Los Angeles

Robert Overby

In 1969, after more than a decade of commercial design work, Robert Overby decided to become a full-time artist. The oft-cited turning point was an assignment to procure an art collection for the corporate offices of CBS. Working with a relatively tight budget, Overby came through with a remarkably rich and diverse body of work that ran the gamut of fine and applied art and included everything from a Picasso bookplate to a circuit board courtesy of Lockheed Electronics. And, famously, he cut corners in the original-painting department by making a few of them himself. There is no doubt that with these Stella-esque hard-edge abstract works Overby discovered that art could be both fun and easy.

Starting somewhat late, at the age of thirty-four, Overby compensated with an enormously prolific studio schedule. The self-published “red book,” which documents in reverse order the artist’s output between the years 1969 and 1973, includes a staggering 336 pieces. Equally surprising is the variety of goods on offer, and how each investigation receives exhaustive attention. Shortly after the CBS painting marathon, Overby embarked on his most productive phase, generating the career-making rubber skin castings of architectural details and interiors that continue, to this day, to define his art-world reputation. A posthumous 1994 exhibition at Sue Spaid Fine Art in LA brought this work back to public attention. The time was ripe; as generic ’80s appropriation took on the specific contours of identity art, Overby’s castings began to look more current than ever. One decade later, it is safe to say that something very similar is happening with the paintings he made in the ’80s.

Sensitively curated by critic and independent curator Terry R. Myers, this show of the paintings Overby made between 1981 and 1988 constitutes an authentic revelation. A lapsed minimalist’s sharp-edged, ultra-emphatic articulation, now in the service of quasi figuration, is in turn aggressively undermined by a logic of montage. This is very much a post-Pop affair. The paintings vary widely in scale between very big and smallish. Blocks of flat, straight-from-the-tube color bump against blocks of fully rendered pictorial matter—fragments of the female face and form obviously drawn from the pages of high-end fashion magazines. Often, abstract shapes are cut out of, or laid over, the quoted imagery, so as to play up its particular surface. However, flatness is not the only common denominator of fine and applied, of painterly and photographic; just as salient is Overby’s almost obscenely lush treatment of lipsticks, facial masks, and ointments as tautological figures for paint.

If these works were as overlooked in their time as the rubber castings, it was for much the same reason: Their surface resemblance to the then-dominant mode rendered their deeper differences invisible. The ’80s were, of course, marked by a return to painterly figuration, and artists like David Salle had seemingly cornered the market on the elegant fracture of high-fashion imagery. But Overby shares none of Salle’s ambivalence in regard to the popular and/or spectacular sphere, and this is precisely what is most contemporary about his work. Comparisons with the recent paintings of Jeff Koons, which these resemble even more closely, are tempting and will no doubt play a crucial part in any attempt to reevaluate Overby’s contribution. However, a more fitting model is Koons’s own acknowledged inspiration James Rosenquist—a figure, like Overby, with a foot in both worlds. Likewise the work of the British Independent Group: They constitute an alternate legacy where the aims of art and design overlap unproblematically and where Playboy’s Playmate of the Month pullout really is, as Richard Hamilton once suggested, the new odalisque.

Jan Tumlir