Experimentalist: The Art of Robert W. Fichter

Experimentalist: The Art of Robert W. Fichter

Albin O. Kuhn Library Gallery

August 28 – December 18, 2019

Public event: September 24, 5:00 p.m.

Talks by Eileen Cowin, Adam Straus, and Tom Beck; reception to follow

The Albin O. Kuhn Library Gallery presents Experimentalist: The Art of Robert W. Fichter, the first retrospective of the artist’s career in over thirty years. Drawn entirely from the Robert W. Fichter Archive at UMBC, the 55 works in this exhibition created between 1962 and 2006 highlight Fichter’s exploration of the human condition across photography, printmaking, and painting. Fichter employs shifting moods and mediums as well as wit, humor, and satire to deliver trenchant critiques of war, nuclear proliferation, and environmental disaster. Firmly rooting his expressive compositions in a strong sense of place—the surreal landscapes of his native Florida—Fichter presents a singular vision of humanity on the brink.

Fichter was part of a group of artists—including Eileen Cowin, Darryl Curran, Betty Hahn, Robert Heinecken, and Todd Walker—who in the late 1960s began to experiment with so-called alternative (non-commercial) photographic processes. His experience as a curator at the George Eastman Museum and as a professor at UCLA strengthened his understanding of historical techniques like the cyanotype (blueprint) and gum bichromate printing, a method that relies on the insolubility of gum arabic to produce painterly effects.

He often combined mediums within a single work in order to convey a range of emotions. Using photographs that he made in camera as well as photograms and images appropriated from mass media, he employed multiple exposures and sandwich printing to produce complex, collage-like compositions embellished with drawing, watercolor, and airbrushing. He also experimented with then new photomechanical printing techniques like Inko dye (a light sensitive dye), lacquer transfer, Verifax transfer, and Xerox printing. The layering of images in Fichter’s work points to the ubiquity of photography, while offering a poetic intervention into a media saturated culture.

In the late 1970s, Fichter began staging elaborate still life constructions using everyday and found objects including taxidermy, children’s toys, and mass media ephemera. Many of these photographs weave together ideas and imagery that Fichter had pursued previously in other mediums, bringing to life a familiar cast of characters, including Mr. Bones and Fish-Out-Oh-Water, in collages ready-made for the camera. Several photographs include reproductions of earlier drawings and prints, creating a meta-commentary on the imaginative world built by the artist.

Fichter’s horror surrounding ecological devastation is expressed frequently in his work, where the landscape is variously represented in a state of primordial abundance, dappled by disease, or as a post-nuclear desert. Oil cans figure prominently as symbols of pollution, and taxidermy animals are reanimated as macabre harbingers of an apocalyptic future. Fichter’s wary view of humankind’s custodianship of the planet is a call to action especially fitting for the age of the Anthropocene.

Fichter’s experimental approach expanded to include digital processes with the 1984 introduction of the Apple Macintosh computer and graphics software MacPaint. Soon after it became available, the artist used the new tool to create a body of work published as After Eden. Full of humorous allusions and art historical references, the book functions like a medieval bestiary—a compendium of stories that describes the characteristics of various creatures and life forms—summarizing many of the major symbols, themes, and influences central to Fichter’s art. Fichter returned to digital expressions several times, including in a series of Photoshop collages made toward the end of his teaching career in 2006.

This exhibition is curated by Tom Beck, Curator Emeritus, UMBC, and the presentation is organized by Beth Saunders, Curator and Head of Special Collections and the Library Gallery, UMBC.

Public event:

The Art of Robert W. Fichter: Talks by Eileen Cowin, Adam Straus, and Tom Beck September 24, 5:00 p.m.; reception to follow

Visitor Information

The Albin O. Kuhn Library Gallery is located on the first floor of the library building on the UMBC campus. The gallery is open Monday through Friday: 10 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.; Thursday 10 a.m. – 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday: 12 – 5 p.m. Admission to the gallery and related programming is free and open to the public. UMBC is located immediately off I-95, about 10–15 minutes from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, and about 25 minutes from the Capital Beltway (I-495).

General information: artscalendar.umbc.edu