PRINT November 1984


ROBERT HELM IS A NORTHWEST artist who lives in Pullman, Washington—more precisely, on Sunshine Road, a spur off the highway between Pullman and Moscow, Idaho, eight miles away. Both towns contain universities. Grain fields sweep up virtually to the doors of these ugly brick turn-of-the-century colleges. In the winter the wheat gives way to billows of snow, but in every season it seems you can see into the adjoining state and maybe the one beyond, over miles and miles of naked hills—contoured, some people have said, like sleeping animals, while others see them as the bodies of women. In winter a visitor’s thoughts turn naturally to an idea of Russian, of Siberian steppes.

Helm lives on a farm with his family. Some days he goes into Pullman to give instruction at the university art school, but most of the time he works in his studio on the farm, looking out of a window above his work table over toward Idaho. In his early 40s, he resembles some distinguished American man-of-letters out of the 1920s. When he speaks, you know he’s of the Far Western variety of American artist. He says (in a letter), “To see the commonplace as extraordinary and convey this in a work of art seems to me the highest possible achievement in art.” One agrees with this, but one might also add that to see and convey the extraordinary may be an even higher achievement in art—and it seems to be what in fact he’s really doing. You don’t get a sense of the commonplace being conveyed in his paintings; nor of commonplace origins from which the extraordinary duly emerges—despite the use of materials that have had a former, but not necessarily more mundane, existence: the ivory and ebony of recycled piano keys, worn floorboards, porcupine quills, and so forth. Loaded with associations—the piano keys came from a jazz-club piano in San Francisco, the floorboards from a women’s dormitory—these things retain for Helm the spirit of their former lives. They are worked into new conjunctions, into icons which are often really shadow boxes, or as someone has put it, into the “reliquaries of a new-age church.”

Confronted by these Old Master panels and triptychs, you’re not only in a new-age church, you’re in some National Gallery of the Future. Helm’s pictures are so solidly put together it would take dynamite to blow them apart, yet at the same time they are so opulent, so obviously valuable. They cry out for brocade walls. If you are the acquisitive type, you start planning how to own one. The light of ages past glows from their polished depths. You’re right back there with Hugo van der Goes and Hans Memlinc, minus the infant Jesus. In His place are some immaculate pieces of beautifully grained wood, perhaps tied with a painted thong, perhaps just resting against each other. Where Mary would be standing, there is a cylinder of wood, covered in a veil. Next you are in one of Giotto’s walled gardens, and the Redeemer has just stepped behind a cypress, or has not come in yet out of the piazza. But there’s a sudden mood and scene change. The Mediterranean repose of some of the pictures in this series gives way to a more Northern, troubled kind of romanticism and to reminders of the jagged ice floes of Caspar David Friedrich. On a sea of frozen waves a wormy plank has been tossed up from a wreck. Or is this a potter’s field? The plank says “1983.” A small flame issuing from the ice licks an adjoining plank. Handsomely grained wood veneers in warm tones are inlaid to form a pattern that looks like the discards of some celestial carpenter ’s shop, and this forms the background of most of Helm’s current paintings, including 1983. But he paints over these in trompe l’oeil to give them the illusion of a third dimension, or, as in 1983, to simulate the elements at play most destructive to good joinery, fire and water.

There is nothing dry or academic in all this. On the contrary, these new pictures are full of tensions: between the recognizably “real” and the “artificial,” which are ambiguously fused; between the artist’s almost monomaniacal passion perceived in the unimaginable hours of painstaking work and the cool, self-contained presence of the finished object; between the pull of homely materials in new identities and their former lives; between the content of the picture as perceived and the title Helm has given to it. Found titles, you might say, but ones chosen for themselves: The Silence of the Room Seemed to Await an Answer, 1977; She Stared, Now at her Gloved Hand, Now at the Unfamiliar Room, 1981; Homely Was His Speech, 1977.

Helm says, “A work of art should be a stronghold of quality, and although quality can’t be exactly defined, people recognize it when they see it.” If you are born in a small Western town, as Helm was, and you are an artist, you certainly do look for quality. You can go away to New York or Paris to look for it, or you can stay on Sunshine Road and invent it for yourself, all new and fresh. If you grew up in towns like Spokane, Washington, and Wallace, Idaho (it’s the mining town in the middle of a forested range where the film Heaven’s Gate was shot), in the 1940s the view down Main Street wouldn’t really remind you of Giotto’s Florence very much. Gradually, if you were an artist, by about the fifth grade you would start thinking, “There is something else; where can I get it?” The magazines and TV and the movies showed plainly enough that there was somewhere else, but not necessarily somewhere more beautiful, if you looked closely. Anyway, what is more beautiful than Idaho? So he stayed, went to college, took art, became a painter, and moved to Colorado to teach. But he soon became dissatisfied: "I didn’t have it with just flat paintings, I don’t know, something was wrong. Then one day Tammy and I went up to Calgary to the rodeo and I was looking around and I saw this hand tooled saddle and I thought it was just beautiful . . . I thought my art should be as beautiful as [that] saddle. So I quit my job and apprenticed myself to a saddle maker. Then I worked in a custom gun shop doing inlays and then some other places, like you know, getting a palette of skills together.”1

In the mid ’70s, by now back in Pullman, Helm began to craft a kind of shadow-box picture to which he would give gnomic titles. It was not that these compositions—as painstakingly made as the best Western sad-dies and gun collectors’ prize specimens—contained objects, like Joseph Cornell boxes (though sometimes they did), but rather that a two-dimensional picture became somewhat, or slightly, three-dimensional. In The Next Year, One Very Hot Sunday, All the Details of the Memorable Conversation Suddenly Came Back to Him, 1980, folds carved in leather-covered wood are drawn up into the corner of the frame, resembling the weighty proscenium curtain of some grand opera stage; within the picture, the expectation of some drama to come is implicit in the shiny steel blade held back by a taut cord which, if cut, would spring toward the curtain. Some of the works are meant to change their form at some future time. In a work called The Race, 1972, Helm has suspended in two identical shadow boxes two rocks of the exact same weight. tied up in identical leather pouches, on exactly similar thongs. The two rocks each hang over a “beaver-chewed” twig supported on a cunning miniature trestle. He explains: "Well, what you do is you hang the pieces on the wall and wait. I figure the thongs should rot through in maybe 30 or 40 years or so, sealed off by the glass and all, and then one day one breaks and one rock falls down and splits the twig. If you’re looking at the piece at that moment you’ll see it happen. If not, you’ll see the busted stick and know it’s already over. That’s the box that won the race. I want my art energy held by my work, sort of like tension into the future. I’d like a piece that changes completely in 200 years and then maybe changes back again in another 200.”2 This deadpan plan does not detract from the formal satisfaction his design (in its present arrangement) provides; on the contrary, it adds to the pleasure of our contemplation of the evil pouches, and the prospect of the matching pair of ruins, under glass, some decades from now. (Helm points out that he is a twin.)

Helm’s pictures can be described as highly eclectic, more or less permanent mixed-media events on a necessarily intimate scale (because of the thousands of hours needed to produce them). But one can pretty safely situate him at the center of that most agreeable area of the contemporary avant-garde, an area characterized—in all the arts—by a theatrical atmosphere fostered at the cost of “dramatic event,” by stillness, by repetition with minute variations, and by beguilement of the senses. His, too, is an art to enchant and beguile, paradoxically managing to do this with both a somber palette and images that often suggest dread, loss, disaster, unanswerable questions, suppressed evidence.

What are the main pleasures we derive from Helm’s art? I believe it is the satisfying classicism of his method of work, allied to a romantic appeal that is apparent again partly in the lush physical presentation and partly in the enigmatic subject matter which so powerfully suggests mood, atmosphere, and memory. Helm writes about his art (in another letter): “ . . . One thing I’m sure of is that it has very little to do with the contemporary world. If I could place it at all, what I’m trying to evoke is some of the feeling I get from looking through a window from outdoors at night into a dimly lit room. Or something of that feeling you might have waking from an afternoon nap at your grandmother’s house. This is all very vague of course when I write it down, but in general I’m fascinated by the ability of certain art to establish an atmosphere around itself. In a cranky way I see an absence of this intriguing quality in most contemporary art. Often a change of lamps or lampshades has more effect on a room than the art in the room.”

James lvory is an American film director. His latest film is The Bostonians, adapted from the Henry James novel.



1. Quoted in "Robert Helm,” catalogue for exhibition at Galerie Redmann, Berlin, May 6–June 5, 1982.

2. Quoted in “Robert Helm.”