Nostalgia’s Backdrop: Robert Mars & The Patterns Of The Past

Robert Mars, After Forever, 48 x 48 in. Courtesy of the artist.


Robert Mars is in the business of quiltmaking these days. Not in the traditional sense, but in a manner more fitting an artist of his stripe. 

The term quiltmaking tends to usher forth stereotypical vignettes of the past. Mars is quick to note, however, that today’s quilting culture stands in stark contrast to these stereotypes. Instead, the practice and culture is vibrant, ever-changing, and often motivated by socio-political issues.

Years before he was introduced to these traditions, Mars had developed a portfolio of work entirely of his own machination. Inspired by the work of Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg, he set about creating work that called upon the commercialism of the 50s and 60s to inform our present understanding of the languages of design and creativity.

Early on, Mars’ practice was reliant on travel and photography. Armed with his camera, Mars would hunt out the ruins of Americana: decaying diners, long-forgotten neon signs, and boat-sized automobiles with frozen odometers. After some fervent study into the practice of his aforementioned inspirations, Mars diverted his approach, opting instead to create a body of work that drew directly from the glamorous icons of the 50s and 60s rather than capturing its dormant remnants.

“I started amassing a collection of vintage ephemera,” Mars says. “Everything from old copies of The New York Times to Look and Life Magazine—anything that really captured the 50s and 60s era. That was a big part of how the work came together. It was almost like a time capsule. I was using history to talk about history.”

Robert Mars, Do You Wanna Ride, 40 x 60 in. Courtesy of the artist.

That conversation, discussing American history by way of its own artifacts, is something inherent to all of his work. Clippings of Mick Jagger, Audrey Hepburn, and Marylin Monroe, among many others, have had the privilege of being emblazoned across Mars’ handmade panels. Calling upon these bygone idols, Mars’ vision has always been to shine a light on their respective eras as the reason for our own present situation.

“I want people to see that this time launched what we have today,” says Mars. “I think today is an overdose of everything. We are overwhelmed all day long with advertising and social media. 

Looking back to the 50s and 60s, it was carefully curated. Their lives were structured to look glamorous all the time. I happen to like looking back on that time.”

Most of Mars’ pieces involve some backdrop, typically some eye-catching polygons, a flag, or some artifice of American commercialism, over which a titanically famous face takes center stage. That template changed in the 2010s when Mars’ wife, a costume designer by trade, introduced him to the enchanting patterns of quiltmaking. His interest in the craft was catalyzed by reading Red & White Quilts: Infinite Variety, the book which accompanied an American Folk Art Museum exhibition of quilts collected by Joanna S. Rose. Rose’s collection spanned three centuries and captured swaths of American history in their folds and stitches.

After some study of these patterns, Mars’ iconic subjects had new backgrounds to dance upon. Their zeitgeist-informing profiles were splashed over tapestries of American history. With the addition of these new patterns, Mars’ work more directly illustrated the confluence of American cultural movements, further illuminating his desire for contemporary audiences to reckon with the legacy of the 50s and 60s.

Throughout this practice, Mars interacted with these patterns and their histories on a regular basis. Gaining a deeper appreciation for them with each piece he created, Mars recognized that they could stand alone as works of abstract art.

Robert Mars, Phosphene Dream, 40 x 60 in. Courtesy of the artist.

“As creatives, we feel things more, we’re more sensitive to environmental change,” Mars says. “In March of last year, everything shut down. I had been looking at a ton of abstract work and thinking about how I could take the images out and really let the patterns speak for themselves.”

With his signature collage of Americana, these abstract pieces turn attention to their forms. In some, stars and squares multiply themselves into ever-expanding prismatic tunnels, captivating viewers with their depth. Others scatter their forms along latitudes and longitudes, forming a kind of paper chainmail composed of rings and rectangles. Other works, like Beautiful Descent, offer a degree of visual complexity which requires a more pensive viewing experience. And that is just what Mars wants from this series.

“I want the viewer to be able to look at them and come up with a story on their own,” Mars says. “What I love about abstract work is it takes time to look at it and investigate and come up with your own assumptions about why it was made and what the artist thought when they created it.”

In the maze of cultural curios found in his pieces, Mars’ work becomes a space for societal evaluation and investigation. Each and every piece asks us to question where we are and how we got here. Be it arrangements of vintage American media or quilted abstractions, Mars’ art continues to demand our attention and reflection.

For more, please visit his website: 

Follow him on Instagram: @robert_mars_art. WM

Noah Sonnenburg

Noah Sonnenburg is a freelance writer based in Pasadena, CA. His work covers automobiles, film, fine art and entertainment.

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