Bizarre and humorous characters populate the highly imaginative, surreal world of Agnes Robertson (1911-2001). Strange people, enchanting animals, mythological beings, royalty, soldiers, and hybrids that are half-human, half-creature act out tableaux reflecting historical events, literary themes, and universal human experiences. Robertson’s style engages viewers, slyly communicating important ideas under the guise of amusing, intriguing images.
Agnes Robertson’s painting emerges from opposing schools of art. Arnold Blanch, who was her teacher during summer sessions from 1959 through 1966 at the New York Art Students League held in Woodstock, New York, was known for a romantic, painterly style in debt to, but less didactic than work by social realists or regionalists. Robertson seems to have gleaned from him some aspects of his chalky surfaces and concentration on representation in the wake of Abstract Expressionism. Yet, Robertson also employs strategies utilized by the Abstract Expressionists, such as automatism, which they had adopted from European Surrealists. She often followed their method of allowing the unconscious to drive the creation of a painting to provide the rationale for both subject and gesture.
Few people have scrutinized Robertson’s work and seen beyond what they misidentified as child-like or “primitive”. Arnold Blanch, however, saw her intentions clearly, writing in a review of her first exhibition in Woodstock in 1966 that her paintings “are of our time in that they reflect by symbol and fantasy the irrationalities and fallacies of mankind.” Twelve years later, one of her University at Buffalo teachers, Virginia Cuthbert Elliott, wrote: “I never tried to teach her anything, it would have been impossible, as she had a vision I could not interfere with-…She was, and is ‘wild’-I’ve never seen anything like her imagination and endless creativity….She lives, as an artist in a fairyland world….her works haunt me!....if she had a dealer in N.Y.C. she would be known for her extraordinary feyness, most amazing-another Florine Stettheimer-”
A private, reserved person, Robertson did not reveal much about her life, work, or influences. She hadn’t taken up painting until the age of 48. By 1963, her style began to emerge as she demonstrated an understanding of space, scale, surface, volume, and color. Drawings from this period resemble New Yorker cartoons, clever messages in spare compositions. Some of her later creations might owe a debt to Edward Koren, known for his odd creatures scratched out in squiggly ink lines. Among the few articles written as exhibition reviews, one from 1973 by Avra Schechter states that the artist “does acknowledge Rouault’s influence in her use of color and Chagall as a liberating force.” Such artists provide a framework for understanding aspects of artistic style; however the most significant clues to grasping the meaning of her work lie in the events of her time.
The decade of Robertson’s emergence as an artist, the 1960’s, reflect some of the most tumultuous years in the twentieth century. The Civil Rights movement struggled forward, meeting violent resistance. Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his inspirational “I have a dream” speech in Washington, DC in 1963, the same year President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Dr. King was murdered in April 1968 and two months later Senator Robert F. Kennedy was shot and killed. May 1968 saw revolution in France, beginning as a student protest and evolving into a massive workers’ strike. One of their slogans was “tout est politique” (Everything is political). The Vietnam War escalated, protests gained momentum, and tragedies, such as the My Lai massacre of innocent civilians by American soldiers, were disclosed in daily footage of the war’s senseless casualties. The media presented more images more rapidly than had ever been attempted during previous international wars. The world was in crisis, often drowning out achievements, such as the dreamlike first walk on the moon by Apollo 11 astronauts. The palpable anxiety of this era provoked concerns that undoubtedly triggered some of Robertson’s subjects. For example, Mad Bombers and Conflagration implicitly comment on the irrationality and destructiveness of war.
Personal issues also permeate Robertson’s symbolism. She was just a girl of ten when her mother died abruptly at the age of 48, having just laid down to rest before a planned outing. Robertson’s painful sense of loss and fear of sudden death surface in the chilling painting, Three O’Clock or Death in the Morning, where a monstrous figure of death knocks at the door of a diminutive house and the occupant tries to hide behind it. As in a nightmare, the house is too small to shield the occupant and her presence is obvious. On the other hand, Walking on the Waves features a mother guiding her daughter across the choppy waves of a turbulent sea. The mother’s hands touch her child’s head, steering the girl ahead on their improbable trek. The girl cannot see her mother, but only feels her delicately supportive touch. This painting hung over Robertson’s fireplace for decades, indicating the primary place in played in her private life.
Agnes Robertson was sent to school at the Buffalo Seminary after her mother died. Her sister Marian, who was twelve years older, came home from college to help raise Aggie. Their father, who never graduated from high school, had developed a successful manufacturing company in Buffalo that built motors. He was very conservative, in stark contrast to the liberal politics that his daughters developed. Conflict with his son, Jim, is probably at the source of a number of Agnes’ paintings of classical Oedipal images, such as Son of the Father, in which a young prince shoots the king on a path in front of a castle. Power struggles, whether personal or global, are universally represented in a series of royal family paintings, as in the swarm of angry faces surrounding the king in The Seeds of Revolution as a tiny prince-a virtual puppet on a life-sized torso-challenges the group.
A boat full of ghostly, amorphous souls floats helplessly On the River Styx. Also known as the river of hate, Styx separates regions in Hades, the underworld where gods and mortals, the living and the dead would meet. In Greek mythology, the old ferryman Charon silently takes only the dead buried with a coin under their tongues across the river Styx. People buried without the coin, called an obol, are doomed to wander along the foul river until they find the pauper’s entrance. To drink the water would cause instant death for a mortal. Gods made their most solemn oaths by the river Styx. If broken, Zeus forced the god to drink the water in punishment, which caused the loss of speech for nine years. Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, part of his Commedia written in the early fourteenth century, is one of the great classics of Western literature, translated, illustrated, and studied for nearly seven centuries. In Canto VII the poet crosses the river Styx asking about mysterious signals. Virgil replies: “…Over the filthy waves/you may already glimpse what is to come, if the marsh-fumes do not hide it from you.”
As if struggling to see through fog, Robertson painted intuitively like Willem de Kooning before her and Susan Rothenberg after her, coaxing imagery to emerge from the surface as if on its own, driven by unconscious thoughts. In one of her untitled paintings, bizarre, wraithlike figures with vertical hair or head-dresses are literally two-faced. Parasitic male profiles bulge from their taller female hosts’ backs. The women’s faces register strain from such a substantial burden. One has the sense that the idea materialized as layers of paint were built up and scraped away by a palette knife until shapes suggested strange malformations with accompanying parables about human relationships.
Not all of Robertson’s tableaux illustrate the negative, although many refer to man’s suspicious, accusatory, controlling and punitive nature. She captures people’s distinctive features and gestures with the honed skill of a professional caricaturist, as in The Schemer. In the spirit of William Holbrook Beard, she also paints amusing animals and human-animal hybrids, such as the Pink Cat with Violin and Birds of Paradise, who have children’s innocent faces on plump robin bodies. Pink Llamas and Lovers could easily appear in an alphabet book of unlikely partners on Sesame Street. The poignant adult gaze toward the young violinist in The Prodigy supercedes the peculiarity of their oversized, bulbous heads. Such figures may have derived from little ill-mannered, cartoon “goops” with huge round heads featured in a century-old etiquette book. Lessons written in rhyme correct the mistakes made by goops who break Victorian rules of conduct. The Goops introduction says, Let me introduce a race/ Void of beauty and of grace,” and asks, “Are you Goop or are you Not? / For although it’s fun to see them, / It is terrible to be them!” As if writing her own book of morals, Robertson created a body of work that teaches us about human nature.
As she aged and her eyesight began to fail, Robertson unfortunately became reclusive. She gave up painting and exhibited her art, wanting only to live with her “friends” on her walls, not part with them. Whether she painted pleasant dreams or hallucinations, Robertson had a gift for turning the events of her time into great improvisations. We should be grateful for her ability to be so honest, illustrating truth within fantasy.
-Nancy Weekly, Head of Collections and The Charles Cary Rumsey Curator, Burchfield-Penney Art Center, Buffalo, NY.