Robert Egert: Essay by Laura Padgett

When we regard any kind of artwork today we can identify a plethora of references: Art historical, cultural, societal, some visual. How can we contemplate what an artwork is about while at the same time see what it is? How do non-visual references influence, not what an artwork looks like, but how we see it? How do we know what something is about? How do we inform ourselves as viewers to be educated enough to know what we are comprehending when viewing an artwork?

These are questions that immediately run through my mind when I look at art, especially Robert Egert’s and I have been looking at his work throughout his entire career. Is what we see a story, a satire, a microscopic enlargement, an analysis of DNA or patterns taken from a satellite view?

Robert Egert is an artist who thrives from many arteries. When I met him during foundation year at Pratt Institute I was impressed that he was born and bred in Brooklyn. Still, I don’t know if I was more impressed by his knowledge of Greek and Roman myths, I think they kind of balanced each other out. This is important. This is important to be able to see Robert Egert’s work. He is grounded in the here and now, with a knowledge that runs through antiquity to contemporary science fiction. I don’t want to be too specific, but we can talk about Rhizomes, fracking, Pan, the Loreley, Russian cinema, the Golden Age, artificial intelligence and gun control.

All kinds of things are in his head when he paints. He thinks a lot when he works. He doesn’t make it easy on himself. The arteries that nourish his system can contradict each other, can almost cancel each other out, only to join together to strengthen each other. His work has evolved from narrative to abstract to abstract narrative. It is fluid in an overlapping viscous kind of way.

Robert Egert’s fluidity develops from a concept. This is no flimsy use of the word. At Pratt in the seventies we enjoyed a rigorous education in minimalist and conceptual art, both in theory and practice. This underlies Robert Egert’s work no matter what it looks like. His early painting moved from constructed spatial objects to new takes on Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

In the early 1980s when the East Village was hip and dangerous, I saw his exhibition at Civilian Warfare. His paintings were large oil canvases, vernacular objects floated amidst a color field ground, weird perspectives generated a sense of insecure place. These works referenced the uncertainty of the times, a change in value systems, a world drifting towards an ambivalent future. Years before artists like Neo Rauch appeared on the scene, Robert Egert was making paintings that collaged the mundane with the historical in a mix that said something about contemporary politics. Manifesting duplicity by referencing nostalgia, his work pinned down the eclecticism of the time, making images that were complex and unapologetic.

Since then Robert Egert’s work has evolved to be more pondering, while reductive, dealing with questions that go beyond the contemporary. The years following the heady days of New York in the eighties took him in many directions, Robert Egert went on to study philosophy and sociology, founded a family, wrote for art journals and has had a good look at corporate America. Inevitably, his approach to painting has become more encompassing, while his practice incorporates experience gained outside the hermetics of the art world. His work revolves around questions like: What is life flow? What is humanity?

The sense of searching to make humanity palpable without obvious visual cues is a quest that Robert Egert has set out upon. When we look at the shapes in Robert Egert’s paintings we see patterns interlocking and overlays of color, sometimes we become aware of a figure. Is it human? Put simply, Egert’s paintings can be seen as a cartography of humanity. The body is ephemeral, fleeting and appearing, drifting and separating. The interchange of foreground and background is reminiscent of mutating cells. Yet there is also an all encompassing skin. Is this a view from a petri-dish? Once again we see the flux from macro to micro, an interweaving of space in which scale becomes a nonissue.

If scale is a nonissue, we are directed to specific ideas that are important to Egert by his use of titles. Concepts that Octavia Butler developed in her trilogy „Lilith’s Brood“ have occupied Egert while completing his most recent work. „Her books posit interbreeding between an alien society and humans in the wake of a nuclear holocaust that essentially wipes out humans and destroys the earth. The aliens that come to save the few survivors on earth interbreed to create a new hybrid species.“[1] Interbreeding, an attempt at rescuing  while eliminating the original, all these thoughts connect Robert’s new work to his past work in regard to his concerns with dystopian society.

Perhaps we could call Robert Egert’s painting contemporary action painting, however not the kind of action painting by which the body directs the artist’s movements and marks made on the canvas. In Egert’s paintings the gesture is removed from the maker, it becomes a kind of meditative, autonomous painting, a kind of painting that is more related to the European tachisme[2] than American action painting. The German informel artist Bernhard Schultze comes to mind with his figures wavering between human and animal forms.

And so we return to the questions one asks oneself when looking at an artwork. When does the decorative become something else? How can an artist translate the complexities of our being into paintings that are not just to be looked at? It comes down to the fact that we understand very little when we first look at an artwork. Therefore, if we see what we know, isn’t it better to know a little more? This is what makes us human. Or is it? This is the question that Robert Egert will continue to pose and continue to offer, at least partial, answers to.

Laura J. Padgett

[1] See Rober Egert’s blog…

[2] tachism: a style of painting adopted by some french artists around the 1940s, involving dabs or splotches of col, a process of action and reaction.