Seeing our country through Robert Cottingham’s eyes brings the uniqueness of American culture into sharp focus. It’s not the Grand Canyon or redwood forests that fascinates Cottingham, but the kitschy constructions that accent our cities.
“Commercial signs are amazing,” he said, “Here are these elaborate, monumental structures designed solely to tell you that this is where you can buy a hamburger or pack of cigarettes.… All that effort, all the pomposity just to sell you something. And yet, they are an heroic attempt by someone to leave his mark.… As an artist, I use the configurations as the basis for constructing a painting.… If the final work can be read on both levels—as a formal painting…and at the same time as a depiction of a sign—the work approaches success.”
Cottingham was born in Brooklyn in 1935. His father worked as a longshoreman on the docks at Pier 33, where Cottingham saw the freight trains and boxcars that he later incorporated into his work.
Family trips to Manhattan gave Cottingham a chance to see the commercial structures and bright lights that would become a part of his iconic work.
Cottingham says that he always wanted to be an artist. He attended Brooklyn Technical High School, where, he says, he loved drawing with a triangle and a T-square.
After graduating from Brooklyn Tech, Cottingham joined the army and was posted in Orleans, France, where he served as a map maker. When his stint in the army was finished, Cottingham went to Pratt Institute, in Brooklyn, and graduated with a BFA.
In 1963, he became an art director at the Young and Rubicam ad agency on Madison Avenue. It was there that he met his wife, Jane, who worked as a writer. Cottingham transferred to Los Angeles, where the downtown area fueled his fascination with glitz and gaudiness. It was in Los Angeles that Cottingham began painting every day and teaching at the Art Center of Design.
He had his first show at the O.K. Harris Gallery in New York in 1971. Although he was influenced by Edward Hopper and other great American artists, he was isolated from his contemporaries as he worked on his photorealistic style.
Cottingham quit his job as an ad man, and moved his family (the couple has three daughters) to London, in 1972, where he hoped to focus on his painting. Although he liked living and working in London, and the family stayed there for four years, Cottingham traveled back to the States every year to take a road trip to photograph the uniquely American images that make up the body of his work.
While in London, he was invited to make prints for an exhibition of contemporary artists in Kassel, Germany. “I consider myself to be an American artist painting American scenes,” he said after he moved back to the States in 1976. “There is nothing to compare with names like Roxy, Bud, Rialto, Ritz, Starr, Tip Top, and Buffalo Optical.”
Cottingham expanded his subjects to include entire streets and sections of trains. Cottingham’s work is part of the permanent collections of the Guggenheim, the Whitney, MoMA, the Boca Museum of Art, the Smithsonian and other major museums around the world.
Last year, for the first time, Cottingham had a of show perfume bottles that he painted in water color. At age 79, Cottingham still works, and lives, in Connecticut. His wife, Jane, owns an antique shop and his daughter, Molly, is a graphic artist.