Later Railroad Works
Cottingham regards his work as rooted in American traditions and contemporary movements. He has found important inspiration in the work of earlier artists like Edward Hopper, whom he has admired since childhood and with whom he continues to feel a strong connection.
During the 1960s, Cottingham built on the work of pop artists such as Andy Warhol, with whom he shared a background in advertising. Warhol's use of commercial processes in his paintings and prints offered a useful paradigm for Cottingham by promoting an aesthetic of slick, flawless surfaces and untempered subject matter. Jasper Johns and Robert Indiana were contributors to his thinking as well: they demonstrated how letters and words, isolated and treated like objects, could be effective carriers of style and meaning.
When Cottingham lectures on his own career, he always includes several works by other artists that he feels are relevant to his approach. Stuart Davis's Int'l Surface No. 1, part of the National Museum of American Art's collection, is a favorite choice. In this composition, words, numbers, and symbols are detached from their original sources. Cottingham finds aspects of this painting particularly resonant with his own work, especially the enigmatic linguistic fragments, awkward angles, and bold zones of color situated in a shallow space.
Childhood, Education, and Early Career
Cottingham grew up in Brooklyn, New York. "When I was nine or ten years old," he recalled, "my father began taking me into Manhattan from our home in Brooklyn. The most exciting moment of every visit was that first glimpse of Times Square."
Cottingham studied art in New York at the Pratt Institute. In 1964, while working as art director at the advertising firm of Young and Rubicam in New York, he was transferred to the strikingly different world of Los Angeles. The exaggerated pop culture of Hollywood and the dilapidated downtown, abandoned by the middle class, helped to focus Cottingham's eye on the urban iconography that in earlier decades had defined much of America's commercial life. In 1968, following a four-year stint in the Los Angeles advertising world, he quit to become a full-time artist . "I started doing buildings," he says, "and gradually began to look up higher and saw things up there that nobody ever notices."1
The experience of working with complex imagery from daily life led to a process of discovery he describes this way:
In my mind's eye I envisioned a series of paintings. I saw these as large squares, the images filling the canvas with an almost abstract composition of interlocking forms and color. I knew what I wanted, but I didn't know what subject matter would give me the foundation to realize the vision. I photographed the signs of Broadway, the main commercial street in downtown Los Angeles, and found what I was looking for. What I thought would be a series of six paintings has continued for over thirty years now.2
In 1971, while living in Los Angeles, Cottingham made his New York debut at the O. K. Harris Gallery. At that time, the gallery was also showing works by Robert Bechtle, Ralph Goings, Richard McLean, Malcom Morley, and John Salt, while other New York galleries featured the work of Richard Estes and Chuck Close. Like the other artists, Cottingham's crisp, pristine representations of vernacular subject matter seemed to fit easily into the newly identified category of photorealism. Working in relative isolation, however, Cottingham had been unaware of this trend. Even at the height of his association with photorealism, Cottingham remembers that he was much more interested in his environment and the subjects at hand than in the techniques of photo-based painting.
Cottingham left Los Angeles in 1972 and moved with his wife and daughters to London, where they resided until 1976. Though he loved the city, he opted to confine his FacadesCottingham's term for his work in which signs predominate to images from the United States. "I consider myself to be an American artist painting American scenes," he said after he moved back to the States. "And while I found London a good place to work, I did not want to use any of the images that were around me there." During the London period, Cottingham made yearly photography trips to the United States to record (one might even say "preserve") the signs and scenes he needed for the Facades. He described the preparations for these photo-odysseys in an article by his wife, Jane Cottingham:
The atlas is spread out and areas marked to set up a chain of cities and towns that correspond to the Greyhound bus routes [since] bus terminals are in the grubbiest part of town exactly where my subject matter is. Bad weather can hold me up for days, because the whole expedition is guided by the sun.3
On one trip, Cottingham visited twenty-seven cities and took two thousand slides. He still works from slides shot on those long ago trips.
1 Linda Chase and Ted McBurnett, "Robert Cottingham," in "The Photo-Realists: Twelve Interviews," Art in America 60 (NovemberDecember 1972): 77.
2 Cottingham, quoted in Richard Klein, Robert Cottingham: An American Alphabet (Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, Ridgefield, Conn., 1997, exhibition brochure).
3 M. Stephen Doherty, "Robert Cottingham: An Unabashed Realist," American Artist 43 (July 1979): 51; and Jane Cottingham, "Techniques of Three Photo-Realist Painters," American Artist 44 (February 1980): 62.