Introduction (Influences)

Childhood, Education, and Early Career

Picture-Making Process

Painter and Printmaker

First Print

Facades: Cottingham's Urban Landscape

Facades: Late 1970s to 1980s



Urban Subject Matter
in American Art

Rolling Stock

The Railroad Images

Trains: Personal Association

Trains in American Art


Later Railroad Works

Pull Quote #2

Radio City Deli


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Picture-Making Process

During the late 1960s, Cottingham developed a process for composing a picture, which, some three decades later, he continues to build upon and perfect. Using his camera as a "high-speed sketchbook," Cottingham produces reference photos that are a "starting point on which to build an image." Once he finds a promising image, he employs a grid, projects the image onto paper, and creates black-and-white drawings that "establish tonal range" and determine the composition. This is followed by one or more color studies in gouache or watercolor. Finally, the image—either the original slide or the reworked drawing—is transferred to the canvas by projection or by means of a grid. When Cottingham first started working this way, he projected black and white negatives that showed the lights and darks reversed. These images provided enough information to determine the major shapes he would later redraw more freely before adding color. Eventually he replaced the negatives with slides, and now he sometimes makes photo-derived studies on acetate for his projections. Most recently, Cottingham has modified his procedure by using the computer to scan and manipulate the photograph in the direction he wants the composition to take.4

Once the shape and proportions are worked out, Cottingham determines the work's dimensions. "This," he says, "is the most mysterious part of the process.… Eventually I'll lock onto the size that feels somehow predestined.… Some of this has to do with the subject itself, or with how the image involves the viewer."5 Cottingham inverts the usual procedure: whereas many painters choose the size of the canvas before beginning to work, he chooses the size only after having determined the image he intends to paint.

Painter and Printmaker

Cottingham's evolution as a painter and printmaker follows a lively path. A versatile artist, Cottingham often works simultaneously on different series and in various media—paintings in oil and acrylic as well as a spectrum of printmaking projects and techniques—and appears to thrive on the cross-fertilization. Paintings often lead to prints, and the prints affect the way he approaches his paintings by suggesting new applications and relationships of color and scale. Cottingham is continually rethinking his images, so that his painting Art, for instance provided the image for a print edition issued over twenty years later. Fox, a successful print from 1972, later became the inspiration for a 1988 painting. An energetic and highly skilled printmaker, Cottingham often produces prints in several incarnations. The same images can appear in various media—in color as well as in black and white—with each of the versions emerging as a distinctive work of art. The canvas Barrera-Rosa's, for example, generated forty-five different individual works in watercolor, acrylic, gouache, ink, graphite, woodcut, linoleum cut, etching, lithography, and oil.

First Print

The early 1970s brought Cottingham his first experience in printmaking. In conjunction with Documenta 5, a 1972 exhibition of contemporary art in Kassel, Germany, Cottingham and several other artists associated with the photorealist movement were invited to make an edition of prints. This early exposure to collaborative printmaking coincided with a resurgence of interest in this field by a new generation of contemporary artists.6 He produced his first print, the lithograph Orph, at this time, after having created both a watercolor and a drawing of the "Orph" motif based on slides taken at two different times. This seven-color lithograph initiated the still-active interplay between his painting and printmaking.

Facades: Cottingham's Urban Landscape

In Cottingham's Facades these works, letters, and words operate on more than one level. They have an obvious commercial objective to attract attention and convey a message, but they also constitute the basis for artistic form:

Commercial signs are amazing. Here are these elaborate, monumental structures designed solely to tell you that this is where you can buy a hamburger or pack of cigarettes.… All that effort, all the pomposity just to sell you something. And yet, they are an heroic attempt by someone to leave his mark.… As an artist, I use the configurations as the basis for constructing a painting.… If the final work can be read on both levels—as a formal painting…and at the same time as a depiction of a sign—the work approaches success.7

Cottingham's advertising experience had informed him about the effective use of enlarging and cropping as well as the direct and subliminal power of selective letters and words.

The Facades have a "strong sense of American language."As Cottingham puts it, "There is nothing to compare with names like Roxy, Bud, Rialto, Ritz, Starr, Tip Top, and Buffalo Optical." To his ear,these words are shorthand for popular American culture. Signs like "Ha," "Hi," "Me," "Rat," and "Hot" are deliberate contractions meant to communicate quickly and to arouse associations in the viewer. "I see letter forms as very powerful symbols," Cottingham noted in 1971. "Either alone or in combination as words or partial words, they give additional meaning to a painting."8 He often makes purposeful abbreviations selected from a larger work, but Cottingham includes only those elements in his overall composition that will result in a cohesive and coherent design. The finished image is one that can be "read" easily, like the signs.

Formal composition and design are critical to the aesthetic impact of the Facades. Cottingham primarily chose fragments of signs or marquees seen from below and skewed at a dramatic angle. Neon letters, storefronts, and decorative awnings that would hardly merit a glance become, in Cottingham's paintings, masterpieces of line, topography, light, and shadow. Often exaggerated in scale and rich in detail, they appear simultaneously surreal and abstract. Despite their lowly origins, the subjects acquire an unmistakable dignity and grandeur. These partial glimpses of urban commercialism, enigmatic in their fragmentary form, appear far more intriguing than conventional full views would be.

Facades: Late 1970s and 1980s

Many of Cottingham's Facades of the late 1970s and early 1980s offer broader views featuring whole store fronts and sometimes even entire blocks. These more complex inner-city tableaux are punctuated by multiple signs, entryways, and architectural details. Although he composed Champagne, a rebus-like image that is perhaps his simplest composition, in 1975, it was an exception to his increasingly complex Facades. In works such as Frankfurters-Hamburgers, Cold Beer, and Radio City Deli, signs of several kinds vie with expressive shadows and decorative architecture for the viewer's attention. Only the Coca-Cola signs seem guaranteed to survive the visual competition. Instead of partial signs, these graphic vignettes seem to capture a whole neighborhood. Around this time Cottingham consciously began to keep a diary of words or expressions for inserting into his Facades, substituting the original words on a sign with his own.

4 Interview with Martin Betz for the exhibition Hollywood Stills: House Portraits by Robert Cottingham, Long Beach Museum of Art, Long Beach, Calif., 10 November 1997.

5 Betz, interview, 1997.

6 See Trudy V. Hansen et al., Printmaking in America: Collaborative Prints and Presses, 1960–1990 (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995).

7 Cottingham, quoted in Jane Cottingham, "Techniques of Three Photo-Realist Painters," American Artist 44 (February 1980): 62.

8 Michael Preble, Barrera-Rosa's (Arkansas Art Center, Little Rock, 1985, exhibition brochure); and Cottingham, quoted respectively in Frank H. Goodyear Jr., "Robert Cottingham's Fiercely American Imagery," in Robert Cottingham: New Works (Coe Kerr Gallery, New York, N.Y., 1982, exhibition brochure); and Art Now: New York 3 (December 1971).

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