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