Robert Cumming (1943–2021)

Robert Cumming in Corona del Mar, California, c. 1975. Photo: The Robert Cumming Archive.

YOU MIGHT THINK it would be difficult to photocopy your own obituary from a major US newspaper and mail it off to somebody. Yet Robert Cumming did just that in 2011. He sent me his 1995 obit from the Boston Globe—a quarter-page of real estate headlined “Robert Cumming, 67; Painter, Sculptor, and Art School Teacher,” with a photo of the artist giving a lecture in front of the chalk-drawn walls of his installation Blackboard Brain, a de facto three-dimensional portrait of his mind that was commissioned by the MIT List Center in 1993.

I quickly sent him an e-mail: “Dear Robert, I was dismayed to learn from yesterday’s mail that you perished from this earth in 1995 . . .  And—I had no idea you served in the Navy in World War II! If only we could discuss that. But, alas, that darned heart attack. . .” I was five months into my research for a master’s thesis on Robert’s 1970s photography and thought I knew quite a bit about him. I had interviewed him in person the previous summer, on the far side of a huge looping road trip to visit museum study rooms that held his work. This research became not only a thesis on Robert Cumming, but a monograph and two exhibitions over the course of the next decade. He replied to my e-mail that day, saying that he had been flattered by the coverage, but that the photo they chose prompted him to go on a diet.

Robert was, of course, very much alive when the article was published. The first tip-off being that they forgot to include the word “photographer” in the headline. Also, he was quite a bit younger than sixty-seven in 1995. What happened was that this obituary, which included a pithy comment about his art being “accessible to all, a rarity in our era of abstraction and obfuscation,” conflated the lives of Robert Hugh Cumming and Robert Homer Cumming. The latter is a man about whom I know very little—a Naval officer in World War Two who lectured on mosaic technique and was hired to compose a 4,800-square-foot mural titled The Birth of Liberty, 1961–1965, by the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Hollywood, and who wrote for more than sixty television shows and was survived by his wife and two brothers.

Much of the rest is quite accurate for R. Hugh Cumming. The article mentioned a series of granite sculptures he made in 1990 for a park in Lowell, Massachusetts, and described the artist as “noted for his elegant wit” and “having a Leonardo-like curiosity and a Duchampian sense of the absurd.” These things are all true.

Born in 1943, Robert grew up outside of Boston and began his career as a sculptor and mail artist. He spent most of the 1970s making photographs and artist books before diving headlong into photorealistic painting, sculpture, and printmaking in the 1980s and ’90s, then focused much of his later years on figure-based painting and drawing, often incorporating landscapes and motifs from his earlier work. He did not serve at sea or lecture on mosaic technique. He did, however, receive three National Endowment for the Arts Grants (1972, 1975, 1979) and a Guggenheim Fellowship (1981), and he was exhibited worldwide—none of this mentioned in the obit.

His best-known work is from the 1970s, an era in which he tested the boundaries of believable reality in unmanipulated black-and-white 8-by-10 photographs: the afterimage of a stool, a chair mid-topple, rope standing on its own, a slice of white bread embedded in a watermelon, a shading exercise drawn on a blackboard. These images portray simple things, photographed beautifully, that aren’t always what they seem. He toyed around with the glance, duping the imagination into making false assumptions about humble objects. Sometimes he left “tells” in the image, as in the diptych Toy Boat Afloat in a Small Pond, Upon Setting Sail, Sinks Reflection, 1974.

Toy Boat is a before and after scenario. In the first image, a small white boat floats on a gutterlike strip of “pond” surrounded by concrete and industrial piping, its “reflection” mirrored in the surface of the water. In the second, the boat has no reflection, but an identical little white boat has “sunk,” lying upside down in the deep. Without that second photograph, one’s glance might be fooled by the first. The subtle tell is that, for image two, Robert leaves the dowel that holds up the “reflection” out in the open, prone on the pavement next to the pane of glass that serves as water. This kind of playful legerdemain propels the viewing experience, an energetic volley between spectator and image that becomes part of the work itself.

Robert was traveling in Mexico when “his” obituary was published in 1995. When he got home, there were dozens of messages on his home answering machine—mostly clicks and dead air. No one quite knew what to make of the situation. No one asked, “Hi, Robert—are you really dead?” His partner Meg was getting multiple calls of condolence. The Globe posted a correction the next day.

On December 16, 2021, Robert passed away. His proper obituary has made the rounds. He always felt bad about the mix-up with Robert Homer Cumming. “One only gets one exit, after all,” he said. But it’s somehow not surprising that Robert got two.

Sarah Bay Gachot is a writer and curator. Her master’s thesis research on Robert Cumming’s photography became a monograph, The Difficulties of Nonsense (Aperture, 2016), and an exhibition, “The Secret Life of Objects,” for The Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York, and the California Museum of Photography.

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