“Come Back Sweet Mama (Boy in Museum),” oil on Masonite (Photo courtesy Dowling Walsh Gallery)
“Come Back Sweet Mama (Boy in Museum),” oil on Masonite (Photo courtesy Dowling Walsh Gallery)
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“If you fall off a cliff, you might as well try to fly.” — As told to Robert Hamiltonby a fellow artist

About a week before the COVID-19 virus shuttered most businesses and nonprofits in Maine, I was asked to write an essay on an artist, Robert Hamilton (1916–2004). Few beyond family, neighbors and former students have ever heard of him. When I previewed the works in person at Dowling Walsh Gallery in Rockland, the unedited exhibition was propped up against the walls in two spacious, high-ceilinged rooms. The sequencing of his work then, and quite probably whenever the exhibition is eventually installed, does not really matter too much. Juxtapositions invariably blow off sparks, whichever works are placed next to each other. That, as much as anything, is what makes this uncontainable, voluble artist noteworthy. He created the kind of work that must be seen in person, not least because reproductions are hopelessly inadequate, even off-putting. Photographs can’t replicate the in-between-ness of flat colors, scratchy, bumpy textures, overpaint and oozing skeins, the raw edges — the artist’s skittery, eliding hand — or the varying scale of these paintings that range from miniature intimacy to imposing wall-size mural.

Each summer his neighbors and a few former students would make their way down a dead-end road in Port Clyde where Hamilton would install an exhibition in his own handmade “museum.” More lawn equipment shed than gallery, the rough-hewn, high-ceilinged, octagonal building was ringed by clerestory windows providing the only illumination. Not only was his work a secret to most collectors, students and curators, Hamilton was indifferent to his place in an art world he more or less abandoned when he moved to Maine in 1981 after teaching at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) for 34 years. His paintings are variously inhabited by anonymous figures including nudes and bellhops who double as train conductors, museum guards, circus performers, military heroes, fighter pilots, opera singers, fellow artists, and a menagerie of lions, tigers and ‘Oh, my!’ characters snatched from dreams and his free-floating, unbounded imagination. Like spindrift blowing across an ocean ledge in Muscongus Bay, his was a world of shifting, floating recollection, never to be fixed or finished, warning of unfathomed depths and pulling, cross-tidal currents. The work of Robert Hamilton has rightly been called “the best-kept secret in Maine.”

One of Hamilton’s more puzzling paintings is titled “Come Back Sweet Mama (Boy in Museum).” The large work is undated but probably comes from the last decade or so of Hamilton’s long and prolific career. An avid recreational tennis player, Hamilton reproduces and repeats in oil paint a 1920s newspaper photograph of French Wimbledon champion Suzanne Lenglen (1899–1938), gazelle-like, forever suspended in mid-stretch for a low volley. The match is here “refereed” by a masked figure — museum guard, movie theater usher, train conductor, or bank robber — who is, of course, Robert Hamilton. Lenglen died young and unexpectedly in 1938, while Hamilton was studying at RISD. 1938 marked Germany’s unopposed, blitzkrieg invasion of Czechoslovakia that would change Hamilton’s life irrevocably. He went on to fly 100 missions in a P-47 fighter-bomber over Germany, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross, an honor he shared with Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart and George H. W. Bush.

Why Hamilton chose to depict Suzanne Lenglen at this late stage of his career is anybody’s guess. It is likely the only painting in the artist’s oeuvre to directly quote a historical event. But Lenglen’s passing may be viewed as signifying the last moment when the world’s, and Hamilton’s own, innocence was permissible, could be celebrated, was even conceivable. The hushed, gallery-like setting and dim interior light suggests a metaphorical and private museum of the artist’s fraught memory — fame’s fleeting passage, won or lost in the click of a camera shutter. Hamilton never knew fame beyond fellow painters and friends, but with his 90s fast approaching and going blind from macular degeneration, Hamilton knew this about faded photographs and aging artists: Time is a thief.

A rigorous, much-loved teacher for most of his professional life, Hamilton always believed theory crushed and flattened authenticity, vitality and virtuosity. He vastly preferred the unknown, unrehearsed results from free associations and accidental encounters. Most of all, Hamilton painted like the improvisational jazz aficionado he was. He reveled in the glittering solo runs by Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Coleman “Hawk” Hawkins, and especially his own son, the world-renowned jazz, tenor saxophone musician and composer Scott Hamilton. Jazz is at the heart of Hamilton’s studio practice and method — disparate images, colliding colors, and compositions resolving into rhythmic, seductive “melodies” that speak more to emotion than logic. He “sampled” from art and artists he admired and would riff on his heroes — pace fellow teacher Thomas Eakins, whose Philadelphia scullers now row among Egyptian gods and beach ball–caressing goddesses. His brush glides with a sure, confident touch that looked, but was far from, accidental. Performance and play, in the context of rules he invented and he alone knew, were the source of his art and all of the art and artists that mattered most to him.

As his students and fellow artists who knew him might have expected, Hamilton literally wrote his own obituary where he tells us, matter-of-factly, what and why he painted:

“I knew my paintings had to be improvised, spontaneous, made up out of whole cloth, one thing leading to another, accidental, a series of metamorphoses, surprised arrivals.”

And surprised departures, we might add.