Here’s what 71-year-old artist Robert Beckmann told the next generation of Las Vegas artists at a dinner party: “Do what you don’t know how to do as long as you can. Then finally do what you know how to do just to resolve the damn thing.”
While it might sound like a truism, this philosophy of creation is incredibly difficult to carry out. Not only is it plain hard to seek out constant innovation, but it comes at the expense of a comfortable living catering to collectors who like a familiar product. Yet the Philadelphia native and twice-transplanted Las Vegan has built a career on doing what he doesn’t know how to do. His art—both fine and commercial—spans a kaleidoscope of styles and themes, from commissioned photo-realistic horse portraits to abstracted explosions.
Beckmann views this creative risk-taking as the dichotomy between expressing and expanding oneself, between Apollonian and Dionysian forces, between classical and romantic schools. Over the course of his career, Beckmann has masterfully harnessed both horses so that together they pull his one chariot. His retrospective show at Vast Space Projects (through June 16) makes this clear. Here’s how he’s done it:
The evolving styles on display in Retrospective follow the trajectory of an intensely empathetic person who is attuned to the pricklier aspects of Las Vegas, the troubling and oft-ignored paradoxes of life in this desert oasis. Beckmann’s art is like our conscience, a Jiminy Cricket with a sense of humor and beauty.
Dating back to 1990, the oldest piece in this show is “Belly Glass.” In view of his later work, this piece is the most fun, innocent even. Sure, it’s critiquing the false gods of gambling and consumption, but it’s doing so in a soft, playful, smoke-’em-if-you-got-’em way. At the top of the painting is a lemon, a losing slot machine roll. Below that is an X-ray of a human torso, showing golden poop making its way through the intestines. Beckmann, who moved to Vegas for the first time in the ’70s to work on a public art project for the city, is saying that it’s all shit, but it’s golden and it’s home.
Moving forward in time is a series of pseudo-classical creations shown for the first time since 2001, Vegas Vanitas. These pieces feature an amalgam of old and new, mixing classical paintings with the iconography of the Strip, just as, say the Venetian co-opted the iconography of Venice.
Visually stunning and clever, the images elicit a soft laugh of self-recognition. They offer a gentle critique of that exuberant and self-important Vegas era of expansion and success. This series reveals our collective vanities in a way that is nonetheless flattering.
A highlight includes “Eighty-Sixed From Paradise,” in which Adam and Eve flee the glowing Strip into a dark wasteland. Based on Thomas Cole’s “Expulsion From the Garden of Eden” (1827-28), the painting captures the mood of a Monday-morning flight back to the Midwest.
Next comes the late “aughts.” While the economy was collapsing, Beckmann was looking back toward an even darker part of Nevada history: nuclear testing. Returning to the theme he explored in the early ’90s, Beckmann offers striking and jarring paintings. “Test House–Fire” (2008) and “Test House–Concussion” (2008) show a house being blown to smithereens as part of the nuclear testing. There is also a series of painted movie stills (“Kin–Nuclear Family #1-4,” 2007) of a worker carrying a mannequin for the Nevada test house. These paintings capture the raw emotions of our state’s history while also offering a healing memorial to all that was lost through the use and testing of these weapons.
Bring Body of a House Home: A Plea
Robert Beckmann’s seminal series, 1993’s large-scale The Body of a House, is so important that it toured the nation and Russia. In 2000, it was enshrined in the permanent collection of the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno. The oil paintings depict an All-American two-story house in stop-motion destruction as it absorbs the godly force of an atomic bomb. Novelist Robert H. Abel describes the series as a “powerful metaphor for the dissolution of the self: how confronting immense power (terror/‘the nuclear sublime’/powerful genies of our own creation) erases our defenses and smug assumptions and brings us up against our littleness in the scale of things, and our mortality.” Now, the series is in the museum’s storage.
Since Reno isn’t doing anything with it, the museum should lend Body of a House to Las Vegas’ National Atomic Testing Museum. There, the horror the images depict could be seen in greater context. Nevada Museum of Art senior curator and deputy director Ann Wolfe says that “the museum is always open to loaning artworks from our collection to other institutions,” so it’s up to our institutions (and their constituents) to make it happen. – C.M.R.
A year ago, Beckmann returned to Las Vegas after an eight-year stint in Oregon.
He found a city greatly changed by the boom-turned-bust of the Great Recession and corresponding housing crisis. His new paintings, all created since his return, reflect Las Vegas’ change of fortunes. Like the nuclear-testing paintings, his canvases force the viewer to address an uncomfortable reality that has been purposefully ignored.
In contrast to the elaborate, aggrandized yearning of the Vegas Vanitas series, the new works show a humbled, deconstructed Vegas, one that has faced the price of its own pretensions. “The Impecunious Cloud” presents the abandoned Echelon as a shining if ineffectual monolith rising out of the muddy flood-waters of Las Vegas Boulevard like a native plant.
There is “Departure,” taken from a historic photograph, inversed and abstracted until, if you squint, it resembles the color bars of a Mark Rothko painting. The image depicts a narrative of loss, a citizen of St. Thomas faces a boat bearing the last of his belongings, as floodwaters from the Hoover Dam are poised to submerge his house. This continues a theme of government-wrought destruction in all forms, from fire to water to economic.
But Beckmann leaves us with hope. “The Vegas Graces” is a benediction for Las Vegas. The Nevada version of the Greek goddesses show up in the form of New York-New York’s Statue of Liberty, a ghostly Blue Angel statue (from the now-defunct Blue Angel Motel) and a construction crane. Representing Vegas’ past, present and future, the figures rule over the intersection of Tropicana Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard. It’s witching hour, the moment of dusk when the sky has darkened and the Strip lights haven’t yet blinked on, the moment when our fates, as a city, a state, a nation are free to choose a better future, one free of the ills that Beckmann so deftly depicts.