to have part of him here with us today.
These sculptures came to the College by way of extremely generous gifts from the Karp Family. Ivan Karp, the O.K. Harris Gallery’s art dealer and his wife, Marilynn, were very close friends to both Robert and Candy. Interestingly enough, the Norton Center has connections with the Karp family as well. I know that the Norton Center was incredibly grateful for these gifts alongside the College, but I am also truly thankful to have been given the opportunity to curate such an exhibition as this for my Art History Senior Seminar Thesis. That being said, let’s move on to the sculptures themselves.
All of the sculptures that you will see here today were constructed with steel, mesh, and encaustic. Encaustic is a more formal art term, simply put, it is a type of pigment mixed with hot wax. This is interesting because the steel rebar and encaustic are often associated with construction and mass-production. These are not your traditional materials for sculpture like bronze and marble are. One example of a traditional sculpture that we have here with us, is the small Rodin, across from the first sculpture on the left wing. But why is it important? These everyday construction materials are not fit for art in comparison to the marble and bronze, the traditional sculpture, this is one way that modern sculpture and abstract sculpture, sets itself apart from the more traditional materials and eras of more traditional way. Robert Rohm was making a statement when he chose to incoroporate these inustrial materials and basic physical processes.
Apart from being constructed with industrial materials, these sculptures are also anthropomorphic—meaning that they resemble the human figure in shape and size. Similar to other mid-twentieth century abstract American sculptures, they can be celebrated alongside artists such as David Smith and Giacometti. Smith’s work can be related to Rohm because within his cubic and abstract sculptures, there is still something about it that references the figure. Robert Rohm is participating in this tradition. Due to the sculptures being roughly the size and shape of the figure, you are supposed to see that and experience them in that light, because it would be a very different experience if they were larger or smaller. Additionally, like Smith, Rohm intended still, to keep the viwer distant from the sculptures. “These were aimed at making it difficult for the viewer to perceive or imagine the entirety of the object at once, forcing us to consider it part by part.” Although this quote was intended for Smith, I think it speaks to Rohm’s work in an intimate way because these anthropomorphic sculptures are meant to be viewed in-the-round; meaning, that in order for you to have a full and complete experience engaging with the sculptures, you must walk around them completely, and look at them part by part. This is one of the reasons that the works are pushed out from against the walls and under the track lighting, to be able to “Rohm” around without worrying about hurting yourself or the precious works.
Additionally, all of these sculptures are abstract. “Abstract art is art that does not attempt to represent an accurate depiction of a visual reality but instead use shapes, colours, forms and gestural marks to achieve its effect.” These sculptures were not created solely to be anthropomorphic, but they still emulate it. And, “Strictly speaking, the word abstract means to separate or withdraw from something, from something else.” As I have stated previously, through the materiality contrasting from more traditional materials, such as bronze and marble, it is separating itself from traditional art and the artist is withdrawing himself, too.
All of these works, though they have subtitles, are actually, Untitled. Why? To be frank, I don’t know the most definite and concrete answer. However, through my research and talking with his wife, Candy, I have formulated my own answer to a question that will probably never truly be answered. I think that there are subtitles for the sculptures because they need a description that will better able people to set them apart from each other: Two Side, Side Escape, Swelling Top, Pinched Core and Red Panels. On a deeper level, though, I think that this all goes back to how Rohm was so insistent on letting the viewer figure it out for themselves, bringing in their own experiences and individual personalities and perceptions, creating a title for themselves, one that they can take with them when they go. In his artist statement, Rohm says something along the lines of this:
“The origin of each piece is my attempt to make manifest my thoughts and the visions generated by my inner life, my ongoing process of learning to quiet the mind and my struggle to achieve what can be referred to as Buddhist “states of being. I believe that a sculptural object can have a visual power of its own and should not need an accompanying explanation.. Therefore it is not important to me that the viewer know the source or specifics of my quest, a rather impossible expectation to say the least. However, my hope is that the objects I’ve made have some compelling, quiet, meditative resonance for the viewer, an object that perhaps may induce some mental afterlife in the mind’s eye of the viewer.”
We have been working on this exhibition for most the semester, I won’t lie to you, there are a lot of things that didn’t go the way that I had envisioned them going. Originally, I planned to have chapel-like enclosures around the sculptures; alluding to the sacred spaces that medieval churches marked out around their columns for the altars, to create a more personal experience for the person involved. The red velvet stanchions didn’t look right around these abstract sculptures, so I set out to Lowe’s and Tractor Supply to see if I could build my own (with the help of the staff, of course). I wanted to complement the sculpture by finding other industrial materials, I found bars of rebar, big and small, chains, rope, etc. When I brought it up in one of our meetings, though, someone mentioned that the viewer could associate the enclosure with the work of the artist, and furthermore, criticize it. Ultimately, we were worried that this idea would take the viewer’s attention away from the work—which is not what you want as a curator…Then we tried something else. We ordered adhesive footprints, playing off the fact that we wanted you to “Rohm” around, thinking that we might be able to lead you around the sculptures with the footprints. Again, when we received them in the mail and laid them out… it just didn’t look right. I couldn’t put my finger on it, as to why these things that looked so good in my head, didn’t play out the way that I wanted them to. Well, that’s life, but with the lights shining down above the sculptures, there is a ring of light that surrounds it. This eased my mind some, but, honestly, I came to understand that sometimes less is more and it might be more like what Rohm might have wanted with letting them stand alone and speak for themselves.
Similarly, in the beginning, I was so set on wanting to educate the public about how to look at abstract art, so much to the point that I forgot about the importance of the viewer thinking for themselves. At one point, I wanted to set up the Rodin next to the sculptures, to provide a visual comparison, to see what has changed in both form and materiality throughout the years. Still, the sculptures needed to speak for themselves. Luckily, for you, though, there is the Rodin over there and I do want you to take a sneak peak of it when looking at your questions. It’s important to know where the art came from and to appreciate the way things have changed about abstract sculpture over the years.
Another example that didn’t necessarily work out the way I wanted it to be was the minimization of shadows. While the staff and I did what we could, there’s only so much you can work with when you have one track light. It’s amazing to see how it all works, with all the lights that can move up and down the track, twisting and turning, but I can only imagine what the lighting would have looked like in a gallery in New York or even a museum across the sea. Candy noted that with the lighting, the color starts to come out and you will start to see it more so on the wax surfaces, you will start to notice every conscious decision of his hand that scraped for hours through melted encaustic to get the color that he wanted on these works. Therefore, if you don’t get the right lighting or lighting that exposes this, then an important element of the works is missed. The shadows, as you can see, have remained. However, we did our best to highlight the different colors in the encaustic nonetheless.
“This current body of work is the result of my ongoing quest to still the noise of my mind and return, as much as possible, to its original and natural state of empty quiet.” Just as Robert had written this in his artist statement, when I talked to Candy on the phone, she kept telling me to, “Ask for quiet, let the audience figure it out, he had always said that he wasn’t going to tell people how to figure it out; the work needs to stand on its own.” My relationship with these sculptures has changed so much over the course of the semester. Initially, I didn’t appreciate them for what they were because I was constantly comparing it to something else and not valuing it for what it was. In working with the Norton Center over the past few months, I’ve grown more attached to them because of all the time that I have spent with them, adjusting the lighting, walking around them time and time again, and quieting my mind. When I came here to work with these sculptures, I could stop whatever school work I was doing and just be still. It is when you’re quiet with these works that you will get something out of this experience. While I couldn’t agree more with Robert and Candy, I wanted to give you, the viewer, some biographical information about the artist, I wanted to give you a sense of why materiality plays a vital role in separating itself from the traditional sculptures, and I wanted to give you just a few hints of how you, should think about engaging with these sculptures. The name of the exhibition, “Rohm around” isn’t there for the sake of the pun, but literally walk around them, and walk around them again. Notice how the light plays off the encaustic in some areas, bringing out the colors, and how in other areas it remains dark in the shadows. Let your mind wander, indulge your curiosity, ask questions and don’t be afraid to think of something different from the person next to you. This is YOUR experience. Some of the questions that I would like for you to ponder as you “Rohm around” are:
Question 1: How does Rohm’s use of non-traditional materials such as steel, mesh, and encaustic shape your experience of these works? How might you think of them differently were they made from marble or bronze? Again, notice the Rodin sculpture, as you pass.
Question 2: Each sculpture is anthropomorphic, in that they resemble the human figure in shape and size. Does this inform how you look at or experience these works? What do you see? You may not even see the figure, that is okay! Tell me what you do see. Question 3: How do these abstract sculptures encourage you to interact with them? How would you compare them? And Question 4: How would you describe your experience “Rohming around” these Untitled works? Write your answers on the chalk boards, please be respectful, but also be creative. These are here to keep you engaged, make you think a little longer about how you interact with them, and learn from your peers, talk about them! There are benches spread out among the foyer, don’t be afraid to take a seat and quiet your mind. You will find these questions on the back of your cards that you picked up on your way in. Please walk around with them, write freely on the chalk boards and take these home—hang them on your refrigerator! Don’t let your conversations stop when you walk out of this space.
Untitled (Two Side); Steel, mesh and encaustic; 1999 – Marilynn Karp Gift
Untitled (Side Escape); Steel, mesh and encaustic; 2002 – Jesse Karp Gift
Untitled (Swelling Top); Steel, mesh and encaustic; 2002 – Ethan Karp
Untitled (Pinched Core); Steel, mesh and encaustic; 2002 – Amie Karp Gift
Untitled (Red Panels); Steel, mesh and encaustic; 2001-2002
2017. David Smith American Sculptor. Accessed May 8, 2017. http://www.theartstory.org/artist-smith-david.htm.
Rohm, Robert. 2013. “Artist’s Statement .” January 26.
Unknown. 2017. Abstract Art. Accessed May 8, 2017. http://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/a/abstract-art.
—. n.d. Obituaries. Accessed May 8, 2017. http://www.averystortifuneralhome.com/fh/obituaries/obituary.cfm?o_id=2111943&fh_id=13474.