Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Guest column: A tribute to Richard Beckman

Some closing thoughts as USF CAM close its retrospective of the artist this weekend.

Posted By on Wed, Sep 3, 2014 at 7:00 PM

click to enlarge Beckman_Halfthe_Truth_USF.jpg

EDITOR'S NOTE: Colleen Beckman was married to artist Richard Beckman (1957-2004). I wanted to give Colleen, who helped USF Contemporary Art with a retrospective of her husband's singular work, a chance to say in her words what set her late husband apart as a great artist to be remembered among Tampa Bay's all-time best. Here is a passage and poem she wrote to commemorate the closing reception and public dedication taking place this Friday at the University of South Florida. 

click to enlarge BeckmanScupltureForWeb.jpg
My feeling is that the journey of any artist involves hard work, persistence, determination and dedication, but for Richard, his drive was over the top. He was 100 percent dedicated to his art, had tremendous ambition, and was very efficient with his time. He never rested. He never sat still. He was always working, and often to his detriment, obsessed with perfection.

In college he started out writing poetry but after two years he switched his major to art. He knew then that he needed to work with his hands and not just his mind. Most of his sculpture is a feat of engineering and if you look through his sketchbooks they will both amaze and confound you. The precise measurements, the detailed lists, the mathematical formulas and equations — it's all quite mesmerizing and it makes you realize there was an enormous amount of planning and figuring things out long before a single cut of wood was ever made, or a mold cast, or a piece of steel bent. His ability to take hard materials and bend and shape them into beautiful objects made his sculptures stand out as unique.

I think his technical expertise, which was part engineering and part artistry can be traced, at least in part, to his early influences. His mother's background was in geology and mathematics, but also literature. His father was an architect. And so I think their influence on his early years, combined with growing up on the West Coast, and subsequently living in New Mexico and Florida, had a great deal to do with the way he made his art, and the materials and processes he chose to use. But regardless of materials or process, what he strived to achieve most was always a simplicity of form and concern for how that form occupied space.

Richard was always interested in the most basic of shapes, principally the circle and the triangle, but also the grid. But behind the physicality of his sculptures, and the sheer amazement at what he could do to bend and shape materials, there was more to it than that, and I think that is what gives his sculptures such presence. Behind the objects themselves, there is something else going on, something more poetic, more mysterious. There is something about them that you can sense, even if you can't quite name what it is.

click to enlarge RICHARD BECKMAN: "He was an incredibly perceptive person and artist, with a big Leo the Lion heart." - JUSTIN SMITH
  • RICHARD BECKMAN: "He was an incredibly perceptive person and artist, with a big Leo the Lion heart."
However, if you spend time with his work, and you viewed the vast majority of it, you'd see and feel that it contains a certain tension, a certain push and pull, or in some cases, a sense of "longingness", a yearning of sorts, almost as if the sculptures themselves seemed to be asking you the viewer to come closer so that they could whisper some kind of personal, and yet universal question in your ear. And so I suppose it's this sense of the poetic, along with the actual beauty and stature of the pieces themselves that lends his sculptures a certain timelessness. And it is, I think, this enduring quality in his work that made him so successful as an artist.

His explorations of materials, and the hard, defined borders of his sculptures, however, stand in strong contrast to his drawings, which were loose and gestural, especially his charcoal figure drawings which were created during undergraduate and graduate school. At times he felt that the boundaries of his sculptures and the making of them felt too confining to him, and so he was always playing around with ideas for how to make them co-exist together in the context of installation or performance, almost as if in a family, or a tribe, or as if they were anthropomorphic and could dance all by themselves, or "draw themselves" in space. And it was this dance (or sometimes battle) between chaos and order that kept him searching for just the right amount of tension between the two.

Richard was also an excellent teacher, admired and loved dearly by his students. He was also a very good writer. He kept journals and sketchbooks throughout his entire adult life, and though he didn't write as much poetry as he did in his early years, every once and awhile he would carve out a poem with such raw beauty that it would make you weep. He was an incredibly perceptive person and artist, with a big Leo the Lion heart.

But what is so ironic is that he always felt so self-conscious around other people and had a lot of anxiety involving social situations and teaching, but when you saw him in a classroom or at an art opening, he appeared totally relaxed and in his element. Outside of his art element, though, he was very uncomfortable, and often became severely depressed. Underneath the facade he was sure he never measured up. His students and fellow colleagues would tell you otherwise, though, for he never showed it, or at least it didn't seem that way. To the contrary, he was often the life of the party, for when he let loose, he really knew how to have fun; the zany Halloween outfits he donned every year, or the pink rubber suit that no one can forget as he flew through the air attached to cables at the Industrial Carnival all exhibit the playfulness he had within him, which was perhaps his only respite from the seriousness he e
click to enlarge MENTOR TO MANY: "Richard was also an excellent teacher, admired and loved dearly by his students."
  • MENTOR TO MANY: "Richard was also an excellent teacher, admired and loved dearly by his students."
ngaged in when making art.

His work is in many museums and private and public collections throughout the United States. He had major exhibitions in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. And he was on the verge, I believe, of breaking into an even larger national and international sphere of recognition. That he chose to end his life is a huge loss to the art world, the Florida art community, his students and fellow colleagues, and of course, a devastating tragedy to me and to all who knew and loved him. It has all been so incomprehensible, for he was at the stage of his career when things were going so well. But for him, chaos and order were a lifelong battle, both in his work, and in his mind, and often you could see this struggle. In the end, the battle ensued, and tragically, the chaos won.

"Nothing will ever be the same without him" is a comment I heard repeatedly following his death. And it's true. We can only imagine what his sculptures might have been these past nine and a half years had he lived to continue creating them. Instead he leaves us with his legacy, and his insights and work which will continue to inspire other artists and amaze the rest of us. His spirit lives on, and so, too, the love we have for him. I miss him beyond words, and I know we all do.
The exhibit at CAM reveals the shining star he truly was and Sarah Howard did a tremendous job of putting this exhibit together. Richard will always be a bright light for me and for all of those who had the privilege of being in his life, whether as a student, a colleague, a friend or a family member.

Look into the night sky and that's where you'll see him now, still shining bright, and he's there, too, in all of our memories and hearts.

Missing You

That touch, the cup of your hand in mine
The funny way your lip would curl
When you were looking at me with that smile that said,
"Come hither, my young Frau! My kiss awaits your lips!"

The gentle walking
Our stride perfectly synchronized.

The road trips. The get-togethers. The friends. The fun.
The walking down gravel roads
And through urban streets
And around the park by our house

The picking up rocks
And the rocks in our pockets and the rocks in our backpacks
The rocks filling up the truck!

The hours spent working. And working. And working.

The beautiful Blackberry Pies. The Quiche with the Perfect Crust
The bagel with tomatoes and cream cheese sandwich every day
The cats curled in your arms. Me curled in your arms. You curled in my arms
The Art. The Sculpture. The Music. The Songs.

Our Perfect Duet of a life.

And the Albatrosses:
The Karmann Ghia. The CD projects. The insane MFA Project
And how we struggled and worked and lived through it all

The planting bulbs in the freezing rain in Portland, Oregon, for Lola
And sitting inside warming up and having tea with her and her dog, "Sparkles"
The sitting in the backyard drinking wine or having Margaritas at the bar
The green chili, the adobe, the sagebrush and the painted desert of New Mexico
The cold bottle of beer on a hot Florida day

The laughter, the tears
The pain, the joy, the suffering

Bring it on. Bring it all on, a thousand times, bring it on
Just come back.

Come back, Come back, Come back!

Because this Missing You
It has no end.
It never stops.

I kick the water and try to stay above it
But there's no life jacket in this sea of you
Only the black bird that circles above
Keeping my eyes raised to the sky

It's you, that Black Bird circling
The one who keeps my gaze toward Heaven
It's you who keeps my eye on the sky
You who gives me the distraction
From the drowning
In the waters below

But the crow eventually flies away
And the sky eventually goes dark
And the kicking in the water comes back

And this Missing You comes back
And your kind heart comes back
And your beautiful soul comes back

And the Blackberry Pies
And the Perfect Duet
And the Sound of your Voice
And the way your hand feels in mine

It's all right there.

And for a minute I think I see you
Just out of the corner of my eye
By the tree, under the aging branch with it's new green leaves
Standing there in your jeans and your orange corduroy shirt

But then you're gone. Just like that.
Here. Then gone.

But I swear I can sense your presence
I know what I saw. You appeared. I'm sure of it.
And so I call out your name
And I look for you
With your blue jeans and your orange corduroy shirt
By the tree, under the aging branch with it's new green leaves
And I wait. And I listen.

But all I can hear is silence

Except for the wings of the black bird flying into the distance
And the crushing sound of my heart
And the breaking into pieces
And the kicking in the water
With no life jacket
In this sea of you

This Missing You

It has no end.
It never stops.

This Missing You
Is what I am.

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