In Conversation with Abstract Artist Robert Szot
New York-based artist Robert Szot is a bit of a hero amongst amateur and professional artists alike, and his beautiful abstract works have won him a well-deserved following in the US, UK and elsewhere. In this interview you will see him as – probably – never before! Listen to Robert chat candidly about everything from his work and love of Edith Piaf to how he would cope on Mars and answering that all-important question for a Texan living in NYC – bagels or BBQ? He’s profound, funny and inspiring … so pour yourself a drink, sit back and enjoy!
I watched your interview with Susan Melrath at the Anita Rogers Gallery in 2019. How was your show at the gallery?
I suppose society really fell apart about 7 months after that show closed and it’s odd to look back even a year ago to think how differently we lived our lives, and how this pandemic has affected the current climate that we’re in, especially here in the United States.
The show remains the single greatest thing I’ve done in my career, in terms of the body of work I was able to create for the exhibition, the size of the exhibition, and the rather public nature of it. The Anita Rogers Gallery is the largest gallery in Soho (NYC), so to have the opportunity to take advantage of that very large space to create a large body of work for a singular exhibition was a really great thing for me. I try to avoid saying things like I’m proud of myself, because I feel rather uncomfortable with my own paintings, but there was a lot for me to be proud of in that exhibition. I took a lot away from it. It was very well received and it sold well, and people seemed to share in my excitement for the work, so I was very grateful for that.
How did you feel looking at all your work hung together?
Sitting looking at them here in the studio, or in the gallery? They’re two very different things. My studio space here in New York is very small, especially compared to the gallery space that I ended up exhibiting the work in, so to see them in that context and to be able to get an actual physical distance away from the work, gave me a sense of accomplishment – that I’d made some good decisions in the work, that maybe I hadn’t noticed when I was in a closer confinement with them. To see them all together was enthralling for me because I think with an exhibition, and your career in general, there are certain things you always want to be mindful of.
I think you want to have variation in all your paintings, and your works on paper. Variety with authorship is a very important quality in your work. People need to be able to look at it and know that it is a Robert Szot painting, but there also needs to be variety because I bore very quickly. If there isn’t variety it’s a rather one-note exhibition then it’s a one-and-done kind of a thing.
Tell me about the variety in your work …
All my paintings are oil on linen; there’s oil and charcoal on linen now, but there are no collage elements on that. There’s a direct correlation between how I start my paintings, and how I work on my works on paper. It is essential for me to provide myself with a very basic framework to begin any work in earnest on. In my paintings I will draw that framework out with black oil paint – very thin lines, almost this Bryce Martinesque sort of way, just to give myself something to hang my hat on, something to bite into. For me a blank canvas is a very daunting thing for me to be staring at, because I work best when I’m solving problems of composition and of colour. I’m not a great starter. Again, it’s that boredom thing for me, where there isn’t anything compelling, or frustrating, or exciting that’s moving the painting forward. It’s just this empty space I have to fill and that becomes a very complicated issue for me. Certainly I want to move the work forward, I want to get this work going, but I end up staring at a blank canvas for probably longer than I should. If there’s nothing there for me to fight against I get a bit confused.
With the works on paper I’ve essentially solved that problem by starting out with an old etching, an etching that I’ve made editions of, or abandoned etchings – you’ve got that built-in framework already and it’s a much easier starting place for me. I’ve never started a work on paper without something on it. I can’t imagine what that would be like. It would probably be as frustrating as starting with a blank canvas.
You’ve spoken a lot about arguments that are going on in your head with your paintings. Can you remember those arguments when you look at the finished works?
That’s a great question, and that’s a question I have not been asked before. But that is a question I have a ready answer for. One of the questions I get a lot is: ‘Are you happy with the work?’ Really, as much as I want to be happy with the work, I cannot set aside that argument I’ve had with it, that contentious relationship I’ve had with the work, because it is something that’s very sharp in my memory and is not something I easily forget.
When I talk about arguments, it’s not as if I’m actually becoming physically angry with these works. I’m not some temperamental thrash-about type of artist. But they certainly are contentious, and that contention – and I’m aware of this, probably through therapy more than anything – I know that that contention and that argument is something I’m having with myself. I know that these are all internalised things. These are all personal things more than anything else. It’s so strange to me how painting can make you confront those issues about who you are as a person and how you see yourself as a person.
I have always personally had issues with self-confidence. I’ve always had issues with believing in myself to do something and I think that’s a double-edged sword, in the sense that of course those feelings can be crushing and debilitating and can stop you from doing things, from taking risks you should take, but it also compels me to take risks as well. It makes me want to do them, to prove that little voice in my head incorrect. You end up doing things to spite this rather crippling self-doubt that I’m sure a lot of artists have. I mean, you’re in the studio by yourself, you’re working alone. It’s really down to you whether you succeed or whether you fail. You can try to blame your failures on whatever you want to blame them on, but they always come home so of course you’re going to feel doubtful in what you’re doing, especially if you’re creating things like paintings. These are all incredibly personal ventures that you’re on and it repeats itself every time, for every piece you make. It’s just going to hammer it, that self-confidence.
Do you remember any specific arguments, or is it a general feeling?
It’s a general feeling of ‘Why am I still lost? And why do I still have questions about these things? After 20 years of being in NYC as an artist why am I still trying to answer these same questions?’
Will you always be trying to answer these questions?
Of course, because my work is about me largely, right? I don’t want there to be any separation between me and my work. I want there to be a very direct association between my work and who I am, or who I perceive myself to be. So, since my paintings are about me, and I’m changing constantly, I think those questions are always going to be changing, even if they change to a very small degree. When I say ‘question’ I don’t mean like there’s like a legitimate ‘Who are you?’ question. It’s just a feeling of searching, always searching. I don’t want there to be an answer, either. I would hate to figure all of this out because I think I would get bored again. If I ever could conceive of what’s this all about I think I would move on from it, and I don’t want to do that.
Do you think a lot of artists are easily bored?
That’s a good question. I wonder if that boredom doesn’t manifest itself into good editing. What I mean by that is, my favourite painters are the best editors in the world and they edit their work down to the nubs, and I wonder if boredom isn’t something that compels them to do that. A lot of time I’ll look at a painting that I think is finished and if I have the opportunity to go back into it, I take that opportunity. Maybe boredom isn’t the right word. You’re always fighting with the desire to move on to the next project. Isn’t that funny? You want to get everything right, but then you want to move the ball down the road. That’s very conflicting, right? And it’s not something that I think about. I only think about it when I’m doing an interview like this. If I look kind of spacey and stop talking for a minute, it’s me considering these things.
I saw that you work 8-10 hours a day, with no vacation, no break …?
I love to work, I love to be working all the time. I love new York City and I love being in the studio. God bless my girlfriend. The poor thing hasn’t had a vacation in nine years. I’ve been fortunate to garner an audience for what I’m doing; I’ve certainly been fortunate in being able to make a living doing what I’m doing. It’s not that I feel I’d be taking advantage of that good fortune by taking a break or going on vacation, I think I’m just so in love with it that it’s hard for me to want to be anywhere else.
Does the work itself replenish you?
It does more than replenish me. It gives meaning to my life. It makes me feel like I have a purpose and that is an endless well of energy for me. I feel that I’m doing something meaningful and something important. There’s nothing quite like not feeling like you’re wasting your time to keep yourself motivated. That’s a great feeling and that’s, unfortunately, a feeling that a lot of people never get around to experiencing, I think. And that’s a shame.
I know people have circumstances in their lives and being an individual and doing what you want to do with your life can end up at the very bottom of your priority list because of the circumstances that you’re in, but I want to encourage people to find little ways to make that happen for yourself because it does bring such a tremendous amount of joy into your life to feel that you have purpose and to feel you’re doing something worth your time. And that could be anything. I’m not suggesting it’s limited to just being in the studio, putting paint on a canvas.
Just really find something small to wrap your life around and nurture that small thing as much as you possibly can. I have benefitted from it endlessly. It hasn’t been an easy road. As someone who’s filled with such self-doubt a lot of the time, I still second-guess myself and wonder why I haven’t figured it all out, and is it worth it? But the overall feeling get is that I’ve spent my time wisely because I’ve spent my time doing what I wanted to do.
That sounds quite existential?
I’m quite an existentialist!
Has Lockdown affected your work?
I’ve got to be honest, my life hasn’t changed that much. I’m here in the studio by myself, so isolation and not being social is not something I’m unfamiliar with. The only real change is that I have to walk to the studio. It’s about a two-mile walk each way from my apartment, so I’m getting fitter.
I heard you like the writers Charles Bukowski & Hunter Thompson. They’re quite edgy … what was the appeal?
I think I’m attracted to those people who, I at least conceive of, have very little separation between themselves and the work they produce. I think that was my attraction towards those writers and towards people like Egon Schiele. I’m an incredible admirer of Francis Bacon’s work and, again, probably not the nicest person on the planet – a hard drinker certainly, and a rather rough person to get along with, but there is an honesty in his work too that I’m really desperately attracted to. My work and his work, the work of Schiele is all chalk and cheese. There’s very little physical, conceptual or aesthetic connection you can make between myself and any of these people. But I want my work to feel as honest as it can feel.
You studied journalism. Any regrets about not being a writer?
I think journalism would have been an interesting job, but it would have involved a little too much outside time for me. I really would have fundamentally changed who I am as a person. Look, I’m able to socialise and go outside, and make sense when I speak to people but I personally view myself as a very shy person. I don’t have any anxiety when I go out in public, but my preference is to be working alone. I don’t think I would have done well as a journalist because you’ve really got to get out there and beat the street, be aggressive with people and ask aggressive questions. You have to dig into people’s lives and I would rather dig into my own life. There are enough dark corners in my own life that I find interesting. I don’t need to be kicking up dust in the lives of strangers. I respect journalism – it’s the backbone of our country and our democracy, but I don’t think I have the bollocks for it – as you might say in England, is that right? With painting I get the best of both worlds. I get to spend this time by myself and I get to confess everything, through abstraction.
Can painting express everything you want to say?
I think it does an even greater thing. It takes your life and connects it to the lives of people you don’t know. The genesis of all of this – of painting, and of abstract paintings – for me was, standing in front of a de Kooning painting, clearly never having met de Kooning, I would feel like I knew the person that made this work. I’d feel like there were aspects of that painting that gave hints of who he was during his lifetime. And I was so enchanted by having that personal connection with somebody I’d never met through this rather esoteric and very strange array of colours and compositions. It was something I’d never really been confronted with, but I was able to, in my mind anyway, pull something out of that I wouldn’t have known had I not seen the painting in person. Feeling that way, and whether or not my assumptions were correct about what kind of person de Kooning were accurate, I felt a very deep connection with the person who made that work and I felt he gave up a lot of his little personal secrets. I thought, if he’s able to communicate that effectively through painting, then it’s something I want to try myself.
So the act of painting, for me, isn’t only this cathartic release of my personality and my ideas, my secrets and my passions, it’s also a real opportunity for me to try to link those things up with other people who I probably don’t know, or possibly will never meet. I just love that painting can transcend distance and time. I wanted to be a part of that, to see if I could do it, talk in that language.
In 100 years’ time, what part of you are you hoping people will connect with when they look at your work.
Oh, I’ll probably be alive in 100 years’ time. If I eat a lot of greens. I mean, if a turtle can live 200 years, I can do 140, right? It’s not that hard! I want them to know it was something I was very deliberate in doing. I want the painting to speak in a language that feels like there was a lot of thought and effort put into it; that these were all very personal ventures I put myself on.
Boy, Catherine, way to put me on the spot here. That’s the big chestnut, isn’t it? That’s a really big question! I want these paintings to unfold over time for people, and I want them to form a very personal relationship with all of them. And although my relationship with them can be a bit contentious, I want them to make a connection with the work that will lead back to what my life was like in NYC in 2020, because I’m so excited to be here, right now. I want them to feel that. I want them to know that despite the uncertainty, and the inconsistencies of living in NYC and the time we are occupying at this moment, that it was nothing but a pleasure to be here working on these things and putting them out into the world. That’s what I want to get across. My life is really great, it’s really great. And I’m so pleased. The last 20 years here in New York – it’s just been an honour to be able to do it. I want to get that across.
What drove your move from Texas to New York?
I got here in summer 2001, about six weeks before September 11th. In Houston and Dallas painting is very strong. There’s a strong movement toward owning art, and art is very much appreciated. I came here (New York) because everybody I’ve ever really admired as a painter spent their formative years here, and I wanted to have those experiences like they had. I wanted to be on the same street, I wanted to be looking through the same windows, I wanted to be showing at the same galleries. I felt that so much of the great work that came out of NY was so tied in to being here in the city, and being informed by the city itself that I wanted a part of that action as well. I thought maybe I can move to New York and incorporate whatever that magical New York dust is that they incorporated into their work, I’d like to see what is and that does to my work. At some point I decided to flip that and add back my own voice into all of these other illustrious voices that I’ve heard for so many years.
What are your main inspirations in the city?
I know it’s a very cliched thing to talk about the energy of New York City, like this ambiguous sort of electricity that runs through the air here, but I think there is something to be said about that. The fact that you’re always on your feet, and able to walk and travel the city freely on your own two legs, you end up taking in so much of what’s going on here. All the little things, they all conglomerate into this big wave of noise and energy that you’re constantly surrounded by. And I know that that’s true because every time I leave New York, it’s like the volume gets turned down by a hundred. It’s always confusing and uncomfortable for me, because I’m like, what is going on? I’ve been inside of all of this for so long that if I don’t feel that electricity coursing through my body at all times, it really feels as if something got shut off.
So where’s your stillness?
I think it’s right after I finish a painting. I finish a lot of my work at night. And it’s when I got to bed and I can’t sleep, because I’m just so happy to be done with that thing. It’s like a kid going to bed on Christmas Eve. I cannot sleep, but that’s the quiet time I have. It’s like everything gets squeezed into a very small place inside of you and then finally it gets released. And that release – there’s just so much energy that I cannot relax, can’t go to bed. But it’s good. I feel good. Those are the moments I feel really good in.
I also have a record player where I listen to a lot of Smiths and Edith Piaf, and I’ll probably have a drink. I go through a lot of garbage here in new York, and a lot of people throw their records away, so yes, somehow, Edith Piaf found its way onto my record player.
When I was growing up, my parents liked to play Bridge with the neighbours. My bedroom was upstairs and they’d play downstairs in the kitchen. I’d be lying in bed with the lights off going to sleep, and I would hear them downstairs laughing and having a good time and telling stories. I was so comforted by the fact that there were other people in the house that were so excited to be together and it sounded like they were having a genuinely good time. I didn’t have to be down there experiencing the good time, just hearing it was enough for me. The reason I’m telling you this story is that a lot of what I listen to when I paint is old radio broadcasts from the ’30s and ’40s, old detective stories and dramas. And so I always have a dialogue going on inside of my head. There’s literally conversation on my headphones all the time. It’s not something I’m necessarily paying attention to. It’s a background voice and I don’t know if it makes me feel less alone, makes me feel like there are people somewhere telling a story about something. I don’t know if it’s directly tied into those times when I was a kid listening to my parents playing cards downstairs, but I do find that there is something very evening about it for me. It levels everything out for me and I’m able to turn that part of my brain off that allows me to just work.
What of the Texan boy is there left in the New York artist?
I say Sir and Ma’am a lot. I still hold the door open for any woman that’s standing in front of one. Thank you to my mother who would stand in front of a door with her arms crossed until somebody opened it for her and, God bless her, absolutely she should have done that! I still give my seat up on the subway, so there’s still a lot of that Southern charm that I like to carry around with me. And if I get drunk or if I get tired my Texas accent still does come out, and I say things like: ‘Hell, I don’t know.’ Every time I’m back in Texas I do feel very at home.
And of course I like barbecue!
Do you think painting is out of fashion?
I think it’s been out of fashion for a long time. But the great thing is, I think there will always be a core of people that cannot do without it, that have to be around it that have to see it. It will never die out completely, even in the face of technology, even in the face of an easier way to get this done. There will always be this unshakable core of people that are absolutely tied into the act of painting in the studio. To me anyway, it speaks to such a big part of who we are as human beings. It’s such a great expression, such a great way for an individual to mark their time out and to express themselves and say this is what was going on when I was here, that I don’t think that will ever die out. It’s like Edith Piaf. Edith Piaf will live forever and painting will live forever.
And what motivated cavemen to express themselves? I think there’s a very instinctual desire to want, even if you’re marking time for yourself, an instinctual drive that we all share of – this is something that came out of me, that I made. The fact that it is something you made and that it is so personal to you, I think there’s enough satisfaction just to hold it for yourself. If it goes out into the world and it becomes important to other people, to strangers, that’s a beautiful thing, and it’s wonderful, but it’s not the necessary part of this. The necessary part of this is that these things get made. I really like work that has really been suffered over and pondered and corrected then dismantled more than anything.
You cannot make work with an expectation that it’s going to be seen by people or important to people. Fundamentally, you have to make it for yourself. That’s very important. The desire and the drive should be: I cannot help but make this.
How is it possible not to be too mindful of the opinion of other people, and of galleries?
It becomes disingenuous when you start thinking about your ‘audience’ – will they like this, or how will they respond. I think you’re losing a lot of your honesty when you’re doing that and it becomes almost gimmickry, almost this little game that you’re playing with the people that are going to be viewing your work and that lessens it as an art form, and dilutes it.
With social media, and all of this access people have, it is difficult not to think of how your audience is going to digest it. It becomes content for them. But you’re missing out on making that personal connection with someone, with surprising somebody when you’re considering how strangers are going to react to your work. That’s a shame, and you should try to avoid that as much as possible. I never thought I’d use social media. And there is a value having so many eyes on what you’re doing, and tied into your life, but at some point you have to cut it off and say I have to make these things for myself and not consider the stranger that’s going to click ‘like’ on Instagram.
Is it easy or difficult for you to ignore your social media ‘audience’ in terms of making decisions about your own work?
It’s easy for me because for the first eight or 10 years of working in new York I didn’t have an audience; I was just doing it for myself. That really cemented that mindset for me.
There’s nothing more interesting than your own voice, than the individual. I love the individual. I’m so turned off by people who do stuff just to market it, or to provide content to people they don’t even know. It dilutes the very thing I’m trying to do, that you’re trying to do. But it is so hard – everyone wants to be popular in high School right? But you’re missing out on the greater reward, which is: I’m an individual; this work has gone out into the world as the work of an individual. What do they say? A camel is a horse drawn by committee, right? You don’t want to confuse your message. You get too many people in that message and it’s going to just look like garbage. And that’s not good.
Let me be clear. I don’t want to insult my audience. If someone takes five minutes to look at one of my paintings, I’m extremely grateful.
Any tips on how to find your own ‘voice’?
Start slowly. This is a sign of the time we’re living in now: people need an immediacy, to get things done and get them out there, to get seen and get noticed for it. That’s not a good way to go about it. You’re going to be disappointed more often than not by rushing these things. So again, I really think it’s about finding that one small thing that you’re so passionate about, that little ember that burns so deeply inside of you, and really wrapping everything and every decision you make around that, as much as you can.
I’m not ignorant of people’s circumstances. Not everybody can sit in the studio all day long like I do. I don’t have other trappings in my life that prevent me from doing that. Start slowly, manage your expectations, don’t frustrate yourself and try to dedicate as much time to it as you possibly can. It’s a difficult thing to dive that deeply into your own psyche, into your own personality, into your brain. You will find it to be exhilarating and terrifying, and rewarding all at the same time. It is not an easy road. I think it brings such a focus into your own life of purpose and that individual spirit that I feel is missing a little too much in today’s society. To feel like you are able to reawaken your individualistic spirit, it’s so great. It’s so great. And it’ll make you want to create more, it really will. It’ll bring everything into focus and make your ideas and your work that much better.
I like black, and I like dark grey, a lot. I like it because it’s got such great contrasts. You can just mix it in, even a little bit, and it comes through so beautifully. Also Payne’s grey violet by Williamsburg. Payne’s grey violet, with just a very little bit of white in it makes this greyish purple colour that I’m obsessed with.
What’s most important to you: colour, line or design?
I think line, probably, because with my paintings it’s the lines that delineate the colour fields. And there’s nothing quite so satisfying as that little surprise line that’s maybe buried under some paint but you can still see it.
Do your paintings reflect your personality in any way?
Look, at the end of the day I’m a Texan. I talk too much, I over-share. I really do! Not with everybody, but if you sit down with me and maybe there’s some Bourbon involved, I over-share. I think my paintings are who I’d rather be at those times – a bit more mysterious and a little bit less mouthy! Maybe my paintings are an exact duplication of who I am as a person because sometimes I’m very quiet and I’m the dark little cloud in the room, and there are other times, I think right around drink number four, it becomes an almost unbearable exercise in self-revelation to strangers that I wouldn’t want to hear! It all just comes pouring out and people are, like, really what is wrong with you?
Anything you haven’t tried artistically that you’d like to try?
Maybe bronze sculpture. I do like bronze sculpture a lot. I don’t know what it would be like working in a foundry. But I’m very hands on so once I started boiling metal and pouring it into something I’m probably going to burn my face off. The next thing I’d like to do is stone lithography. It’s such a complicated old process.
Favourite painting tool?
I have a paint brush that doesn’t have any bristles any more. I’ve worn the metal down to a smooth edge so it’s almost like a drawing tool. Again, it’s a different way for me to make a line. I would default to that because I’ve had it and used for so many years. I’m thinking about turning it into a necklace and wearing it, so I’m never without it.
Canvas, panel or paper?
Linen, for sure.
Big or small?
You’re opening up the Pandora’s Box of another problem I see with contemporary painting, which is the concentration on size. I think a lot of the contemporary artists I’ve seen really lean on the face that a large canvas is an impactful canvas, just because of the size. And so therefore you can slag off the process and not be as intense in the working process of the painting because the size itself offers this compelling thing for people to look at. I’m not dissing that, but size shouldn’t be a substitute for actual work, and I see a lot of that.
So, a bit of both – it’s the importance of having variety in your work. Not only what they look like but being able to be impactful at a very small size and also at a very large one.
Barbecue or bagels?
My girlfriend is such as health food person. She’s a reiki practitioner here in New York, so she’s all into the holistic medicines. She hasn’t let me eat a bagel in nine years.
You’re allowed bagels …
Oh! I’m going to Bagelville. I’m like an everything bagel. Don’t tell her! I’m a toasted everything bagel with butter. I’m a butter guy.
It’s been proven that butter is good for you again now…
I hadn’t heard that, but I’m thrilled that you said it!
If you weren’t an artist, what would you be?
I would probably be a forest ranger. Despite living in New York City I love being outside in nature. I love animals. I have a real deep affection for animals. I don’t know why. Animals, babies and old people – I’m really sentimental toward those three things. And also, I think I’d enjoy the solitude of being outside in some forest somewhere, some great national park.
How would it feel if you had to go on a trip to Mars (you could paint there)?
If I were on the Moon and I looked back at the Earth, I think I would die. I think I would have a heart attack. It would be so freaky, right? Let’s say I make it, and I’m on Mars … is it like when you’ve finished a painting, and you think I’m really glad I’ve finished it, let’s move on to the next thing? Would it be the same? I made it to Mars. What now? Oh, I could work on Mars? I have a studio on Mars? I could do that! Just the very conception of being that far away from Earth, I think I would die. But if I had a studio there, with cigarettes and bagels, yes, I could make that happen …
and butter …
Yes, of course. Please, NASA, send the Buttership!
What do you think the difference is between good art & great art?
If I were to answer quickly, it’s the editing. The not being satisfied with the initial result of anything, and being able to sacrifice anything. If you can clearly see deliberate movement and sacrifice, and dissatisfaction and correction in a painting, I think you make it from an acceptable painting to a good painting. Whenever I see an artist do that – even if it’s a shift that has made them profoundly uncomfortable, it’s something that they forced themselves to do, that is exciting to me. And I think that’s a real personal move to make and it took a lot of guts, and that’s great. That’s really great.
Is there a lot more to come in your paintings?
I think there’s a lot more to come. The last exhibition at the Anita Rogers’ Gallery has done something transformative to the very basic processes of how I operate as an artist. It has made me take things that much more seriously. It felt like a real shift for me and has re-energised me, and motivated me in different ways. I think there’s a lot more to come in terms of how I develop my voice in my paintings and my works on paper.