Robert Szot Relentlessly Pursues the Seduction of Lyrical Abstract Painting

by Paul Weiner

For fourteen years, Robert Szot has been a constant in the fluctuating Brooklyn art scene. The artist, who arrived in New York from Texas as a twenty-five year old and has since felt the pressures of New York’s stage, embodies honesty in his work. Szot does not shy away from beauty or painterly skill, instead pushing lyrical abstraction forward while rejecting the ever-present pull of zombie formalism. His work is hard to pin down, evincing canonical references in his formal techniques and relationship with beauty and music that seem connected with the abstraction of Synchromist artists such as Stanton Macdonald-Wright or Morgan Russell, a movement that predated Abstract Expressionism by 30 years. These references, though, are mediated by the history of color field painting, at times reaching washy paint handling and breaks between colors reminiscent of Helen Frankenthaler. Regardless, the clearest position in Szot’s work is a deadly sentimentality, the kind of pride in the American painting lineage that leaves Szot’s work poetic, vibrant, emotional, and unapologetically divorced from the often-cold embrace of contemporary painting paradigms.

Robert Szot is represented by Muriel Guépin Gallery, also the site of his 2014 solo show, Woke Up on Broadway. Szot’s work has exhibited in a variety of galleries across the United States from New York to Los Angeles and Texas. His works have been collected in America and abroad. Szot’s paintings can also be found on his website.

earlyvotingsuperhi

Early Voting, oil on linen, 64″ x 53″


Paul Weiner:
Your paintings are largely created with oil on linen. What draws you to these particular materials?

Robert Szot:
I’ve always used oils. Oil paint is a much more particular and fussy medium than, say, acrylic paint, but once you’re accustomed to its personality, oil paint can be worked with for a much longer time before it dries. That’s important to me because I am a constant editor. I also often utilize underpainting with just a thin layer of overpaint, just a suggestion of another color, and I find I can only achieve that with oils. The linen came into play just a few years ago. It feeds my love of history to use linen prepared in a very traditional way. The linen I use has a medium tooth surface that is sized with rabbit skin glue and then double lead primed. It is extravagant, and I often wonder if I should be ruining it by painting on it. It truly is a love affair I am embarrassed to say. Painting on oil primed linen provides a much slicker surface, too. I find oil just sits on top of it and dries very vibrantly. I use the best art supplies I can afford because when I sell a painting, I want, at the very least, to feel confident in the materials. I hate the idea of selling someone something cheap.

exitcalisuperhires

Exit California, oil on linen, 54″ x 62″

Paul Weiner:
Contemporary abstract paintings are often labeled as being decorative. Do you consider your work as having any decorative influences or would you reject this interpretation?

Robert Szot:
I would reject that interpretation where my own work is concerned, but I understand why that thought is out there. There is so much access now, which I encourage, but with access comes a flood of under developed and under thought-out “abstract” paintings. Really, there has been a flood of under developed work, abstract or otherwise, lately. I think many of these paintings are created for decoration and are not meant to be interpreted or studied as serious creations. It’s the climate we are in now, fame over everything. Be outrageous, show your ass, whatever it takes to get the attention of strangers regardless of its ability to last or how much thought it will provoke. As a result, the impetus for a painting often becomes a couch and not contemplation. I don’t paint like that. I won’t lie to you and say I don’t appreciate attention, but more than that my work is fiercely personal to me, and I won’t customize it to match decor. Often, I will get a request for a commission that comes with conditions from the client: color, size, etc. I get it. It’s an investment, and something you are going to have to live with hopefully for a long time, but I have to politely decline because I am a painter and not an interior decorator. If you ask for a painting from me, you really are asking for a piece of my life during the time it took to complete that painting, so my ability to compromise is very limited. There are plenty of people printing paintings out on a computer that will gladly go into photoshop and change a color to match your drapes. It’s as empty as it sounds.

Paul Weiner:
How do you usually begin a painting as far as the physical process goes?

Robert Szot:
I’ve always been at my best when I am fixing things on a canvas. I must intentionally make things difficult on myself because I make such bad decisions so often. Fixing them helps me advance the painting as a whole, and my frustration with them provides a real velocity to the work. Starting a painting is very difficult for me because there is nothing to solve in a blank space. So, day one for me is really just putting down marks and choosing colors that will hopefully stand out later in the composition. Lately, I have been getting into a lot of line work, almost like a Brice Marden, dark veiny lines cutting off certain areas of the canvas that may or may not influence the final composition. Nothing is permanent, and I will sacrifice any portion of the painting if it’s dragging the composition down. My paints are also mixed with mineral spirits and walnut oil, so everything is very loose and quite thin.

Vulgar Nobodies, oil on linen mounted on panel, 22″ x 16″

Paul Weiner:
How do you come to a title for your work?

Robert Szot:
I get this question a lot. The short answer is that I read too much Walker Percy and listen to The Smiths on heavy rotation. I’ve always liked clever people who could string a punchy sentence together. The longer answer is I keep a running list of things I hear or see during a regular day, little things that sound good to me in realtime that I may or may not come back and use. I’ll give you an example. Last year, I did two paintings with the same title, “Flood Law.” “Flood” and “Law” are two cross streets in New Orleans that I just happened to be on one day, and the two words just fit together. That is the perfect situation for me because not only does it provide a title but it has the bonus effect of leaving a little hint of my life behind for someone to find. That’s very appealing to me, to make up little mysteries for people to stumble into. It’s a long shot, but someone might find those cross streets one day, think of my painting, and then think what a cleaver bastard that Robert Szot was. I have a deep love of history too and find endless titles in textbooks and historical documents. There is nothing like resurrecting a term like “Demirep” to make you feel like you’re freshening up the language a bit.

lookinroomssuperhi (1)

Look in Rooms, oil on linen mounted on panel, 22″ x 16″

Paul Weiner:
Do you usually have an idea or emotion in mind before starting a painting or does that develop together with the painting process?

Robert Szot:
I think emotion builds with the painting, and ideas are generated by other ideas as I work. My process is very kaleidoscopic. One decision leads to twenty others and ideas die and are reborn over and over again. I think, though my process can frustrate me, it provides for an original work every time. I mean, I am certain that I have made similar choices in several different paintings, but, depending on how far I took one idea or another, each painting can stand alone. It is very important to create singularities, objects that don’t repeat and can maintain authorship throughout. Doing this naturally creates a history of work that others can look at and actively participate in. It is very seductive to spend time with a piece of someone’s history, especially if it is one that won’t ever be repeated. Your painting has now become a watermark of your life, and more than that, strangers can come and interact, empathize, and discover parts of who they are through your work. It’s a conversation with a person they never had the opportunity to meet. I never got to meet Philip Guston, but I feel like I know him. I think DeKooning and I make the same mistakes. It sounds sentimental, I know, but it’s a reality for me. I love those guys.

Philistine, oil on linen, 23″ x 16″

Paul Weiner:
You mentioned Brice Marden and his style of painting. Are there any artists who you think have influenced your practice, whether historical or contemporary?

Robert Szot:
I like Brice Marden well enough. I wouldn’t say he was a direct influence on my work, though. Going away, Francis Bacon is the best painter. There is no separation between who he was and his work, which I think is the ultimate goal of any artist worth contemplating. We are all expressing ourselves, I guess, but how many really lay everything out for strangers to review? Not many. Egon Schiele falls in Bacon’s camp too. Philip Guston, who I mentioned earlier, ranks big for me. That guy changed direction midstream and didn’t care what people thought of it. That’s great stuff. Maybe it’s not the work so much that influences me, but the people who made it. Certainly, it is difficult to pull Francis Bacon out of one of my paintings. It’s chalk and cheese, but if I am lucky the approach is the same. I want the energy of a Francis Bacon, the recklessness of a Philip Guston, and the sorrow of a Mark Rothko to all come together in one frame, a terrible sucker punch that unfolds into a deeper story.

Contemporary painters are something new for me. I tend to isolate myself and, as much as I hate to admit it, I look at other painters as friendly competition and would rather be free of their influence. Only recently have I been getting to know other artists, and my new affiliations are pleasant and worth having. Galen Cheney and Christina Foard are wild painters who regularly make decisions I am too afraid to make in my own work. Suzanne Kammin is an extremely talented painter out of New Jersey. You can’t leave Patrick Diaz out of the conversation either. He is spearheading the painting scene in Austin, Texas at the moment. It’s a good news, bad news scenario that these exceptional people exist. God love them, but the competition is too much sometimes.

ftworthsuperhires (2)

Fort Worth Collects, oil on linen mounted on panel, 18″ x 24″

Paul Weiner:
You mentioned that you have a sentimentality for some 20th Century New York artists, especially DeKooning and Guston. Is that why you came to New York?

Robert Szot:
Yes. Probably, in the end, it was. I have family here too, my brother, and he will always be important to me.

The very idea of being able to have a shared experience with someone you admire is irresistible, especially when you’re young and idealistic. I think that drives a lot of people with potential. Imagine you have a very small idea, just an ember of desire to want to do something special with your life. Now imagine there is a tangible place where people who you perceive to have a commonality with spent their formative years. You’d go there, of course. New York City was my school, and, never having had any formal art training, it became this incredible do-or-die life for me. You’re here, and you’re working on surviving whilst painting at night and in between whatever job you can muster that month. It all finds its way back into your painting. Then, at some point, it becomes less about what you do and more about who you’ve become. I remember my first studio was on 14th and 6th Avenue, and I would ride the F train very late at night back to Brooklyn, where I lived. One night on the train, it just struck me that I was very happy to be where I was. Broke, yes. Without prospects or interest in my work, yes. But damn alive. I left everything prior to that moment in the past. I resolved that anything that happened before that little moment on the F train at two or three in the morning was just going to be some warm memory like a story I heard in a bar a long time ago. Maybe that is what happened to people like DeKooning and Guston. Maybe they had that same awakening on the shitty F train. I had to come to New York City to dialogue with the same entity that all great artists seem to know so well that they can incorporate it, use it, in the work they produce.

Paul Weiner:
How long do your paintings usually take from start to finish, and how do you know when you are done?

Robert Szot:
Forever and Never.


Please view Robert Szot’s website and “like” Critique Collective on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/critiquecollective.

Subscribe to the Critique Collective newsletter for additional content, faster updates, art tips, and insider information absolutely free. 

Advertisements