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Robert Beckmann: "I'm never what I was"

Scott Dickensheets
Beckmann has grouped his work not chronologically, but to highlight his work's recurring concerns, stylistic consistencies and visual echoes.

Artist Robert Beckmann will give a free gallery talk related to his ongoing exhibit, as well as his 40-year career, at 6 p.m., Thursday, March 2, at the Sahara West Library.


Should you stroll into Transmutations: Robert Beckmann Under the Western Sky 1977-2017, the sizable retrospective of Beckmann’s paintings arrayed in two of the big galleries at the Sahara West Library, look for the painting titled “Underwater (hotel, St. Thomas, NV).” It’s a fugue of water-stained browns and yellows coalescing around a two-story building. Now look at the placard next to it: “Collection: Scott and Laura Dickensheets.”

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I’m not the most neutral guide to this artist and his work, is what I’m saying — full disclosure. Even fuller disclosure: I had lunch with him yesterday. Possibly unnecessary disclosure: We split the check. Overly detailed ethical accountability seems apt for this moment, and we’re all about transparency here at Desert Companion.

Anyway, when you’ve finished admiring my good taste in art, stand back and survey the whole show. First thing you’ll notice: the range of styles, subjects and approaches Beckman has worked with, from representational to non, with plenty of stops on the spectrum in between. A range of intellectual and aesthetic concerns, too, from the time-warp of his Vegas Vanitas series (which fuse Vegas iconography with settings derived from Old Master works), to the recursive layering of his recent Buddhism-informed patterned abstracts (below), to the pronounced urgencies that show up in images of nuclear clouds, floods and droughts, social frictions.

Along with his obvious skill and sharp eye, that dashing from mode to mode is, paradoxically, one of the through lines that make this exhibit much more than a grab bag: Beckmann’s exploratory sensibility. Always on to the next new thing. What critic David Pagel once said of Vegas Vanitas — that they are “idiosyncratic and unwilling to have it any other way” — goes for his career, too.

“I’m never what I was,” he said yesterday over lunch. He can’t imagine painting himself into a stylistic cul-de-sac that might forever peg his practice to an endlessly repeated signature style. In his gallery talk Thursday, he’ll surely speak about the experience of seeing so many phases of his creative life amassed on one set of walls.

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Southern Nevada is a recurring motif here — it’s useful to remember that Beckmann is perhaps this city’s most prolific muralist, putting up some 200 works over the years on civic and commercial buildings, casinos, in the airport, all over, though time, the wrecking ball and bureaucratic indifference have erased many.

“Las Vegas has an astute witness in Beckmann,” Las Vegas Weekly art critic Dawn-Michelle Baud wrote a few years ago. Often it’s overtly, as in the Vegas Vanitas series or a piece like “The Three Graces,” in which Lady Liberty, the Blue Angel and a construction crane watch over the Strip, or in canvases based on the Test Site. But he moves easily beyond city limits, too, as with a recent series of haunting forest images that are anything but bucolic.

If you attend his talk, which you should, expect him to delve into concepts underpinning much of his work, whether it’s disjunction versus harmony, or Buddhist notions of the now (he calls his abstracts “the products of a state of don’t-think mind, like a basketball player in the zone”), or the alchemist’s credo of breaking things down in order to reconstitute them — all longtime fascinations he’s discussed over (ridiculously full disclosure!) dozens of lunches.


Scott Dickensheets is a Las Vegas writer and editor whose trenchant observations about local culture have graced the pages of publications nationwide.