ROBERT OVERBY Persistence. Repeated.
On ViewAndrew Kreps Gallery
September 10 – October 31, 2015
Robert Overby, the Los Angeles-based graphic designer, educator, and artist who died in 1993 of Hodgkin’s disease had an art career that never came into national—much less international—prominence during his lifetime. Since then, thanks in part to the efforts of his widow, the painter Linda Burnham, his art has finally gotten the attention it deserves, with solo exhibitions and retrospectives in Europe and the U.S., and a presence at art fairs. Overby showed infrequently, and the sheer diversity of his output over the span of his career probably made it difficult to pigeonhole him for commercial success. Persistence. Repeated., at Andrew Kreps Gallery, includes twenty-three works from the early 1970s that, even within that restricted time frame, ranged widely in media and style: lithographs, latex impressions of architectural details and surfaces, rubbings, neon sculpture, cloth hangings, and restored 19th-century paintings that anticipate ’80s-style appropriation. The three themes that emerge from this show suggest a deep involvement with the mechanisms of memory: how personal memory persists, how cultural memory persists, and the mapping of experience that allows impressions to form memories in the first place.
The thread of personal memory—how it persists and alters over time—runs through a series of works in the show that based their images on an earlier Overby piece, not included in this show, titled Dürer Head on Fake Wood Panel (1973), which was an altered copy of the head in Dürer’s Madonna with the Siskin (1506). One Eyed-Grid (1975), a pair of lithographs with the cut-out heads mounted onto plywood, contrasted two printmaking techniques. The embossed lithograph on the right has a raised surface, while the debossed lithograph on the left has a depressed imprint. Apart from the surfaces however, the two images are indistinguishable. The 1975 “FADING LADY” series of eight framed lithographs features the same Madonna’s head, but the image has undergone a series of tonal and chromatic variations, darker, lighter, greener, and so on. R.R.O.S.E. (1974) presented a four-by-twelve array of forty-eight lithographs of the same Madonna’s head, this time altered not only chromatically, but through the introduction of extraneous imagery and other image manipulations. In these works and others in the show that include the same image, Overby was clearly playing with the paradoxical nature of the mechanically reproduced image, an object in its own right but endlessly repeatable. On a deeper level, the obsessive repetition of the Madonna’s head implies not an arbitrary choice but some meaningful connection rooted in experience, with the progressive alteration and degradation of the image through multiple printings mirroring perhaps the progressive alteration and degradation of the remembered experience as it played out again and again in Overby’s imagination.
Moving into the realm of cultural memory, Overby’s “Restoration Paintings” series, from 1973, anticipated notions of appropriation and the archive. In Venus 1600 (1973), Overby manipulated with different restoration techniques the surface of a late 19th-century imitation of a Baroque nude—cleaning, touching up, and filling in cracks and scrapes without significantly adding to or altering the image. The two other found paintings in the series—Princess Restoration c. 1850 anon. (1973), a Velázquez-like rendition of a child aristocrat, and St. Cecilia c. 1590 (1973), yet another Titian knockoff—received similar “restoration” treatment to their surfaces. The ironies raised by Restoration Paintings, “concepts of originality, purity, and authorship,” as the exhibition guide put it, were hardly current in the Post-Minimalist milieu of 1973. However, ideas of entropy and the passage of time certainly were, and Overby may have been putting an art historical spin on that perspective. It seems Overby’s fascination with mapping surfaces as a way of creating snapshots, the third big theme in this show, provided a bridge between competing notions of the passage of time as something cultural and as something rooted in physics.
Indeed, the most conceptually rich and visually striking of Overby’s works—the frottage drawings, the cloth pieces, and especially the latex impressions—all involve the theme of mapping surfaces. In all these cases, the mapping involves a one-to-one relationship, much like the map in the Borges story “On Exactitude in Science” that covered an entire empire. Here, Overby got to the heart of how experience becomes memory, and created some stunning pieces in the process. Three Plywood Sheets (1), 9 July 1972 (1972) and Three Plywood Sheets (2), 9 July 1972 (1972) presented two latex impressions of the same plywood sheet (Overby destroyed the third sheet). The first pull had the truest reflection of the surface of the plywood, and actually contained pieces of the sheet. The second pull was lighter in color and had less detail. By analogy, a memory is most vivid when first formed. Each recollection degrades the specificity of the memory.
The creation of a first memory involves producing a mirror image of the experience in short-term memory, a coherent map of all the different sensory impressions that make up the experience. Loft Window, 5 June 1971 (1971), a huge latex casting of a loft window in a friend’s studio in Manhattan, created a minutely detailed mirror image of the original window. As the time signature in the title suggested, Overby intended the work to represent not only a specific impression of a place but of a point in time as well, much as a photograph would.
If it were only for the latex castings, Overby’s importance to the art historical record might have been assured, but this exhibition shows a highly skilled and independently minded artist who moved in many directions at once, and often stood apart from the prevailing thought of his day. In these works from the early ’70s, his restless practice encompassed aspects of Pop Art, Post-Minimalist sculpture, and even appropriation avant la lettre—all in the service of an inquiry into memory, experience, and the passage of time in all its different registers. Fortunately for us, this show will allow the influence of this important artist to spread.