Thursday, December 17, 2009

Rob Moore - The Art of Seeing

Rob Moore taught at Massachusetts College of Art for 26 years and made an indelible impression on those who studied with him - or even those who just passed him in the hall. He was "the kind of a teacher students love to hate - charismatic, authoritative, charming." Nearly 17 years have elapsed since Rob's death on December 31, 1992. He died at age 55 of complications from AIDS, one of many who tragically contracted the disease too soon to benefit from life-prolonging drugs in use today.

Rob Moore closeup from "The Eloquent Eye", a Boston Sunday Globe article about him by Jon Garelick with photographs by Keith Jenkins, published May 22, 1988. The quote in the paragraph above is from this article.

Full page spread from "The Eloquent Eye", subtitled "Rob Moore teaches the art of seeing," showing paint tubes and mixed paint on a palette in Rob's studio. Rob is standing in front of one of his paintings.

That such a vibrant and dynamic person, artist and teacher as Rob should have had his life cut short is truly a great loss. He had so much to contribute with his own painting as well as through the work of his students. He died much too soon.

"It's the difference between seeing and hoping to see." (Rob Moore quoted by Jon Garelick).

In 1988 I graduated from Mass. College of Art (MassArt) after having majored in painting and having studied with Rob Moore during my last year there. Studying painting with Rob was a big reach for me. Most of the time I had no idea what he was talking about. Only now, more than 20 years later, does some of what he said about painting, color, space, marks and two dimensions started to make sense to me. Recently I discovered a notebook I had kept from his color class. As I paged through it, I read verbatim statements I had taken down but not understood at the time. "Oh, that's what he meant," I thought more than once as, for example, I read a homework assignment to make red a relative black in six assemblages of colors. I understand that now but then I was in a quandary.

Cover of the catalog of Rob Moore's retrospective, September 8 - October 23, 1993, Huntington Gallery, Massachusetts College of Art, organized by Jeffrey Keough, Director of Exhibitions. The painting pictured is Untitled, Summer 1992, oil and wax on board, 80"x18".

I have been wanting to write about Rob Moore because he died before the internet made accessing an artist's work and life so simple. If you Google Rob's name, very little comes up and it makes him seem invisible. Articles about him are not easy to find and are not free when you do locate them. I am lucky to have the Jon Garelick article, the retrospective catalog and a review of the retrospective by Christine Temin, then the major art reviewer for the Boston Globe. She described Rob's late work as being "in a league with the likes of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman" although made in a smaller and more intimate scale.

Image from the retrospective catalog, Untitled 1991, oil and wax on board, 80" x 81", collection of David Murphy. This one is my personal favorite.

I feel a bit intrusive writing about him because I did not really know him that well - not on a personal level as many of his students did. But of all the teachers I had at MassArt, he is the one who has had the greatest influence on my work over time. It's only as I have begun to mature as an artist that I realize his influence.

..."there are no rules. There are only what I call truisms, facts: Hue exists, yellow is a color...." (Rob Moore quoted by Jon Garelick)

I can't begin to recap Rob's life and work, but as I read through the slim amount of documentation about him that I have, I did find a striking connection with him that I had not registered before. Rob was one of the founders of the Graphic Workshop in Boston, along with Felice Regan and Chris Mesarch. This print cooperative was formed in response to political and social events such as the assassination of Martin Luther King, the Vietnam war, the killings at Kent State and other turbulent events of the late '60s and early '70s. The idea was to make socially responsible work that was high quality but essentially expressive of a political viewpoint. During his involvement with the Workshop, Rob stopped painting because he questioned "the seemingly selfish act of painting", according to Jon Garelick.

On a trip to New York, Rob stopped in at a Jasper Johns retrospective at the Whitney where the targets, flags and maps were being shown. Rob was blown away by "the sheer involvement of the artist with his material" (Garelick) and came away with tears in his eyes. He realized that it was time for him to "make some of those private excursions" (Garelick quoting Moore) that an artist makes through painting, and this prompted him to withdraw from active participation in the Workshop so that he could begin painting again.

"All I can talk about are the limitations of the medium - the utterly unique conditions of two-dimensional space." (Rob Moore quoted by Jon Garelick)

Rob painted geometric abstractions with oil paint and cold wax medium, but I wonder if he would have adopted encaustic as it became more accessible and widely used. Many of the Johns works included in the show that Rob connected with so emotionally were painted with encaustic, and its materiality impressed him. This is the connection I felt when I read about his reaction to the Johns show: he loved wax and paint as I do.

Summer Series 1987, work on paper, 19" x 5 1/2" on 25" x 33", Estate of Rob Moore. from the catalog of the MassArt retrospective. Rob made several series of prints at Rugg Road Paper that combined thin layers of marks in arrangements with "a simple set of strategies, including reflection, repetition, and displacement, which in combination generate great complexity....near symmetry and imperfect reflection (which) are most characteristic of his subtle destabilization of the visual field." (David Joselit in the catalog of the MassArt retrospective.)

But did he love color more? Rob's juxtaposition of color fields was deeply felt and conveyed emotional weight. He thoroughly understood the interaction of colors, but his understanding was based on perception rather than conception.

Untitled 1990, oil and wax on board, 28" x 84", collection of Nancy Talbot, from the catalog of the retrospective.

"He passionately embraced color with its ability to affect the viewer and to touch something internal. When I look at Rob's work, color operates on the senses like a poet's carefully chosen words." - former student Stephen Mishol quoted in the catalog of the retrospective

"There are as many ways of seeing as there are artists. That's why painting isn't dead." (Jon Garelick quoting Rob Moore)

"He has a particular ability to combine colors and hues which seem to belong to different worlds: sweet synthetic aquas or pink are juxtaposed to dour earth tones. But it is just this logic of balancing strong colors, ranging from the delirious to the somber, which gives weight and poignancy to the geometric gymnastics beneath." - David Joselit in the catalog of the retrospective

"The works from the last couple of years of Moore's life are commanding, with a palette - purple, black gold - full of religious symbolism. A tall vertical from 1991 combines stripes of somber black and gray with an expansive midsection of purple. What rescues the painting from morbidness is that glinting through the waxen purple is a brilliant, glowing violet that reads like hope made tangible." - Christine Temin, "MassArt's Rob Moore: A Life of Form and Color", a review of the retrospective.

I had the above image in my picture file for Rob Moore with the title "Remembrance". I don't know where the image came from but I know it is Rob's work and the title is most apt.

I hope that other students of Rob's will read this and comment about their memories of him.

"What I want you to hold onto is your own faith in making an abstract painting - it's tough. It's a lonely business." - Rob Moore quoted by Jon Garelick in the catalog of the retrospective.

Rob Moore's work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Philadelphia Art Museum, the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard, the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts as well as in many private collections including the collections of Harold Rosenberg, Joan and Roger Sonnabend, Marian and Thomas Marill, the Bank of Boston, the Chase Manhattan Bank and Time Warner, Inc. (from the catalog of the retrospective)


Patricia said...

This is a powerful tribute to your mentor. Good of you to assemble a virtual file for others to find on Rob Moore's career. I hope that one day you will be able to collect one of his prints for your collection.

M said...

Thanks for introducing me to an artist I didn't know. Your post was both informative and personal.

I often think that the collage years should be later in life when we are more mature to integrate learning in a more meaningful way.

jeeper said...

Great piece on Rob. I was a graduate student in 1975 and Rob was an incredible teacher. He was dedicated and had a huge impact on everyone. In all my years as a student and then as an art teacher, I have never met anyone who was a better teacher.

Nancy Natale said...

Thank you Patricia, Margaret and Jeeper for your comments on the Rob Moore piece. Several other people commented about Rob on my Facebook page in response to the link to this blog. What wonderful things they also said about him. Jeeper, you must have been there in the heyday of all the student actions. What a dynamic time to be at MassArt.

layers said...

how does that saying go? we don't realize how wise our parents are until we grow up and look back in time? I always tell my art students that one can only understand and take in what they are ready for-- and as you grow and mature and experience art-- then what the teachers say make more sense and have more impact.
thank you for sharing this artist with us.

Joanne Mattera said...

Nancy, thanks for this wonderful tribute to Rob. He was my teacher at Mass Art, too. I'm going to pass it on the the faculty. And interesting supposition about encaustic.

Nancy Natale said...

Thank you Donna. Your comment is all too true that our ears and minds are not opened until we are ready to receive the wisdom.

Joanne, I knew that you had to have studied with Rob. Thanks for your comment and for passing along the post.

DAvid Greenberger said...

Rob's name came up in conversation yesterday when I was at the house of someone who'd attended Mass Art, as did I (he in the late 60s/early 70s, me in the mid 70s). We were talking about the artists and teachers from there and Rob's name was the first to come up. I waned to see something about his work and found what you'd written - the best thing I found. Thank you for your considered heartfelt writing.
- David Greenberger

jean smith said...

Rob was THE best and most wonderful and very important person in my life. He was an incredible teacher and I am glad that you have this entry in your blog about him. As you said, since the timing of his death was before the internet took off, there is really nothing to speak of about him. He was a great person.

Chris Beatrice said...

I studied with Rob between 1985 and 1992. I was talking color and basic drawing with him when he passed away (he was not able to finish the class). I first met Rob when I was 17, as a freshman at Mass Art, and my experience in his classes was exactly like the original post here - I had no idea what he was talking about. But he incited such a doubt in me, a good doubt, about what I thought I knew, even what I thought I was seeing, vs. what I was really seeing, that I clung to that and vowed to understand what the heck he was talking about. It took me at least 15 years to "get it." Like the original post here, I dug out my old class notes, with little drawings, copies of other students' assignments, and what Rob was saying about them. Now I get it. I, too, have periodically perused the internet for something, anything about Rob and his art and teaching. All that ever came up was some picture of him in NY, in front of a river, if I recall. Thanks so much for posting this. I miss Rob so much.

jean smith said...

I still miss Rob too! I have recently just started doing art again, and his words and voice are in my mind all the time. I wish he were here. He just had such a positive impact, that guy.

Jean Nicolazzo said...

How wonderful to find this! I was also a student of Rob Moore's in the early 70's at MassArt. At the time, I felt that he was offering me something very important that I wasn't quite ready, at 18, to receive. But I also knew that if I could absorb what Rob was teaching, I would be an artist. It's taken a very long time to appreciate his influence in my life. I know this post is a couple of years old now, but I'm grateful to find it. Googling Rob Moore just doesn't yield much, sadly.

Marcia said...

I have a piece of Rob's work that I want to sell. It is an actual wood piece consistent with the themes of his Oil and wax on board pieces. He gave it to my parents who live in Boston. Rob actually hung the peice in their hallway. My parents need to move into senior housing and they have no room for this wonderful work of art. If anyone is interested I have a picture of it. My email address is

David Campbell said...

I studied with Rob in 1985. I wasn't very good at what i was doing or rather trying to do. Rob always had nice things to say to me. He was brilliant and clever.
My favorite Rob Moore quote, in reference to one of his students who hung all of his small paintings on the wall at one time in a salon style. "It is in poor taste to wear all of our jewels at once."

Anonymous said...

I Just found out about Rob's death last time i saw him was March of 1967 In Philadelphia. He was getting ready to move to Boston. Rob was a great person A true Humanitarian

Anonymous said...

My brother was very good friends with Rob Moore. Rob gave several pieces of is works to are my brother. My brother also knew many of Robs students. To say the least my brother had wonderful art on his walls. Well, two years ago my brother died suddenly and I have inherited a huge amount of art work. I have two Rob Moore pieces. I want to try to see if I can get these pieces in a museum or gallery. Any idea? I live in the Boston are. Please contact me if you are interested in helping me find the best place for these pieces so they are enjoyed by me at

Anonymous said...

One of my favorite memories now of Rob when I was a student at Mass. Art, was one of my review boards one semester. Rob tore apart everything I did save one small painting -- of which he said "study this one closely." But then, as we were leaving after, he said quietly, sincerely to me, "good work." Wow, that meant a lot! :)

He always pushed us to become better artists, to always be learning and growing and becoming ever better able to see.

kturn1000 said...

I'm just finding this now - I'm overwhelmed to say the least - i studied with Rob 86-89. I will gather my thoughts and anecdotes of which there are many -briefly I'll say what joy he brought while he was tearing you apart! the horror and joy. - He was a beautiful person, a raging ball of confidence and southern charm. I remember hearing his voice coming down the hall hoping he might stop by your studio or terrified he might - if he was laying hard lessons down in the studio next door - I hung on every word. His critiques were my biggest lessons for life outside of school. he had a huge impact on who i am today. thanks for sharing everyone - id love if we might be able to gather in one place - if anyone is interested - pls contact me

Carter Wentworth said...

What an influence on my awareness of the visual. Rob's focus on each individual was amazing.
He was my teacher in 1969 and continued with my participation at the Graphic Workshop.

RebaGorgeous said...

Rob Moore was a wonderful professor. As one of the students he advised in his final year, I remember clearly the great loss I felt at his untimely death. I also remember the great impact he made upon me as a developing artist. I carried his color theory teachings with me for many years. I actually remember where I was when I received a call from a friend that he had passed. His critiques were intense, always valuable, and delivered in a way that was easy to accept even when they were fierce. He was the first person to tell me what I made was crap, literally the color of crap in my painting and to try again. Just the thought of that conversation brings a smile to my face.

I feel blessed to have had his guidance even for a short time.

Unknown said...

I just found this as I was talking about Rob with a friend and wanted to share a link. I have missed him since his death so many years ago. He and a few others have had a profound and lasting impact on my life both as an artist and as a person. I can still hear his boots stomping through the studio floor at Overland building and his usual greeting to me at least what the hell are you doing? Followed by intense conversation ranging from art to life to disco.

Ken Irwin - Mass Art - 1975 said...

Ken Irwin - I had just gotten out of the military in the early 70’s, entered Mass Art and taught color by Rob. I was old enough to snag just the tail of what he was asking the class. Like many comments above, the significance of what he had given me hit me like a brick in my later work and teaching painting myself. His loss was a sad tragedy.

Sharon Butler said...

I was just googling Rob to find a few images of his work for a presentation I'm giving this afternoon and found your post. We must have been at MassArt at around the same time? I studied with Rob from 1986-87, an important period for developing my ideas about painting. One time he was so disgusted with the students in our studio section that he took us out in the hall, told us our work sucked, then made us drop everything to go outside and make paintings of clouds. A brilliant assignment that taught us how to really see color. But it was about developing a sensitivity to surface and materials, too. I'm grateful to have found this post and I'd like to send out a big thank you to Rob Moore.