Critics discuss Robert Beckmann's Vegas Vanitas series... From David Pagel's "Down-to-Earth and Out-of-this-World: The Spiral of Time in Robert Beckmann's Paintings"

Each of the fabulously accurate paintings in Robert Beckmann's "Vegas Vanitas" series takes viewers in two directions at once...Marrying good old-fashioned Romanticism (with its roots in classic literature) to sci-fi futurism (which has more in common with pulp fiction and popular movies), the artist's readily accessible-yet rigorously intellectual-images add a generous dose of Postmodern pastiche (currently found in both high art and low) to make a virtue of necessity. Intenionally out-of-step- with fleeting fashions and passing art-world trends...Beckmann's painstakingly rendered works depict people, places, and things that almost anyone can recognize in an instant. In doing so, they transform the feelings of being out-of-place with one's surroundings and out-of-sync with one's age into pictures that are profoundly out-of-time.

Not timeless-in any way, shape, or form. But out of time-as in offbeat or against the grain. Idiosyncratic and unwilling to have it any other way, Beckmann's paintings behave as if the uncanny things that take place within them were perfectly natural, as true and realistic as anything else out there.

Today, when the present's links to history have been thoroughly unhinged by the overwhelming, ever-accelerating barrage of eye-grabbing imagery served up by the mass media-and the future appears to promise little more than more of the same-Beckmann's multi-layered paintings stand out because they invite viewers to slow down...and mull over what it might mean to live in an age when historical monuments-even entire civilizations-live on most vividly in the popular imagination as the decor of casinos...

But Beckmann is not the sort of social critic whose goal is to point out a few of the more glaring examples of what's wrong with modern life. Much less is his art a form of in-your-face activism, which serves up abstract recipes for repairing social ills by suggesting that really important issues can only be addressed outside the realm of aesthetics. As a painter who has chosen the maddening challenges of oil on canvas, he devotes far too much time and energy to getting the light in his masterfully glazed paintings just right-calibrating the wispy breath of yellow in a single ray of sunlight so that it casts leafy shadows in a rainbow of exquisitely tinted blue-grays, which are clearly cooler than the bright shades with which they contrast, but still welcoming in their warmth.

Beckmann's awe-inspiring light also demonstrates that his painting does a lot more than quote historical precedents, as if flaunting its own formal facility by mimicking past masters were a worthy goal or a good enough reason to make a painting. Unlike such exercises as facile post-historicism...his oils on canvas are precarious balancing acts in which a love of art history's riches come face to face with the paucity of the present. Rather than coming down on one side or the other, Beckmann's paintings bring both to life. Longing and melancholy, along with slow satisfactions and long-lasting pleasures, suffuse all of the works in his "Vegas Vanitas" series, creating a deep sense of mystery at a time when such wondrous sentiments are in short supply.

David Pagel is an art critic for the Los Angeles Times. He teaches graduate schools at Claremont and UCLA and is an editor for Bomb and Art Issues.


Robert Beckmann - Vegas Vanitas

© 2014 Robert Beckmann. All Rights Reserved.