ROBERT CUMMING was born in Massachusetts in 1943. He received a B.F.A. in painting from the Massachusetts College of Art, Boston, and an M.F.A. in painting from the University of Illinois, Champagne-Urbana. After school, he taught at the university level for three years while showing his sculpture and painting in several exhibitions throughout the Midwest. In his sculptural practice he built illogical yet utilitarian-looking things that were intentionally devoid of utility. He also engaged in mail art, shipping tree branches and dry-cleaning tissue, as well as home-made and store-bought postcards, to friends and strangers alike, near and far.
In 1970, Cumming moved to Southern California to seek new exposure within the burgeoning art world around Los Angeles. There, he began to focus on photography, building elaborate tableaux that he shot with exquisite detail with an 8-by-10 camera. In 1973, Cumming first exhibited his photographs as part of the exhibition Minor White, Robert Heinecken, Robert Cumming: Photograph as Metaphor, Photograph as Object, Photograph as Document of Concept, at California State University, Long Beach. Other exhibitions in the 1970s included 24 Young Los Angeles Artists at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Picture Puzzles at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Whitney Biennial in 1975; and Mirrors and Windows at MoMA, New York.
Embracing the compact and transportable storytelling ability of photographs, Cumming produced six artist’s books during the 1970s, three of which formed a sort of trilogy: A Training in the Arts (1972), which deliberately confused text, caption, and image; A Discourse on Domestic Disorder (1975), a string of episodes of domestic ennui and disaster; and Interruptions in Landscape and Logic (1977), a tale of an imaginary, yet hauntingly familiar, war. He also developed an ongoing fascination with the nautical style in architecture, which he sought out on several cross-country drives traveling back to the East Coast. The obsession resulted in an unfinished book on the subject, as well as scores of mail-art postcards Cumming produced during his long correspondence with the collective Image Bank in Vancouver, Canada.
In 1978 Cumming moved back to the East Coast and began to focus once again on painting, sculpture, and other works on paper. Commissions for photography continued, such as work for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and an exploration of M.I.T., but often this work was more documentary in style, rooting out absurdities in the real world rather than constructing them for the camera itself. After 1980 he also turned to color, a smaller film format, and larger prints.
In his non-photographic work — paintings, sculpture, and color pastels that he made for the next several decades — he reinvented motifs from his earlier practice, such as the spool of thread and the watermelon, driven more by form and aesthetics than the perceptual mechanics of his medium as he was when using the camera. These works are enigmatic and open for interpretation rather than puzzles the viewer can solve.
A complete picture of Robert is essential to understanding his singular style that persists through many mediums. Cumming has exhibited his work internationally. The most recent survey of his photography, Robert Cumming: The Secret Life of Objects, opened at the George Eastman Museum and traveled to the California Museum of Photography at UCR ARTSblock in Riverside, California, in Fall of 2019. Other solo exhibitions include Robert Cumming: Cone of Vision, a retrospective that traveled to Australia and across the United States with stops at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, as well as over seventy additional solo shows, including Robert Cumming: Intuitive Inventions (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 1988), Mechanical Illusions by Robert Cumming (Whitney Museum of American Art, 1986), and The Clutter of Happenstance (MoMA, New York, 1998).
The hundreds of group shows in which he has participated include Mirrors and Windows (MoMA, New York, 1978 – 1982), Fabricated to be Photographed (SFMOMA, 1979), State of Mind: New California Art circa 1970 (Orange County Museum of Art, 2012), and Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974–1981 (MOCA, Los Angeles, 2012). He is the recipient of three National Endowment for the Arts Grants (1972, 1975, 1979) and a Guggenheim Fellowship (1981).
Cumming now lives in Desert Hot Springs, California.
R.Cumming in a Car, Chicago, 1976
Robert Cumming, Baseball-Photographer Trading Card
by Mike Mandel, 1975
Early work by Robert Cumming. Left: Moveable Painting Modules, 1966; Right: Mailable Sculpture, 1969
Left: The artist in studio with the set for Decorator Test, 1974. Right: Artist's books by Robert Cumming on display at the George Eastman Museum, 2017.