My encounter with Robert Amft, the 95 year old American artist : by Horst Vollman.
As I rang the doorbell to Robert Amft’s home in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, on a sunny January afternoon in 2012, I knew that I was about to meet an American icon, an artist whose versatility is unmatched in the art world. Amft, at the age of 95, still produces art to please himself, first and foremost.
I was cautioned that Robert Amft was wheelchair-bound, with little energy to spare, not to ask too many questions and to keep my exuberance in check. Thus, I entered the room with the hesitation of one who expected to find an ailing man in whose presence words had to be spoken tentatively. His firm, even strong handshake quickly dispelled any such notion. His eyes seemed to belong to a man half his age, his voice had a firmness that belied his 95 years. When, after a while I worked up the courage to ask him personal questions I wanted to know whether his continued painting at this age was a yearning to express unfulfilled dreams. He looked at me the way an errant child is to be taken to task. “Painting is my life” he explained softly,
“sometimes in my dreams I paint and when I wake up I actually want to walk to my easel, forgetting that I need a wheel chair.” There was a pensive smile on his face when he said it. “Honestly, the fact that I still paint has nothing to do with regrets or unfulfilled dreams. Quite the contrary, most of my dreams have come true. Look at this easel. When I sit there I feel happy, no thoughts intrude. Something inside me happens that is hard to explain but let me try it anyway.” Haltingly first, then increasingly firm, he began to open up. “My life is about colors, light and compositions, about brush strokes, charcoal sketches, about a canvas I want to cover with something that only at that very moment develops. I never know in advance what it is going to be but I am always surprised again about the outcome. I don’t analyze, never did. When I paint, everything flows, I forget who I am, age and time lose all meaning. I become part of the process. I would almost push it further and say, I am the process.”
He paused and his look became nearly wistful as though my question had touched a special chord. “I once read that the painter uses the canvas as a battlefield for unresolved emotions where every brushstroke is a Freudian slip. My goodness, the art world reads too much into us. At the end of the day artists are just ordinary people with a talent to paint. When I look at a canvas I don’t see the outside world. At these moments I feel happy, yes, just simply happy. The outcome is not what matters. When I am in that state it is of no consequence to me if my work is liked or rejected.”
He loves Picasso and Matisse, those were the true masters, they inspired him throughout his life. Both had painted into their 90s and he felt that their ability had not been diminished by age. “You may find it hard to believe, but my best water colors I have made at 85. I would still do sculptures, collages and photography but I lack the physical strength. When I was 94 passed the annual mandatory Chicago driver’s test and lived by myself in a large 3 story walk up apartment. I did my own grocery shopping, drove to the library three times a week but after I broke my hip I had to slow down after the surgery. Now, that I need help, I am fortunate to live with my daughter, so I moved to Myrtle Beach”. With a twinkle in his eye he continued.
“When I cannot hold a brush anymore, my caretaker will hold it for me. I am not kidding when I tell you that I will open an art factory, subcontract my work and go about explaining the theory of enlisting others to implement my art. This would be based on my blue prints to conceptualize my Mona by combining colors, in fields, stripes, even use drippings. There could be variations of rectangular forms, triangles, ovals, and for the dots I would invite Damien Hirst, he is the expert.” He broke into an animated laugh but quickly became serious again. “Hirst did at the most 25 paintings by himself, out of 5,000.” With a wink he continued, “my best seller might be a Kinkade type Mona Lisa in a Paris gaslight setting. Seriously, the marketing guys may perk up their ears. “
“In the 40s I made a painting of a commercial box. The first time my wife saw a Warhol in the 60s she said ‘look, they are making art now the way you did 20 years ago!’ 25 years later they named that Box Pop Art.” We fell silent for a moment and I was thinking what could have been. I was moved by the singularity of this man and his devotion to his art. Painting for him is living in the moment, when all becomes reduced to a single function, detached from all outside influence, much like the dreamy state of a child that is lost in reverie. In fact, there was something endearingly childlike about him when he answered my questions, often accompanied by giggles and chuckles.
Painting, although the love of his life, does not occupy all his days. He enjoys playing the piano which he had taught himself and which he does amazingly well. While in Chicago he read 2 books a week, often about complex subjects. Yet, he never felt comfortable, or for that matter may have been too shy, to make profound statements about his art. For him, lofty and cerebral language is for the critics to use. If anything, it detracts from the power of his work. He strongly believes that art is not to be defined by language. It speaks for itself. “I feel sorry for the artists who need to explain their work, to talk about a depth that is not evident in the painting. They make them say words that sound scripted. Poor guys.
We both were silent for a moment when he finally spoke again. “I am not a lonely man, I still play the piano. I never go back to the past in my thoughts to evoke the so-called good old days. It takes away from the present. That is why old people live such miserable lives. They constantly think of the past, leaving little room for the now. I am very content with the way things are, I will soon paint again in earnest after my eye surgery. How much better can it get?”
For 70 years Amft’s styles defied categorization, his trademark remained humor and irony and the use of brilliant colors. Although he loves Picasso and Matisse he still is hesitant to put names to those who influenced him most. The primitivists, surrealists and German expressionists, they all left their indelible imprint on his artistic soul.
My introductory question still gnawed at him. “In a way I would want to go back to the days when it was less of a bother to set up the easel, mix the colors, prepare the canvas but it does not keep me from working. My dreams may not have been fulfilled if the size of my bank account is all that matters. But I have lived a wonderful life.” It was almost an afterthought when I asked him whether he felt forgotten or rejected by the art establishment. The answer came quick and to the point. “I don’t think that way. I was never rejected. I exhibited in many galleries, sold a great deal of my work. I actually made a living which tens of thousands of artists in New York were not capable of. I enjoyed many moments of fame, they never lasted. Maybe I was not an astute self-promoter, did not really market my art, even though I sold many paintings.” He conceded, that fame might have an irresistible lure for many of those who are swept into the glare of notoriety. For him, fame may have caused the motor that drives his creativity to slow down. Fame could feed the ego so well and create a false sense of artistic accomplishment. None of that he wanted to be part of. What he wanted most was to express with art what he could never say with words.
All had started for Amft in Chicago. He had decided to stay in the city of his birth, where he raised his family. The Chicago Art Institute had trained its sight on New York, Paris, at that time the art centers of the world, and had studiously neglected its own artists. With a hint of sarcasm he mused, “they simply forgot to look north to Evanston, where I lived, to see my work.” He had toyed with the idea to move to New York but abandoned it quickly when after visiting an artist friend he saw appalling living conditions. The fact became clear to him that thousands of artists would never be noticed, simply could not make a living.
More than 60 years have gone by after these fateful times, that could have catapulted him to fame and riches, years when Jackson Pollock became the poster child of the art elite in New York. I had to know what he thinks today about the 40s and 50s when art critic Clement Greenberg had decreed that abstract expressionism was to be the only valid form of creativity. Amft could not ever understand that art had to be categorized, to become a movement. For him it was anathema to cover a canvas with the same motif, over and over again, to be pressed into a mold without wanting to break out, because the art world had dictated it. He had done abstract paintings at a time when nobody in the U.S. had given it a name. He effortlessly weaved through styles the way a Picasso had done in his time and Amft did it all his life. There was a trace of wistfulness in his voice when he spoke about the realization of having missed the big one, the one that got away. Understanding who he was and how much happiness he had found when sitting in front of a canvas his answer came as no surprise:
“I have no regrets, I made my decisions the way I did, I simply chose to be the person I always wanted to be.” The trappings of fame, the black-tie events to bestow life-time awards on artists, never appealed to him. He did not want to explain art in the jargon of the critics and didn’t feel he had to. “I was famous a thousand times, when I received numerous awards, when the critics wrote many articles about me. Fame never made me paint better. It just does not mean much to me. Of course I would like the world to see my paintings. I live in exciting times, 2012, imagine I was born in 1916 during the Great War. And here I am, still painting. I never dreamt that my work, now digitized, can be seen by the world. How beautiful is that?”
As I said good bye to a newly found friend and gently closed the door behind me I realized with sudden clarity that the world is unquestionably a better place with people like Robert Amft still around, a man for whom life still holds many promises.