Whitehot Magazine

Robert Zeller on The New Baroque and Current State of Representational Figurative Painting

Robert Zeller, The Waiter's Dream, 2017, 62 x 74 in


I had a chat with Robert Zeller, a New York based figurative painter who has curated a show called "The New Baroque", opening at Booth Gallery on November 18th, 2017. He has also written and had internationally published, a book on figurative art titled The Figurative Artist's Handbook. The following is a conversation from September 2017.

Becker: I've noticed that your work demonstrates an interest in the Surrealists. What is it about Surrealism that you find fascinating?

Zeller: I grew up in a Surrealist environment, so that artistic language felt immediately understandable to me. The contradictions between the subconscious and the conscious that are the stock and trade of Surrealism are very evident in my hometown of New Orleans. Though it is a very different place now, the last vestiges of Southern Gothic culture were still authentically in place in New Orleans in the 70’s when I was growing up. It was a more Surreal place back then. 

Robert Zeller, By faith and not by sight, 1996, oil and encaustic on panel, 35 x 52 in

Becker: What do you remember about New Orleans?

Zeller: I remember the strong contradictory influences of what you were told on the surface and what the reality actually was. Take the paradox of Mardi Gras, for example. You know, sin as much as you can on Tuesday because on Wednesday you have to put on ashes and repent. That may seem funny, but it's an extreme version of reality -dualistic. Bourbon Street is very quaint to look at in the daylight, with its French and Spanish Baroque architecture, but it’s a pretty tawdry and sad place at night. I grew up thinking in terms of that type of dichotomy and a constant cycle of repenting and sinning, never getting full resolution.

Robert Zeller, The Virgin of the Mall, 2006, oil on linen, 28 x 42 in, courtesy of the artist

Becker: So it was the New Orleans experience.

Zeller: Yes, there are many things that are unique to New Orleans but when I first saw the Surrealist painters, like Max Ernst, Salvador Dali and Paul Delvaux and the like, I realized that the dichotomy thing was a more common human experience. We don’t see it much today, because our corporate owned  media has managed to whitewash it out of mass culture. Dualistic narratives are bad for business, after all.  But in postwar Europe of the 1920s, the Dadaists and then the Surrealists spoke to the heart of the matter. They had just seen everything blown up. They were processing that reality. and Freud had much influence on them as well.  

Becker: And how do you think about this sort of thing or conceptualize it? 

Zeller: Things are not what they seem to be, on the surface. Rather, one has to dig beneath, through the layers of the consciousness, in order to see the truth: that many of the constructs of everyday life are absurd nonsense. In contemplating our dreams, we become more awake, more attuned to the true reality ourselves and our society. I think we have trouble facing up to the truth that's right under our nose and I think that’s the job of the artist - to hold up a mirror to the personal and communal world we live in. 

Becker: How does that work for the Surrealists though?

Zeller: The Surrealists did not accept the commonplace narrative of the contemporary Western civilization of their day and we shouldn’t either. But in their rejection of it, their rebellion, they were more artful and less destructive than the Dadaists. I think that in the best Surrealist art, there is an aesthetic influenced by the French and Spanish Baroque that is luxuriously more feline and feminine, and sensual. Less confrontational. 

Becker: So this aesthetic influences your mode of representation; that's interesting. So you obviously like to work in representational painting? Do you think art can be made without representation? 

Zeller: Yes, of course. I love representational painting, but it is only one modality, and not a prerequisite to creating great art. But I don’t think the representational vs. nonrepresentational argument is the right debate to have, anyway. It’s merely a philosophical argument over the handling of the surface of reality: should you make art that looks like reality or not? Rather, I’m interested in the deeper question of whether great art reflects humanity or not. 

Becker: So then what do you think is the strongest aspect of art?

Zeller: My take is that the best art is defined by its humanity. We humans instinctually look for patterns in the world around us.  In an evolutionary sense, this is a trait left over from when we were both the hunted and the hunter. I don’t mean literal patterns, like plaid or paisley or mandalas, per se. I did a series of paintings about that and I’m a little embarrassed by how literal they were. I mean patterns that show commonalities and help us identify and categorize things. We want to both recognize and relate to things. People want art/need art that they can relate to. 

Becker: I've heard you discuss figurative painter John Currin. Do you see there being a movement of figurative work around people like Currin? 

I mentioned him in my book because he’s a great painter. Very skilled. But his work is quite cynical at times, and that puts him at odds with others who view the representational modality as one that should be primarily concerned with the creation of beauty. It's odd that realistic painting got pigeonholed into the “beauty” rut. But Currin is an interesting artist on many levels.

Rob Zeller, The Lucid Dream, 28 x 50, oil on linen, 2013

Becker: Why so?

He's a true maverick, he pulled off the near impossible feat of being embraced by the art establishment while painting figures with a high degree of realistic polish at a time in the mid-1990s when no one else got away with that. It did help that he was armed with an MFA from Yale. That always seems to help with a certain portion of the artistic gatekeepers. Most importantly, Currin speaks the Post Modern, Post Structuralist language. Thus, he is understood and embraced by the art establishment. Has an art movement formed around him? No, not really. Rather, I’d say that figurative painters who want to make a living in the art world have to learn to speak the language, or speak strongly in their own voice. Post Modern/ Post structuralism is a dreadfully boring language to learn, anyway. It’s the language of victimization.  So many victims, so little time, I like to say.  You are much better off creating your own language.

Noah Becker: Who else is in that category would you say?

Successful European representation painters like Neo Rauch and Phil Hale have done so by creating images that do not say much in terms of narrative, but say a lot about the human collective subconscious.  I’d put Adrian Ghenie in that category also. 

Becker: Do you feel like representational painters are treated like outsiders in the current art scene?

Zeller: Almost everyone is treated as an outsider in the contemporary art world. It’s an exclusive ecosystem by design. Its basic premise is that there are important gatekeepers that are in place to validate work: curators, galleries, and museums. They keep the great unwashed out.  If they approve of your work, you are in. If they don’t, well, you are SOL. Like I said, you have to speak their language. 

Becker: So you don’t think representational painters are being singled out? 

Zeller: Well, if they are, it’s for two reasons- one, many representational painters simply aren’t very deep. They want to create beautiful objects. Portraits and nude paintings of pretty girls, still lifes, etc. The Petty Bourgeois, essentially. Something like that is never going to cut it in a Neo-Marxist critical environment, which is what Post Modernism is.  But those artists can make money, at least. Not much money, mind you, but people do buy that type of art.  

Becker: And?

Zeller: Two, the representational artists who do say something can really do some damage and are very threatening to the art establishment. Because they have the skill to fashion recognizable, cohesive narratives that are self–validating. They speak a language that most of the people contemporary art world does not even begin to understand. They don’t even know the vocabulary necessary to process great representational work.
Good representational work doesn’t need the gatekeepers. The powers that be don’t like that much. So they keep it out, perceiving it as a threat to their hegemony. But its will not last. The art gate keepers are losing their power anyway because of the internet, which is usurping most every power structure in our society.

Robert Zeller, Vanitas, 2015, oil on linen, 28 x 42 in, courtesy of the artist

Becker: Are you suspicious of contemporary art? Do think that some artists are faking it? You know, like the "emperor's new clothes" argument?

Zeller: Well, one of the things I realized when I graduated college and went out into the art world is that it is simply an extension of academia. And right now in the Humanities, the vibe is all negative.  There is only criticism of our culture with no positive solutions. They simply criticize, mock, tear down whatever they perceive the oppressive power structure to be, and with so much outrage. They are angry with white males, angry at the patriarchy, angry at any semblance of power. Their mantra: Everyone is ultimately a victim and in need of retribution. 

Becker: But are they faking it?

Zeller: Well, it’s not so much that artists are faking it, but rather the degree to which artist are indoctrinated in toxic postmodern identity politics and are completely unaware of it. The level of ignorance and lack of self-awareness in how they have been programmed is shocking to me.  Everyone perceives themselves as being in a state of victimization and needing to reclaim something lost, something taken from them. It’s infantile, of course. We live in one of the most privileged societies in the history of the world. But it’s a language that almost every graduate of the Humanities learns to speak.  

I think the key to originality is to create your own language, your own vocabulary.

Robert Zeller, Wax and Wane, 2016, Oil on panel, 11 x 14in

Becker: When you make a painting, what inspires you?

Zeller: I enjoy problem-solving and art that reflects my personal philosophy. Along the lines of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, I think the key to solving the riddle of humanity lies in the subconscious. So I try to paint what I dream and what I meditate on. I believe that our subconscious is at least partly collective. So I think that if I tap into that, it’s the real me, but the world I create will also speak to others but I admit I’m a strange guy. I’m not sure how many people can relate to my work.

Becker: All artists are a bit strange, some more than others. So it's a Surrealist inspiration then?

Zeller: In terms of external inspiration, the new painting I'm making for the upcoming exhibition is heavily influenced by the Surrealist artist Paul Delvaux. Titled  "The Waiter's Dream", its got that Surrealist sense of anxiety and unease, exploring the hidden recesses of the subconscious. It’s also part nostalgic. When I moved my studio in 2015, I  found an old photograph of myself in a waiter’s uniform from undergraduate days and was quite taken aback.  So I went with that trip back in time. 

This year, I wrote an essay for The Brooklyn Rail on the subject of History Painting. I thought if I was going to talk the talk, I should walk the walk and make a History Painting, otherwise, I’d just be a windbag. This painting is more of a personal, Surrealist History Painting And it's big, for me, 62 x 74 inches. I hope to finish it in time for the November opening.

Becker: Tell me about the book that you just published.

Zeller: In February 2015, I was approached by the executive editor of The Monacelli Press to write a book on figure drawing. They were known for their high quality art monographs on Kiki Smith, Louise Bourgeois, Eric Fischl, and others, but they wanted to move into a new line of instructional books. She asked if I would consider writing one. I agreed, but I wanted to put figure drawing in the context of art history, show the diverse working processes of contemporary figurative artists, and include some of my own personal artistic philosophy. Amazingly, they agreed to go with it. And so The Figurative Artist’s Handbook was born.

Becker: What's the purpose of this book?

Zeller: It’s a Bible for figurative art. I tried to create something of a mash-up between Kenneth Clarke’s The Nude and Andrew Loomis’ Figure Drawing for All It's Worth. It provides an overview of art history, going back to the Egyptians, but from a figurative perspective. While traditional in its figure drawing lessons, it is contemporary as well in that it contains images and profiles of some of the greatest practitioners working today, a section on artists' painting processes. The book features examples of my own work, along with some of the best of my peers. We are collectively ushering the figurative tradition forward into a new era, and this book is a testament to that.

Becker: How has the book been doing, sales-wise?

Zeller: The reviews and sales have been outstanding in the 6 months it's been out. It’s already at bookstores worldwide. But from a New Yorker’s perspective, I’m happy to say that it's available the Strand, The Met, and Rizzoli Books. To me, that means it’s arrived. My friends message me picks of the book propped up on display at The Strand. They get excited for me. I'm a D -list celebrity now, maybe E-list. I do hope the book moves the needle a little bit, in terms of the discourse about figurative art.

Becker: What is coming up for you? Do you have some new shows opening?

Zeller: In January 2017, the artist Adam Miller, who features prominently in my book, introduced me to Booth Gallery director Casey Gleghorn. I met him in his office at the gallery, on 38th St. We started discussing my book, and perhaps having an exhibit based off of it. Coincidentally, the art critic Donald Kuspit stopped by the gallery to review an exhibit that Casey had curated - he was brought into our meeting. I handed him an advance copy of the book, one thing led to another, and The New Baroque was fleshed out that afternoon. Booth Gallery has been flat out wonderful to work with. They gave me a lot of freedom.

Becker: Donald Kuspit is great.

Zeller: We knew that we could not fit all of the artists that are in the book into the show. That was unfortunate. And moreover, Casey and I agreed that sculpture needed to be a part of the mix. In the book, Monacelli Press had only allowed the inclusion of historical sculpture (Polykleitos, Michelangelo, Rodin) but no contemporary sculptors, as they didn’t want the book to be too sprawling. But with this exhibit, Casey and I wanted to mix it up a bit, and move beyond the scope of actual text of my book.

Robert Zeller, The Frozen Birth, 2010-2015, oil on linen, 42 x 28 in, courtesy of the artist

Becker: What's the origin of the show's name?

Zeller: Well, getting back to what I was saying before, I wanted to curate an exhibition that marks what I think is the opening of the next chapter in the rebirth of figuration in America today, with art that does not speak the predominant Post Modern language. The name of this show comes from the fact that, like the Baroque,  the diverse array of artists in this exhibition speak to contemporary political, personal and formal artistic concerns using a common, figurative language in uniquely personal styles.  Rather than Catholic dogma, the universal language of this show is figurative. 

We included 22 artists, which is a big number for a group show. Luckily, Booth is a big gallery.  Alex Kanvesky, Adam Miller, Aleah Chapin and many others are included. The show opens on Saturday, November 18th, 7-10pm. It runs for two months, November 18- January 14th.

Mr. Kuspit is a big fan of the book, and he wrote a great blurb for it that you can read on Amazon and other platforms. He suggested that Casey and I take The New Baroque to a museum, and expand it to be an even bigger offering. I think it would work well as a museum show. We are looking into possible venues for that. But right now, our focus is mounting an excellent show this November.

Becker: Thanks for talking to us Robert. WM


Noah Becker

Noah Becker is an artist and the publisher and founding editor of Whitehot Magazine. He shows his paintings internationally at museums and galleries. Becker also plays jazz saxophone. Becker's writing has appeared in The Guardian, VICE, Garage, Art in America, Interview Magazine, Canadian Art and the Huffington Post. He has written texts for major artist monographs published by Rizzoli and Hatje Cantz. Becker directed the New York art documentary New York is Now (2010). Becker's new album of original music "Mode For Noah" was released in 2023. 


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