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American
1943 - 2021

Robert Cumming

Robert Cumming earned a B.F.A. in painting from the Massachusetts College of Art and an M.F.A. in painting from the University of Illinois, where he taught for three years while showing his sculpture and painting.  In his sculptures he built utilitarian-looking things that were intentionally devoid of utility.  In 1970, he moved to Southern California to join the burgeoning art world around Los Angeles, where he began to focus on photography.

Embracing the compact and transportable storytelling ability of photographs, Cumming produced six artist’s books during the 1970s, three of which formed a sort of trilogy: A Training in the Arts (1972), which deliberately confused text, caption, and image; A Discourse on Domestic Disorder (1975), a string of episodes of domestic ennui and disaster; and Interruptions in Landscape and Logic (1977), a tale of an imaginary, yet hauntingly familiar, war. He also developed an ongoing fascination with the nautical style in architecture, which he sought out on several cross-country drives traveling back to the East Coast.

In 1978 Cumming moved back to the East Coast and began to focus once again on painting, sculpture, and other works on paper. Commissions for photography continued, such as work for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, but often this work was more documentary in style, rooting out absurdities in the real world rather than constructing them for the camera itself.

In his non-photographic work—paintings, sculpture, and color pastels that he made for the next several decades—he reinvented motifs from his earlier practice, such as the spool of thread and the watermelon, driven more by form and aesthetics than the perceptual mechanics of his medium as he was when using the camera. These works are enigmatic and open for interpretation rather than puzzles the viewer can solve.

Cumming received National Endowment for the Arts grants in photography (1973), the experimental category of “new genres” (1974) and printmaking (1983), as well as a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship in 1980-81. He participated in the Whitney Biennial in 1975.

Cumming’s work is found in major museums across the country, including the International Center of Photography, Harvard Art Museum, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, The Getty Museum, Portland Art Museum, LACMA, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, The Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, and the George Eastman House Museum.