By Virginia Campbell
Robert Striffolino’s path to Santa Fe was similar to that of many who live there: He came from elsewhere, but when he arrived in Santa Fe, he knew he had found his home.
WATERSCAPE #32, OIL, 60 X 60
Born and raised in the East, well educated, and suitably prepared for a career he had every reason to believe would be satisfying, Striffolino settled into a promising job at age 25. He was living in Cincinnati, OH, at the time, and his future there looked bright: He had a good job, he was in a romantic relationship, and he had a studio where he could paint and sculpt in his spare time. He felt hopeful that he’d be able to find a balance between earning a living and expressing himself artistically. Then everything changed.
His version of the ensuing crisis and its resolution sounds like this: “The relationship I was in went south. I just couldn’t take the job any longer. I lost the studio space I was working in. I’d gotten away from my center and I was feeling very cynical. So I decided to do something I’d always wanted to do,” he explains. “I left everything and went on a personal odyssey for six months, backpacking and camping around the country. It’s the single best thing I’ve ever done in my life.
“When I came to Santa Fe, I felt something aligned to my soul,” says Striffolino. “So I stayed.” The experience of finding oneself when one finds oneself in Santa Fe is an occurrence both commonplace and extraordinary. Many people, especially artists who have adopted Santa Fe as their home, describe the deep affinity they feel for the place. The word Striffolino uses is “spiritual.”
Striffolino was 28 when he settled in Santa Fe in 1978. The city was on the cusp of its dramatic transformation into a major American art market. He was a landscape painter, poised at the right time in the right place to find a receptive audience for his interpretations of the dark shadows of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the sharp clarity of the high-altitude atmosphere.
To look at Striffolino’s latest work, though—large, color-saturated glimpses of nature you wouldn’t guess that the New Mexico landscape was of particular artistic interest to him. And in truth, it isn’t. “I’m not painting New Mexico,” he explains. “The way New Mexico looks to me is different from the way it makes me feel. I’m painting what I feel in the sky and the earth of New Mexico.” Striffolino’s increasingly tenuous tether to representation tempts you to suspect that he’s a closet abstractionist. He isn’t, but he operates in the border territory between abstraction and representation.
Even in his earlier work—paintings in which the elements of landscape are more conventionally arranged and recognizable you know right away you’re not seeing Santa Fe. The light in the atmosphere is diffuse with humidity that Santa Fe doesn’t have even when it rains. “I like the way colors meet and slide into each other. There aren’t harsh edges to my colors, like there are in New Mexico,” explains the artist. Places like Charleston, New Orleans, or Seattle would offer color effects like that. But, of course, those places don’t have the spiritual current that Striffolino plugs into in Santa Fe.
TREE FORMS, STUDY #1, OIL, 18 X 18
“I haven’t painted on location in the last 10 years, but I’ve logged so much time being outdoors in nature that I can work from memory or sketches or photographs,” he says. “But now I’m more involved in the formal qualities of paint than in the subject.” Striffolino’s two recent series of paintings show what he’s talking about.
The first series—which he titles “waterscapes”—are paintings of shallow water where the reflections on the surface and the imagery below play at becoming a single plane. “The earlier ones had a few leaves on the surface of the water and the shadows of leaves on the ground beneath. There were ripples flowing outward, too,” he explains. “I began with paintings that showed a horizon high up on the canvas, then did some with no horizon at all.” Now his waterscapes tend to have no easy bearings. Luminosity, color, and shadowy darkness describe a waterscape quite accurately, if you decide to see one. Or you can just as easily luxuriate in the Rothko-like harmonics.
The other series includes large vertical paintings crowded with tree trunks and branches, with light from a distant background showing through. “The idea was to create a compression of tree forms and see what would happen to depth,” says Striffolino. “I’ve always been fascinated by the natural order that exists in the chaos of trees. I can’t understand the coexistence of chaos and order in nature intellectually, but I can try to understand it by painting it.” Color is the binding element in his work, an organizing force he prefers to composition. “The mind always wants to control things,” says the artist. “Color is the most intuitive quality.”
In some ways, the truce Striffolino has fashioned between abstraction and representation is a visual metaphor for the way he has balanced basic influences within himself. Born one of five sons of an engineer and structural draftsman father and a more “lyrical” mother, he had “her nature and his abilities.” He grew up in Valley Stream, NY, a misnamed area on the border of Queens and Nassau Counties where the urban sprawl is so pervasive that as a child he didn’t know there were places where towns were separated by countryside.
In school he was academically ungifted but artistically inspired in a way that could have integrated him into the art world early on, had he not been a self-professed loner. He refused to take art classes (he remains self-taught to this day) but regularly visited the incredible holdings of New York’s art institutions. He also became interested in architecture, which led to a part-time job at an architectural firm while he was in high school. Wanting a change of scenery, he chose to go to college at Ohio University, which was surrounded by farmland. He studied architecture and stayed in Ohio after graduating, working as an architect in Cincinnati. That was, until he’d just plain had enough and set off on his road trip of self-discovery.
After landing in Santa Fe in 1978, Striffolino was determined to pursue his art. To pay the bills he took a job with an architecture firm—and he painted. “I was learning to paint at the hand-eye coordination level and also trying to learn how to see,” he says. By his own admission, his work was “all over the map.” In 1981 a gallery picked up his work; four years later he quit the architectural firm to paint full time. He says he struggled financially until 1987, when he had his first solo show. Thereafter he began showing regularly in multiple galleries.
During this time, Striffolino was leaning away from plein-air landscapes and moving in the direction of more abstract studio work. He notes that painter Fairfield Porter was influential to his development at this point, which makes perfect sense. Porter, a bastion of representational painting when abstract expressionism was the law of the land, occupied an artistic world in which abstraction and representation seemed to effortlessly merge. This could also be said of Georgia O’Keeffe, who has been influential to Striffolino as well, though not in the same way. “I’m not crazy about her paintings, but I love her words,” he says.
For Striffolino, the important thing about both painters is that they were artists who, “if they had gone totally abstract, they’d have lost who they were.” This is something he identifies with. “For me,” he continues, “abstraction is free-falling. My images have become less and less recognizable, but they retain the spirit of what they truly are. They are minimalist in the sense that I try to take everything painting is about and simplify it. When I paint, I bring my whole history of painting with me. But if I push too hard or too fast, I might not bring my heart and soul with me. It’s better for me to move slowly.”
Striffolino married for the first time at age 49 and now lives with his wife, Connie, in a U-shaped, New Mexico-style, pitched-roof house with a 60-foot-wide courtyard garden. One leg of the U is Striffolino’s 1,000-square-foot studio. It’s there, in the middle of the New Mexico landscape, with a beautiful display of native flora all around him, that he paints landscapes whose relationship to New Mexico is certainly indirect, but just as certainly essential.
He is represented by Manitou Galleries, Santa Fe, NM; Blink Gallery, Boulder, CO; Blue Gallery, Kansas City, MO; Primavera Gallery, Ojai, CA; Jack Meier Gallery, Houston, TX; Erlich Gallery, Marblehead, MA.
Featured in November 2008