I first met Robert at the 26th Street flea market in New York in 1987. I was a new dealer just starting out in the business. I would drive my van in from the Midwest every few weeks in the summer to sell the latest pieces I had found in my travels. Long before the internet, 26th street was where all the New York dealers and serious collectors gathered to buy this new category of collecting called design. Young and inexperienced, we were just the sort of seller that would get swamped during set up, buyer’s peering in our van and asking prices as we pulled pieces out of boxes. You made most of your money by 8am and would leave at 4 pm with your skeletal mistakes and hopefully a small pile of cash. Robert was a part of the fabric of this fabled market for decades. His manic energy and natural eye often put him at the front of the line. Robert was an insider, knowing what to buy and how to selling it for a quick profit. While not formally trained in art school, he was friends with many artists in the scene (most famously Warhol) and well versed in the history of 20th century art and design. For a short time, Robert exhibited in an art gallery but soon left the established art world to forge his own path.
The majority of Robert’s art involves his drawing of the square-jawed man, a brooding vaguely menacing presence with dangling cigarette. This urban Marlborough Man became the signature shorthand of his art. The man is a meditation, an obsession, on masculinity and desire. The image connects to Robert’s sexuality, reflecting an idolized object of his male gaze and cruising culture. Often rendered in a sidelong glance, it is the knowing look cinematically illuminated by the ever-present cigarette. The repetitive image, done over decades, creates a vast and varied body of work — at turns haunting, humorous and dark.
In his best works, Robert uses the objects in his life as his canvas. Gathered from the market or even from the curb, these works rely on his natural eye for three-dimensions as he subverts and alters their original meaning with his creative visage. Robert’s work reflects the life of the flea market, the repetition of the early mornings and the endless sea of physical items to be sorted through for the treasure to be found or scored there.
Robert created his own treasure, using objects and recycled paintings as his medium. His art became an important part of means of existence, sold to close friends for ready cash, an intimate patronage of which Paul Johnson was a part.
Robert died how he lived, out of control. The creative chaos evident in his art emanated from his life, spinning out in an ever-widening circle of objects each marked and altered by his singular vision. A long way from the flea market, Robert’s art continues his journey.