In Memoriam

January 12, 2022

Robert Cumming, MFA 1967, passed away December 16, 2021.

Desert Hot Springs, CA — Robert Cumming, an artist of exceptional versatility who could work in several media simultaneously and was a leading proponent of conceptual photography in the 1970s, has died at age 78. The cause of death reported by his partner of 33 years Margaret Irwin-Brandon was complications of Parkinson's disease.

Cumming left his mark on modern art as a multidisciplined contrarian, who viewed life with an eye for the quixotic, absurd, mind-expanding, and amusing, translating his observations through painting, drawing, printmaking, sculpture, and photography into engaging visual essays touched with Surrealism and always tugging at the boundaries of what is real and what is artifice. A brilliant draftsman, he started making art at age 5 with small, precise renderings of different scenes that sometimes won prizes awarded by his local newspaper-- precision and clarity of line remained a hallmark of his graphic work for the rest of his life. His paintings, always representational and often large in scale, probed the perplexities of life and art and such complex themes as the interweaving of vision and imagination.

It is Cumming's photography from the 1970s and 80s, however, that constitutes his greatest legacy. Black and white prints distinguished by acute detail made possible by large negatives were his stock in trade, and he was at his best as a provocateur in scenes he constructed himself with an intention to tease, trick, or stimulate the mind. Crazy quilts of patterns, a slice of bread embedded in a watermelon, movie sets as uncanny stand-ins for reality, and plays on negative and positive relationships are just some of the head-scratching tableaux that populate his work with both wit and philosophy.

Robert Cumming was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1943. Always interested in art and especially draftsmanship, he earned his BA in 1965 at the Massachusetts College of Art and his MFA in 1967 at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, with a concentration on painting, drawing, and printmaking. After graduation he taught studio art at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, where he began working with conceptual art of different forms including mail art, illogical sculptures, and performance skits. In 1970 Cumming took a teaching position at California State University, Fullerton, and occasionally taught at other colleges around Los Angeles. Surrounded by a creative arts community in Southern California with a trend toward conceptual work, and influenced by Hollywood set photography, he developed his own strain of conceptual photography, with a sensibility reminiscent of the satire, irony, and linguistic play of Marcel Duchamp. He first exhibited his photography in 1973 at California State College, Long Beach, and group shows followed at such prestigious institutions as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

By the end of the 1970s, Cumming's interests began to shift again toward painting and drawing, and while he continued his photography, it was mostly of a documentary nature. In 1978 he moved back to New England with a teaching job at the Hartford Art School in Connecticut, and he later established a studio in Whately, Massachusetts. In the later 1980s he met Irwin- Brandon, who was teaching at Mount Holyoke College in the music department, and they became life partners. Her specialty is Baroque music, and after having founded Arcadia Players, a period instrument orchestra based in Northampton, Mass., she decided to move back to her home state of California in 2013, where she purchased a house in Desert Hot Springs, California, near Palm Springs. Before long, Cumming joined her, and he happily lived out his life with her in that desert community in pleasant seclusion.

Cumming's work is included in many art museum collections across the country, and it appeared in numerous group exhibitions as well as solo shows, both in the United States and abroad. He was the recipient of three National Endowment for the Arts grants (1972,1975,1979) and a Guggenheim Fellowship (1981). He is survived by his sister, Virginia, and brother, Edward, both of Southborough, Mass., nephews Andrew and Christopher Cumming, and extended family.

Published by Daily Hampshire Gazette on Jan. 7, 2022.




slice of bread imposed on a watermelon
Watermelon/Bread (1970)
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