ROBERT CUMMING was born in Massachusetts in 1943. He received a B.F.A. in painting from the Massachusetts College of Art, Boston, and an M.F.A. in painting from the University of Illinois, Champagne-Urbana. After school, he taught at the university level for three years while showing his sculpture and painting in several exhibitions throughout the Midwest. In his sculptural practice he built illogical yet utilitarian-looking things that were intentionally devoid of utility. He also engaged in mail art, shipping tree branches and dry-cleaning tissue, as well as home-made and store-bought postcards, to friends and strangers alike, near and far.
In 1970, Cumming moved to Southern California to seek new exposure within the burgeoning art world around Los Angeles. There, he began to focus on photography, building elaborate tableaux that he shot with
exquisite detail with an 8-by-10 camera. In 1973, Cumming first exhibited his photographs as part of the exhibition Minor White, Robert Heinecken, Robert Cumming: Photograph as Metaphor, Photograph as Object, Photograph as Document of Concept, at California State University, Long Beach. Other exhibitions in the 1970s included 24 Young Los Angeles Artists at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Picture Puzzles at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Whitney Biennial in 1975; and Mirrors and Windows at MoMA, New York.
Embracing the compact and transportable storytelling ability of photographs, Cumming produced six artist’s books during the 1970s, three of which formed a sort of trilogy: A Training in the Arts (1972), which deliberately confused text, caption, and image; A Discourse on Domestic Disorder (1975), a string of episodes of domestic ennui and disaster; and Interruptions in Landscape and Logic (1977), a tale of an imaginary, yet hauntingly familiar, war. He also developed an ongoing fascination with the nautical style in architecture, which he sought out on several cross-country drives traveling back to the East Coast. The obsession resulted in an unfinished book on the subject, as well as scores of mail-art postcards Cumming produced during his long correspondence with the collective Image Bank in Vancouver, Canada.
In 1978 Cumming moved back to the East Coast and began to focus once again on painting, sculpture, and other works on paper. Commissions for photography continued, such as work for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and an exploration of M.I.T., but often this work was more documentary in style, rooting out absurdities in the real world rather than constructing them for the camera itself. After 1980 he also turned to color, a smaller film format, and larger prints.
In his non-photographic work — paintings, sculpture, and color pastels that he made for the next several decades — he reinvented motifs from his earlier practice, such as the spool of thread and the watermelon, driven more by form and aesthetics than the perceptual mechanics of his medium as he was when using the camera. These works are enigmatic and open for interpretation rather than puzzles the viewer can solve.
A complete picture of Robert is essential to understanding his singular style that persists through many mediums. Cumming has exhibited his work internationally. The most recent survey of his photography, Robert Cumming: The Secret Life of Objects, opened at the George Eastman Museum and traveled to the California Museum of Photography at UCR ARTSblock in Riverside, California, in Fall of 2019. Other solo exhibitions include Robert Cumming: Cone of Vision, a retrospective that traveled to Australia and across the United States with stops at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, as well as over seventy additional solo shows, including Robert Cumming: Intuitive Inventions (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 1988), Mechanical Illusions by Robert Cumming (Whitney Museum of American Art, 1986), and The Clutter of Happenstance (MoMA, New York, 1998).
The hundreds of group shows in which he has participated include Mirrors and Windows (MoMA, New York, 1978 – 1982), Fabricated to be Photographed (SFMOMA, 1979), State of Mind: New California Art circa 1970 (Orange County Museum of Art, 2012), and Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974–1981 (MOCA, Los Angeles, 2012). He is the recipient of three National Endowment for the Arts Grants (1972, 1975, 1979) and a Guggenheim Fellowship (1981).
Cumming now lives in Desert Hot Springs, California.
Awards & Honors:
- Frank Logan Prize, Art Institute of Chicago, 1969.
- National Endowment for the Arts Grants, Washington, DC, 1972, 1975, 1979.
- Guggenheim Fellowship, Guggenheim Foundation, NY, 1981.
- Artist-in-Residence Program, Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission, NY and Tokyo, 1981.
- Awards in the Visual Arts III, Winston-Salem, NC, 1984.
- Creative Artist Award, Brandeis Univ., Waltham, MA, 1985.
- Angela Flowers Gallery Prize, 11th British Print Biennale, Bradford, England, 1990.
- Gottlieb Foundation Grant, New York, NY, 1995.
- Pollock-Krasner Grant, New York, NY, 2003.
- Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, CA, 1976.
- Paris Biennale, Musee d’Art Moderne, Paris, 1978.
- Retrospective (catalog), Friends of Photography, Carmel, CA, 1979.
- Traveling Retrospective, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane, Tasmania, Australia, 1979-1981.
- Werkstatt fur Photographie, Berlin, Germany, 1982.
- Galerie Watari, Tokyo, Japan, 1984.
- University Art Museum, Univ. of California, Berkeley, CA, 1985.
- Mechanical Illusions, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY, 1986.
- Galerie Schmela, Dusseldorf, Germany, 1987.
- Robert Cumming: Intuitive Inventions, Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC, 1988.
- Castelli Graphics, New York, NY, 1982, 1984, 1985, 1988.
- Curt Marcus Gallery, New York, NY, 1993.
- Blackboard Brain (installation), M.I.T., Cambridge, MA, and the Contemporary Museum, Honolulu, HI, 1993, 1994.
- Retrospective (catalog), Robert Cumming. L’Oeuvre Photographique 1969-1980. FRAC Limousin, Limoges, France, 1994.
- 25-year Retrospective (catalog), Robert Cumming: Cone of Vision, Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Contemporary Museum, Honolulu, 1993-1994.
- Clutter of Happenstance, Museum of Modern Art, NY, 1998.
- Drawing survey, University of Mass., Amherst, MA, 2001.
- Robert Cumming: Architectural Artist, Dorsky Curatorial Space, Long Island City, NY, 2002.
- Howard Yezerski Gallery, Boston, MA, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2005.
- The Continuity of Robert Cumming, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2012.
- Janet Borden Gallery, New York, NY, 1996, 2000, 2002, 2005, 2008, 2013, 2016, 2018.
- Jancar Gallery, Los Angeles, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013.
- Robert Cumming: The Secret Lives of Objects, Eastman Museum, Rochester, NY, and The California Museum of Photography, Riverside, CA, 2017, 2019.
Selected Group Exhibitions:
- Art by Telephone, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, IL, 1969.
- 9 Artists/9 Urban Spaces, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN, 1970.
- 24 Young Los Angeles Artists, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1971.
- Minor White, Robert Heinecken, Robert Cumming: Photograph as Metaphor, Photograph as Object, Photograph as Document of Concept, California State University, Long Beach, 1973.
- Narrative Art, Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels, Belgium, 1975.
- Picture Puzzles, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, 1975.
- Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY, 1975.
- Mirrors and Windows, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, (traveled) 1978-1982.
- Fabricated to be Photographed, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, CA, 1979.
- Lis-79, International Exhibition of Drawing, Lisbon, Portugal, 1979.
- Language, Drama, Source, Vision, The New Museum, New York, NY, 1983.
- Image World: Art and Media Culture, Whitney Museum of American Art, NY, 1989.
- Drawings, Leo Castelli Gallery, New York, NY, 1983.
- Monumental Drawings, Brooklyn Museum, NY, 1986.
- Castelli Graphics 1969-1988, Castelli Graphics, New York, NY, 1988.
- Projects & Portfolios, 25th National Print Exhibition, Brooklyn Museum, NY, 1989.
- International Biennial of Graphic Art, Lubliana, Slovenia, 1989.
- Galerie Nichido, Tokyo, Japan, 1992.
- Pace, MacGill, Wildenstein Gallery, Los Angeles, CA, 1995.
- American Still Life: The Object in American Art, 1915-1999, Selections from the
- Metropolitan Museum, NY, (6-museum tour) 1997-1999.
Singular Impressions: the Monotype in America, The National Museum, Washington, DC, 1997.
- Azerty: Un abécédaire aléatoire autour des collections du Frac Limousin, Musée National d´Art Modern, Centre Pompidou, Paris, France, 2001.
- A Love Affair with Pictures, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX, 2001.
- 125 Masterpieces from MoMA, The Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg and State Pushkin Museum, Moscow, 2003.
- Extra-Ordinary: The Everyday Object in American Art, (Whitney Museum collection) Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville, TN, and Austin Museum, Austin, TX, 2006, 2007.
- Artist’s Choice, Vik Muniz: Rebus, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, 2008.
- To Infinity and Beyond, Heckscher Museum, Huntington, NY, 2008.
State of Mind: New California Art Circa 1970, Orange County Museum of Art, (5-museum tour), 2012–2014.
- In Focus: Los Angeles, 1945–1980, The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2012.
- Backyard Oasis: The Swimming Pool in Southern California Photography, 1945-1982, Palm Springs Art Museum, 2012.
- Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974–1981, The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, Los Angeles, 2012.
- Seismic Shift, California Museum of Photography, Riverside, CA, 2012.
- Matt Connors, Robert Cumming, and Florian Morlat, Cherry and Martin, Los Angeles, CA, 2012.
- A World of its Own: Photographic Practices in the Studio, MoMA, NY, 2014.
- The Shape of Things: Photographs from Robert B. Menschel, MoMA, NY, 2016.
- Sight Reading: Photography and the Legible World, The Morgan Library & Museum, NY, 2016.
- All-Stars: Works from the Collection, SFMOMA, 2017.
- The Polaroid Project: At the Intersection of Art and Technology, (8-museum tour), 2017-2020.