Robert Townsend at Art Miami 2022
At the turn of the millennium, feminist philosopher Mary Daly recontextualized quintessence—defined by Aristotle as the fifth, highest element found in celestial bodies, distinct from earth, fire, air and water, and exempt from change and decay—as a metaphor for being in life, love and creativity: “It means throwing one’s life as far as it will go.”
No one more fully embodies such quintessence than Helen, the midcentury muse of artist Robert Townsend. Epitomizing the exuberance of post-war travel and financial freedom, Helen threw the force of her personality as far as it would go— far from her Indiana home, from the beaches of Hawaii to the roadside cutouts of Colorado.
Poised to debut a new series of Helen paintings in December at Art Miami, Townsend considers the enduring relevance of Helen and her joyous figuring of feminist optimism. He first “met” Helen—more precisely, her image—a decade ago, in the form of an eBay archive of family Kodachrome slides. From those 3,000 frames, he pulled 75 scenes to paint—a quantity that would take him decades to complete. Ergo his casting of Helen as his career muse. “I think she’s teaching me a lesson about celebrating life,” Townsend says.
“I think she’s teaching me a lesson about celebrating life,” Townsend says.
Born in Downey, California amid midcentury relics, Townsend grew up attuned to Googie architecture and California masters like Wayne Thiebaud and Robert Bechtle—both masters of color and light, Townsend’s guiding principles. Initially a muralist, he translated his sense of aggrandized scale and painterly realism into still lifes at once nostalgic and vibrant.
Even though Townsend does not consider himself a realist or photorealist painter—preferring instead contemporary West Coast painter—his eye is rooted in the empathy of said historical movements. Realism’s democratizing desire to truthfully render everyday scenes and heroes (as epitomized by Gustave Courbet and Jean-François Millet) seeded modern artists such as Edward Hopper, a forefather for Townsend with his eye for mundanescapes. Ever imprinted by place, Townsend also references California colorists like Richard Diebenkorn—a two-fold ancestor considering the figurative turn of his early career—as well as other artists from the Ferus Gallery-era of Los Angeles art like Ed Ruscha and Larry Bell.
“My primary intent is an expression of the human condition,” Townsend says. “What it feels like to be here.”
For Townsend, Helen is more than a muse, she is the apotheosis of his oeuvre, spotlighting the glory and grace inherent in a life lived with self-actualized panache. With her as hero, each painting serves as a narrative time warp, a capsule of individual expression and transcendent character. As a whole, the series tells a story layered with practical and conceptual meaning. Her story and the story she shared with her husband was of a childless couple in post-war America, free to spend their time and income as they wished, as well as the wider history of midcentury buoyancy.
Ever true to her, Townsend has prioritized painting the major touchpoints of her life—her favorite trips, sites and situations, as identified by her nieces. Helen and Roy beaming atop a palmy lookout in Hawaii. The pair posing roadside, backs to a snow-crested cliff, her heels sunken in powder. Or, more intimately, the two tucked into a plastic lawn chair inside the cluttered garage attached to their Sears Roebuck house. Now, years into his project, he is turning his attention to scenes more subtle in their significance: Helen posing beside a classic cruiser, crowned with surfboards—a newfound sport of the leisure class—teetering on her tiptoes, only one of two slides in which Helen deign to let herself be photographed sans high heels. Such details stand out to Townsend: “I connect with people through painting.”
Transcending personal poignancy, Helen and Roy represent all that was right about postwar America: the optimism and the promise. They embody the era’s glory without pretension or sheen. They convey the real contours of marriage. Living only for each other, they felt free to travel and spend their hard-earned income. They explored the country in their matching his and her Mercuries. They posed at iconic places: road signs, restaurants, panoramas. They remind us to celebrate each and every day, the air we breathe, the sights we see, the people we meet and the roads we wander. They lived and they loved in accordance with quintessence.
They remind us to celebrate each and every day, the air we breathe, the sights we see, the people we meet and the roads we wander.
By choosing such idiosyncratic images, Townsend pays tribute to the ebullience embodied by Helen and her nieces. “These days, angst is pervasive. Everything is heavy,“ he says. “This is the perfect time for this: the Helen series is something you too can celebrate. Let’s have a good time together.” By planting his work firmly in this moment, Townsend takes up the call for layered optimism in contemporary art. As former President of the Ford Foundation Darren Walker once said: “Art may well imitate life, but it also imbues it with a radical kind of hope—for each of us, for our communities and our country, and for generations to come.” By Townsend’s brush, Helen embodies that sense of radical, resilient hope.
For more information about Robert Townsend and his Art Miami exhibition, please contact Altamira Fine Art by email— email@example.com—or phone—(307) 739-4700.