Here we are in 1980 with people struggling to maintain the idea of the avant garde but nowhere else to go. It just seems much more comfortable to say: well, I don't care. I can view what I'm doing as a continuation and a slight update of a vast conservative tradition. The traditional, as I would contrast it to the avant garde, is behind the theme of decoration.
“How to explain the living beauty, joyousness, and playful celebration in Robert Kushner’s art?” Sara Lynn Henry asked in her catalog essay for Kushner’s twenty-five-year retrospective at the New Jersey Center for Visual Arts in 1998. The explanation is personal, historical, and theoretical, the story of a career that is stubbornly original in its rejection of the idea that originality, or newness, is the main ingredient of good art. “I really believe the public deserves something beautiful,” Kushner has said.
Robert Kushner was born in Pasadena, California, in 1949. He studied at the University of California at San Diego, where he developed a friendship with the art historian and critic Amy Goldin, who helped sharpen an interest in decorative art into a life project. On a trip to Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan in 1974 with Goldin, Kushner recognized, he told Edward Gomez in Art in America in 2005, that in ancient Persia “the greatest minds had been making decoration.” After that trip, Kushner moved to New York and became one of the founders of what was called the pattern and decoration movement. He was first known as a performance artist. His spontaneous, yet carefully researched paintings on pieced fabric would float and whirl on the back of a performer. The costumes were not accessories to the action, they were the action. As he moved into concentrating on painting and drawing, his allegiance to decoration stayed with him.
In 1980 Kushner was included in the Venice Biennale. In 1984 he had a solo show of paintings on paper at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. He is a dedicated printmaker, having worked in many media, especially etching, which he has done mainly at Crown Point Press. He participated in Crown Point’s woodcut program in China in 1989 and went twice to Japan to work with Crown Point’s master woodblock printer Tadashi Toda. Kushner has exhibited prints, paintings, and paper works widely in Japan.
Kushner’s travels instilled in him the conviction, he says, that his work is “a slight update of a vast conservative tradition” that doesn’t have borders. In 2005 he created a painting installation titled Spring Scatter Summation, filling the Great Room at the Wistariahurst Museum in Holyoke, Massachusetts. In the catalog essay, Peter Eleey wrote: “Maybe decorative painting can be an instrument through which we can harmonize the energies within and around us? Almost in spite of the horrors of the world, there remains a place to go, there is a refuge. There is, certainly, this room.”
Robert Kushner’s work is held in many museum collections around the world including The Museum of Modern Art, NY; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY; The Whitney Museum of American Art, NY; The National Gallery of Art, DC; The Corcoran Gallery of Art, DC; Tate Gallery, London; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; The Denver Art Museum; Galleria degli Ufizzi, Florence; and the J. Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles. He was the subject of solo exhibitions at both the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Brooklyn Museum, and his work has been included in the Whitney Biennial three times and twice at the Venice Biennale. A mid-career retrospective of his work was organized by the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art in 1987. In 2019, his work was featured in the notable group exhibition With Pleasure: Pattern and Decoration in American Art 1972-1985 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Kushner is represented by the DC Moore Gallery in New York. He lives and works in New York.
—Kim L. Bennett