To appreciate Robert Beckmann’s fascination with Southern Nevada, your first stop should be his website, RobertBeckmann.com. There you’ll find images of some of the most stirring works ever inspired by Las Vegas, including Vegas Vanitas (a series of paintings portraying Strip properties against the backdrop of centuries-oldmaster paintings) and the Body of a House and Kin series (chilling looks at the dark side of atomic experimentation at the Nevada Test Site).
Or you can drive on Water Street in downtown Henderson, where, on the side of the CenturyLink building, you’ll find Beckmann’s five-panel mural celebrating that city’s origins. Or, next time you’re at the D Gates in McCarran, check out his panoramic bighorn sheep painting.
In fact, wherever you turn in Southern Nevada you’re likely to run into pieces by the 70-year-old Philadelphia native, who moved here from Seattle in 1977 to organize the city’s first public-arts project. After spending eight years in Ashland, Ore., Beckmann recently migrated back to the desert, not only to finish a brand-new series of works (some of which are on exhibit in Ryan Galleries) but to reconnect with the hidden beauty he finds among the landscape of his adopted home. Along the way he also noticed a few new, not-so-subtle scars left by unnatural forces.
What does Vegas look like to you after a long absence?
I was at this big exterior mall yesterday, off Grand Canyon Parkway, with this huge parking lot, and a large part of it was empty—the stores hadn’t been filled. That was a surprise. There are elements like that all over town, like the Fontainebleau. I have a friend at Turnberry Place, and I looked out from her place at a wall at Fontainebleau that I was going to muralize at one point. The wall was still there, but behind that was an empty building. It was a shock.
But, also, the city kind of reinvented itself culturally while you were gone. What do you make of things like The Smith Center, what’s happening downtown, etc.?
I was really surprised by The Smith Center—it’s gorgeous. I went to an event the other night, the Contemporary Dance Theater. I remember going to dance events 10 years ago—this was just a whole step up. And the Center itself was really beautifully done. It was restrained, and I liked to see that, [considering] all the over-the-top craziness you see in some of the hotels. To find that sort of elegance was nice.
As for downtown, I had heard about the big [First Friday] happening, but I’m not sure how much work artists sold back then. I’m hoping that’s changed and there are more things happening down there now in terms of sales, not just a big party. Because when I was there, it was a lot of people getting drunk and sloppy.
Did you learn anything about the Valley from living in Oregon?
Yeah. There was an art community here that I appreciated, being up there. The people down here are more related to L.A. and what was happening there, whereas the scene up in Oregon was more related to San Francisco, a figurative surrealist kind of orientation. At least in my fine art, which is a lot different from the mural work, I felt more comfortable with what was being done here.
What did you miss most about Las Vegas while you were in Oregon, and what are the differences between the two art communities?
I have favorite spots here—Valley of Fire, Red Springs [at Red Rock], Corn Creek, Lake Mead. And I like that thewinters are sort of tolerable here. During the summer, it’s a killer. But you’re four hours [drive] from L.A., and you’ve got a great international airport here. And I missed that, being up in Oregon.
But honestly, the city of Ashland is an amazing place. [It’s a population of] 20,000 people, and they have eight used bookstores. They have the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. They have the Ashland Independent Film Festival. … And they have a 20,000-square-foot art museum. So, that’s quite a comparison.
Did you ever think you’d see the day when Las Vegas and culture would be mentioned in the same breath?
When I was [living] here, I had worked with a lot of people to try to get something going. I mean, I knew Dave Hickey, I knew Libby Lumpkin—I worked with both of them on things and was sorry to see both of them [leave town]. But you keep hoping, you keep working. I would’ve thought there could’ve been a connection between the Nevada Museum of Art up in Reno and here. A group of us had tried to make that happen, wherethere would be something like the Desert Research Institute, where there’s a north and south branch and we could’ve lobbied for state monies as an entity. We could’ve put together shows up north that would’ve traveled down here, and you could’ve seen what was happening in Reno, and vice versa. It would’ve been a natural connection, but it didn’t happen, and I was sad to see that.
We really do need a showplace here for the arts, and I’m not sure that The Smith Center could be that. I don’t know if there’s a museum facility over there that can show art.
Now that you’re back in town, what about the possibility of new mural commissions?
I’m open to it. I know a lot of people whom I’ve worked with before that I’d like to work with again. When I had a business here, it always felt good to support other artists by hiringthem to help me do things. At one point I had seven people working for me, and they were all doing their own work, too. We were all doing fine art as well as mural work. So, sure, I’d be open to that. But a lot of politics are involved.
Is there a specific space here in town that you believe would be ideal for another mural?
At one point, I was talking with thedirector of the airport, Randy Walker, about doing a mural there based on the Las Vegas Wash. There’s the area from Lake Las Vegas out to Lake Mead which is this incredible canyon—it’s really beautiful. And I wanted to do a long mural based on that area, just seeing the whole thing along its length, and having cells blow up, like “Here’s the Wilson’s warbler from this area; here’s some text about the geology in that area,” where people are actually learning about that side of Las Vegas. It would be great. But it seems like [the more recent airport art] is all geared toward the showgirls and the entertainment industry, the Vegas icons. And I don’t have any problem with showgirls. It’s just that I think there’s a natural history that people should know about—a different perspective [of Las Vegas]. … Murals don’t simply have to be decorative. They can be educational, too.
How is your art different today than it was, say, two decades ago?
My work in the past dealt with, insome sense, the apocalypse. I wanted people to be aware of some things—the nasty downside of nuclear testing, for one. When I did Body of a House, it was a memorial to Hiroshima. … In the work that I’m doing now, I’ve tried to be more positive. I want to see if I can’t find answers of how to heal the brokenness rather than simply document the brokenness.
What was your inspiration for your Vegas Vanitas series?
Working for as many hotel-casinos as I did and working from their themes, which often were based on the appropriation of other culture’s themes—the Paris, Caesars, whatever; they’re all borrowing from the world’s cultures—I decided to play it back on Vegas and take old master paintings and put Vegas into them. I’m hoping to show them in a more private situation here. When they were shown here [previously] it was during the Guggenheim opening, and they were shown at Ham Hall, but high up on walls. You couldn’t really see them, and they weren’t lit well. So I’m hoping to get them in a different situation this time.
You obviously devoted a lot of study time to the Nevada Test Site. What did youlearn from your research?
That a large part of it was just wrong-headed. I think the Sedan [Crater] is an example of that wrong-headedness—that in order to explore the capacity for excavation we would create this test which released all this pollution, all across the country and all over the world. It was just wrong-headed. All the harm that was done by not fully acknowledging the consequences that might be there … there are arenas for risk, and there are ones where those kinds of risks shouldn’t be taken.
You mentioned the Guggenheim. When you look back, was that just bad timing, or something that was never going to work here?
My feeling is people don’t come here to see that kind of thing. People come here for a certain kind of entertainment, for meals, for a certain experience within the casinos. And I’m not sure the cultural museum thing really plays within the casino. AlthoughSteve Wynn made a valiant effort [at the Bellagio].
What led you to become an artist?
I sort of backed into it, actually. I’ve had mentors all my life—people who just pulled me aside and helped me. One was my Scout master. He was a research chemist at Sunoco Refinery in Delaware, and his lab blew up. He went back in to save his assistant, and it put him in the hospital for a year—disfigured him. And he redirected his career from there, figuring, “I don’t want to be in chemistry anymore.” So he got a doctorate from the University of Penn in pre-Elizabethan literature … But he got me curious about science and also got me interested in the arts, and let me see the difference.
When I was 13, I built a Geiger counter, for instance, and discovered uranium ore in Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia. It made the Philadelphia paper. And I had a mineral collection that I developed and actually sold and bought a car with it, which became my hot-rod in high school. In high school, boy, I was all over the place—I was curious about everything. I think to answer your question—what got me involved with art?—it was a way to channel my interests, because … I was active in Scouts, but was also captain of the track team, president of my class, active in student government, just all across the board. And when I got to college, I sort of got adopted by another mentor, a fellow who was the head of the music department at the College of Wooster, a small liberal-arts college in Ohio. And he gave me some great advice as a freshman: “Don’t think too much about making a living at the outset. Think about learning how to live. Think about who you can learn from.” It’s difficult to think in those terms now, but back then, for me, it was great advice.
What advantages does Las Vegas offer as a home for an artist?
The advantages are sort of obvious. It’s inexpensive to live here, relatively inexpensive. You have access to a great airport to get you to other places. You’re not so far from L.A. or Santa Fe [N.M.], where there are great art scenes. That’s all really positive. And the natural world here is something that can open things up, having the vast vistas. Again, I don’t know about the situation at [First Friday]. I guess there is a community of artists who live in the Arts Factory area, and I think that sort of thing—at least for younger artists—is important, to have that sort of connection.
What’s your best advice to an aspiring artist who wants to do the same kind of art as you?
Well, forget about doing what I did. Find your own thing. And just be curious. One of the things I learned when I was a Greek major—and I forgot which philosopher said it—but it was, “Curiosity is the beginning of wisdom.” Be curious, about everything. Not just about what’s going on in the art world. Be curious about how your carburetor works, about what happens in the Las Vegas Wash. What kind of bird is that? … Keep yourself open, aware, pay attention, listen—I think we’re a culture that’s forgotten how to listen in large part. We’re all concerned with our own inner monologues.
Who’s the best artist who ever lived?
[Laughs.] Oh my gosh. Well, the easy answer is Rembrandt, for his humanity. Another answer would be Hakuin, one of the 15th century Zen masters. He was born in 1686 at the foot of Mt. Fuji, which I first saw briefly on my birthday last March. Briefly? I was traveling on the Shinkansen bullet train as it zoomed west from Tokyo to Kyoto. Look quickly…there it is!
Both Rembrandt and Hakuin painted amazing images of people, often in life-changing situations, in ecstasy—that is, “ex-static,” being yanked into awareness, into the present. Technically, they are both masters of light. Their ability to find balance between light and darkness suggests psychic balance.
What’s the one piece of art you wish you would’ve created?
Maybe the Seagram murals by [Mark] Rothko. Those things are just totally transcendent; they’re just amazing. They’re now mounted in the new Tate in London.
What are your words to live by?
Lead your life instead of following it. Laugh—laugh at yourself, laugh at the world. And just turn off the [noise] and see things, hear things. Be open.
What’s more important to an artist: his eye or his hand?
His heart. It’s not a matter of skill. It’s not a matter of your hands, and it’s not a matter of how well you see things—although, as a visual artist, that’s pretty important, your eyes being open. But it’s a matter of expansion … where you’re no longer expressing yourself or demonstrating skills, but you’re expanding. You’re in what the basketball players call “the zone.”