Introduction (Influences)

Childhood, Education, and Early Career

Picture-Making Process

Painter and Printmaker

First Print

Facades: Cottingham's Urban Landscape

Facades: Late 1970s and 1980s

Candy

Barrera-Rosa's

Urban Subject Matter
in American Art

Rolling Stock

The Railroad Images

Trains: Personal Association

Trains in American Art

Heralds

Later Railroad Works

John Sloan

 

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Candy

Candy offers another vivid glimpse of the disappearing urban landscape. In addition to the painting, he made an acrylic study (1979) and a watercolor pochoir print (1984), a process using stencils. The painting is a formal tour de force, so calculated is its flat perspective, interplay of positive and negative space, profusion of rectangles balanced by zones of vertical and horizontal stripes in calibrated variations of blue, white, and rust brown. But the scene also has a strong sentimental association for Cottingham, as it is represents a glimpse of his old Brooklyn neighborhood.


Barrera-Rosa's

Of Cottingham's complex depictions, the Barrera-Rosa's series from 1984 to 1986—a collection of color and black-and-white studies, a major painting, and a suite of prints in several different media—is perhaps his most accomplished statement. In Barrera-Rosa's, Cottingham's portrait of a neighborhood pictures only the upper part of street-level businesses that stretch the length of the block—a contrapuntal array of shapes, colors, and signs. In its architectural dignity and multicultural glory, this little niche of America becomes a salute to the varied artisans, entrepreneurs, and their customers all over the country who identify with the American dream. While social commentary is not overt in Cottingham's work, the mere act of glorifying what has been devalued and disparaged—the remnants of lowbrow commercial establishments like movie houses, cheap shoe stores, and five-and-dimes—implies a sympathetic attitude toward ordinary people and a rebuke to the more powerful members of society who have sanctioned the neglect of such popular urban centers.


Urban Subject Matter in American Art

In choosing urban subject matter, Cottingham was following the example set by a long line of twentieth-century American painters and photographers. Among the first generation of Ashcan artists, John Sloan had particular flair for incorporating images of New York's commercial establishments.

The precisionists, too, favored cityscapes. Like Cottingham, they preferred to paint structures made by human beings rather than the human beings themselves, and to avoid incidental details that might mar their pristine images.


Audio
Robert Cottingham talks
about Edward Hopper
(Audio)

Rolling Stock portfolio

 

Edward Hopper painted the city as well. Cottingham claims to have seen all the Hoppers in New York City and to have been especially impressed with the way Early Sunday Morning "was painted and the strength of the emotion it illustrated."9 His own work has extended Hopper's legacy of endowing inanimate subjects with personal feelings and emotional power.

Stuart Davis's way of combining the effect of words and the feel of the urban environment with the formal requirements of an abstract style also affected Cottingham's thinking. Building on cubist collages, Davis explored the image relationship in his cubist cityscapes and works based on product logos, providing Cottingham with many examples of dynamic compositions that brought words as well as American popular culture into the fine art realm.

American photography was also a source of inspiration for Cottingham, and the work of Walker Evans was especially meaningful. Developing his approach in the late 1920s under the same modernist influences as the precisionists, Evans focused his camera on New York's commercial signs and skyscrapers. In Cottingham's early works especially, the unexpected views and angles as well as the skillful manipulation of light and shadow create a drama comparable to that in Evans's urban snapshots of 1928–29.


Rolling Stock: The Railroad Images

In the late 1980s, Cottingham found himself involved with a new subject—trains. In railroad imagery, like the urban scapes, Cottingham found an iconography with a long artistic legacy in America—one that has given rise to such diverse expressions as Carl Sandburg's poetry and George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue."


Trains: Personal Associations

Trains have a personal association for Cottingham, as they do for several twentieth-century American painters. Growing up in Brooklyn, Cottingham recalls being around trains because of his father's work as a longshoreman:

I would visit him on the piers and watch the hustle of cargo from the freighters to the rows of boxcars. Everything was in motion. It was a frenzy of activity that seems a lifetime away from the tranquility of my studio on a Connecticut farm. But Brooklyn gave me the grit and energy that I try to put into my paintings today.

Cottingham also recalls an earlier fascination with trains, which he associates with visits to his grandmother in Ohio. She lived near railroad tracks, where he often watched in awe as the powerful locomotives rushed by on wheels that stood far above him.10


Trains in American Art

Edward Hopper, Charles Sheeler, and Robert Indiana also had a fascination with trains, railway stations, and empty tracks. Throughout Hopper's career, railroad imagery functioned as a metaphor for many of his personal concerns. Some observers have drawn parallels between Sheeler's photo-based painting Rolling Power and Cottingham's railroad series. Robert Indiana's train-inspired works may stem from the fact that Indiana's father and grandfather both worked for the railroads.11


Heralds

For the first group of paintings and prints in the train series, Cottingham used railroad logos, or heralds as they are called in railroad jargon, as his new thematic device. Cottingham exploited the inherent flatness of the design, abandoning the elaborate illusionism of his signature marquees and signs. By doing so, he could concentrate almost exclusively on graphics and color relationships. The logos also serve, like the signs, as emblems of America. The photos that inspired the railroad imagery were taken in the late 1970s when Cottingham was still traveling in search of his more familiar urban subject matter:

While photographing signs in a small border town of Texas, I found I had wandered into an open freight yard occupied by a single boxcar, its side emblazoned with the Sante Fe logo. Eight years later, I painted Santa Fe, a 78 x 78 inch canvas that became the genesis for…the Rolling Stock Series.12

Cottingham sees the Heralds as the transition between the "advertising signage of the Facades" and the "industrial grittiness" of his subsequent railroad pictures.


Later Railroad Works

These later railroad pictures focus on the ends of discarded boxcars, equipped with ladders, brake wheels, and couplings. The same elements appear in many configurations. Like variations on a mantra, the circle, rectangular bars, chains, letters, and numbers are ordered and reordered and presented vertically or horizontally, in bright light or in deep shadow. These seemingly neutral and inanimate subjects, recognizable but removed from our everyday frame of reference, take on spiritual dimensions, with the disembodied shadows suggesting an otherworldly presence, the wheels and chains prompting associations with saintly martyrdoms, and the rusty box cars with their letters and numbers evoking the death trains of the Holocaust. Cottingham has not confirmed such associations; in fact he has made his Rolling Stock images even more enigmatic by reverentially naming them after members of his family and close friends.

Cottingham's paintings and prints spanning over three decades have extended the tradition of American realism and brought it up to date. With both his urban landscapes and his railroad imagery, Cottingham has also rescued artifacts from an earlier era that enrich our memories and inspire us to reflect on our values and our past.




9 Cottingham, quoted in M. Stephen Doherty, "Robert Cottingham: An Unabashed Realist," American Artist 43 (July 1979): 53.

10 Cottingham, quoted in William Zimmer, Robert Cottingham Rolling Stock Series (Marisa del Re Gallery, New York, 1990, exhibition brochure); and interview with the author, 29 January 1998.

11 On Hopper, see Gail Levin, "Edward Hopper's Railroad Imagery," in The Railroad in American Art: Representations of Technological Change, ed. Susan Danly and Leo Marx (Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1988), p. 178. On Sheeler, see Susan Fillin-Yeh, "Charles Sheeler's 'Rolling Power,'" in The Railroad in American Art, ed. Danly and Marx, p. 155. On Indiana, see Carl J. Weinhardt Jr., Robert Indiana (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1990), p. 90.

12 Cottingham, quoted in Marisa del Re, Robert Cottingham, Recent Paintings (Marisa del Re Gallery, New York, N.Y., 1993, exhibition brochure).





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