Robert Gordon: Lost Traces

INDEPENDENT NEW YORK | Floor 6
March 5-8, 2020 | Fair Hours & Tickets




I mean, [Frank Stella’s] paintings are hip, but no one knew Bob [Robert] Gordon. He’s a black guy who worked for Stella. No one talks about him. He was in The De Luxe Show. No one knows who he is or if he’s dead or alive. He set up those…Stella paintings. But no one knows that… [he’s] a great painter. So much shit goes on and they don’t know about it. It’s ridiculous. I can’t put up with it.”
—Peter Bradley, artist and curator of The De Luxe Show, Houston (1971)[1]


A folding black-and-white exhibition poster frames a low angle photograph of a handsome, nattily dressed, 24-year old black artist. Donning a cream-colored turtleneck sweater, a camel hair sport coat, and buckle black leather shoes, the artist sits on the hood of a black Cadillac in the vicinity of his pre-gentrified Broome Street loft, his gaze shielded by aviator sunglasses. The viewer’s eye meets the car’s wide metal grill head on, just above the license plate containing the exhibition information, “ROBERT GORDON / Iolas Gallery / April 25 – May 25 [1968].” Defying the conventions of contemporary exhibition posters of the era, which typically reproduced a work of art, or perhaps a studio portrait, this one pictures the artist confronting the viewer in the middle of the street. Who is Robert Gordon?

Robert Gordon eludes us: no one knows who he is, and no one knows if he’s dead or alive. From around 1965-75, Gordon moved in elite circles of advanced contemporary art, exhibiting widely at top galleries and museums. Peter Bradley remembers Gordon as a “great painter”—one who worked as Frank Stella’s long-time studio assistant, setting up the latter’s paintings.[2] But if the works Gordon made under his own name can be considered to fall under the rubric of “painting,” they were not—at least from 1966—actually painted, but rather fashioned out of found materials, including textiles, curtains, chenille bedspreads, and even bubble wrap. Sometimes they were stretched, tacked to the wall, or hung on actual curtain rods with brocades, such as the one that hung in William N. Copley’s Waverly Street apartment.[3] “[Robert Gordon] works with paper and textiles from the neighborhood of his own loft, and he clearly finds them not just amusing but also frightening,” critic Robert Christgau writes in 1968. “The very size of his works, combined with his garish materials, has a surreal grandeur that is awesome.”[4]

In his 1968 catalogue essay, Christgau also notes the role of “process” in Gordon’s work, which the critic connects to the artist’s “attack” on both painting and Pop: “Bob Gordon’s work has thematic precedents in the work of Robert Rauschenberg, but he has launched his attack from pop rather than from abstract expressionism; no other pop artist (to stick him in that category for convenience’s sake), no other pop artist would dare show of such obvious process; no other pop artist would, for example, bare the frame of his painting, or staple it to the wall.”[5]

From around 1966-75, Gordon moved in elite circles of contemporary art, participating in group shows at Leo Castelli Gallery (1966, 1967) and Park Place Gallery (1966, 1967), and in numerous museum exhibitions, including Gordon Lozano Ryman Stanley (Cincinnati Arts Center, 1968), In Honor of Martin Luther King (The Museum of Modern Art, 1968), 32nd Biennial (Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1971), and The De Luxe Show (Menil Foundation, 1971). Gordon’s work was collected by artists Arman, William N. Copley, Roy Lichtenstein, Hans Namuth, Frank Stella and by the Pasadena Art Museum and Rice University, Houston. Critics also noticed: Douglas Davis wrote in Newsweek: “[Roy] Lichtenstein selects a young black painter, Robert Gordon whose bizarre Untitled [1966] collage of cotton, brocade and stretched fabric is the strongest, sharpest work in the [1971 Corcoran] Biennial.”[6] A few years later, Roberta Smith positively reviewed the artist’s final one-person show at Bykert Gallery in the pages of Artforum (1974). She found that Gordon’s “…pieces combine aspects of Flavin and Bell, and also comment on their purity…They are beautiful; they are pictorially and spatially complicated and ambiguous; but they are also rather nonchalant, stark and skeptical.”[7] After participating in another small group show at Bykert Gallery, Robert Gordon was said to have left for the West Coast.[8] And no one has heard from him since.

This exhibition brings together eight colorful quasi-abstractions on paper: gouache, ballpoint pen, permanent marker, and crayon. The drawings at Alden Projects—as with many of Gordon’s work—exert a casual, mysterious power, while resisting a show of technical virtuosity. All have dramatic, oversized signatures and idiosyncratic dates verso: “1967,” “1967 ½”, “1968, or “1968 ½.” An archive of accompanying exhibition posters, announcements, catalogues, and other materials assembled by Alden Projects re-marks the known traces and critical reception of Robert Gordon’s exhibited work between 1966-75.

Several drawings at Alden Projects depict cascading fabrics—perhaps curtains or bedspreads—and at least one with the suggestion of a brocade, executed in ball-point pen, but also in gouache, bright marker, and crayon—all with a “nonchalant” sensibility. Most suggest the art of, or art as, an empty stage, conjuring up an uncanny space between representation and abstraction. Two examples contain depictions of diamonds in ballpoint pen and mysterious contours, resonating with Walter Hopps’s recollection of Gordon’s work: “it was interesting—a kind of geometric patterning, with stripes and diamonds and strange forms.[9]  All are enigmatic.

Robert Gordon not only refused to comply with the conditions, articulated by art historian Darby English, that “black artists were expected to make art that looked like it was made by a black person,”[10] but he defied all expectations and all conventions: of painting, of Pop, of Minimalism, and of being a “professional artist.” By sometimes “opting out,” Gordon turned his back on an elite art network that welcomed him. The legendary curator of When Attitudes Becomes Form (1969), Harald Szeemann noted in his exhibition diary on December 18, 1968: “I’ve tried in vain to see this shy black artist twice already. This time we do meet. He wants to participate and shows me photos, works he’s started. But he doesn’t want to commit, so we leave it open.”[11] Another legendary curator, Walter Hopps, remembered, “But we couldn’t get him to answer the phone.”[12] Although there remains much to discover about the elusive Robert Gordon and his enigmatic work, this exhibition posits that the artist deserves to be remembered together with artists like Bas Jan Ader and Lee Lozano, who also mysteriously vanished from, or dropped out of, the commercial art world around the mid-1970s.

 © Todd Alden 2020


[1] Peter Bradley as quoted by Steve Cannon, Quincy Troupe, and Cannon Hersey in Bomb magazine, Jan. 17, 2017 (https://bombmagazine.org/articles/peter-bradley-1/).
[2] Gordon also worked for artist, William N. Copley, from whom he received a Copley grant in 1967 as remembered by artist, Billy Copley in a telephone conversation with Todd Alden on March 01, 2020. Billy Copley also remembers driving to Philadelphia jazz clubs with Gordon, and drinking together at Max’s Kansas City where, according to published remarks by art lawyer, Jerald Ordover, Frank Stella “gave his tab [at Max’s] to his studio assistant named Robert Gordon.”
[3] Op. cit.
[4] Robert Christgau in Gordon Lozano Ryman Stanley, Cincinnati Arts Center (May 23 – June 22, 1968), 1968, n.p. Note: Christgau went on to become known as the “Dean of American Rock Critics.”
[5] Christgau, op. cit., n.p.
[6] Douglas Davis, “Artists As Critics,” Newsweek (March 29, 1971), p. 65.
[7] Roberta Smith writes: “Robert Gordon also appropriates some of the extraneous objects which this nation produces. These objects share a single factor: light…They are beautiful; they are pictorially and spatially complicated and ambiguous; but they are also rather nonchalant, stark and skeptical… The pieces combine aspects of, say, Flavin and Bell, and also comment on their purity…They are beautiful; they are pictorially and spatially complicated and ambiguous; but they are also rather nonchalant, stark and skeptical… Another polarity is that while Gordon’s manipulation of material is nominal, the assertion, through that material, of his personal, formal sensibility is not.” Roberta Smith, “Robert Gordon, Bykert Gallery,” Artforum, December, 1974 (Vol. 13. No. 4), pp. 74-75.
[8] In a December, 2015 telephone conversation with the author, Frank Stella remembers Robert Gordon leaving without a trace for the West Coast “around the mid-1970s.” Bykert Gallery closed in 1975.
[9] Walter Hopps recalls: “Robert Gordon—a very strange man and an obscure artist—who was chosen by [Roy] Lichtenstein [for the Corcoran Biennial in 1971]…Roy had seen his work somehow and it was interesting—a kind of geometric patterning, with stripes and diamonds and strange forms. But we couldn’t get him to answer the phone,” in Walter Hopps, Deborah Treisman, and Anne Doran, The Dream Colony: A Life in Art, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017.
[9]Hopps, op. cit.
[10] Darby English, 1971: A Year in the Life of Color (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press), 2016.
[11] Harald Szeemann, Diary entry dated “18 December, 1968” published in Harald Szeemann: Selected Writings (Los Angeles: Getty Publications), p. 40.
[12] Walter Hopps et. al. op. cit.