Bob Ross, perhaps the most important mainstream American artist of the 1980s, is undergoing a resurgence of late. Known to most as “the guy with the afro who was on PBS and who could paint beautiful landscape paintings in just under twenty-six minutes,” in the years immediately following his death in 1995 he was dismissed as a “television opportunist” and a “talentless hack.” Recently, however, Ross’ legacy has been strangely and gloriously revivified. Celebrating the decennial of his death, the Princeton Art Museum has launched a retrospective of Bob Ross’ work between 1965-1990.
“I think it’s time to reevaluate Bob’s contributions to the art world. His better landscapes – and there are so many of them – are as good as Whistler or any of the greats in the Hudson River School,” said Frances Follin Jones, the Art Museum’s modern curator.
Born in Daytona Beach, Florida, in 1942, Ross’ parents divorced when he was seven, and he saw his father only another three times the rest of his life. His father’s absence – and his devotion to his mother, whom he considered his life-mate – was to play an enormous role in his life’s work. “My father’s absence played an enormous role in my life’s work,” he said in a 1993 Art World interview. In an anguished haiku (throughout his life, Ross used the haiku form as a medium other than painting to express himself) Ross wrote:
“Where are you daddy
I hated you when you left
Please! I need you home.”
In his landscapes, echoes of lost innocence and childhood abound. One particular to the Art Museum’s small but rewarding show is “New England Forest,” in which a strikingly beautiful figure is seen sitting next to a lake, across from a waterfall, near a log cabin. In recent Ross criticism, it has been suggested that this beautiful woman may in fact be his mother.
Between 1965 and 1967 it is commonly thought that Ross went through a “blue period,” in which he painted predominantly watercolor landscapes (instead of the usual oil-on-canvas) because of the early and untimely death of his daughter, Melissa Ann Ross. This period is elegantly exposed through three brilliant watercolors in the Museum’s collection that showcase versatility throughout the medium.In Ross’ work, liquidity is always a factor – Ross is constantly liquefying the solid, ensuring that we see more within the landscape than initially meets the eye. A tree becomes something more than a tree; it becomes a restatement of the ideal tree, of what a tree is capable of meaning. Ross relies on density of tone to convey varying impressions of weight and speed.
Some of the pieces in the exhibit are absolutely breathtaking. “Cabin in the Woods” is one of the show’s benchmarks. In the nine-foot canvas, one can see echoes of Whistler, although it seems it that Ross actually improved upon the great American master – a task previously thought reserved only for God.
In the mid-seventies, Ross decided to undertake a series of Civil War landscapes, which were extraordinarily well-received and are also featured in the museum’s exhibition. He painted a total of eighty-seven of these, going over old photographs to get “just the right feel” for the era. The most famous of these – never featured on the PBS show – is “Log Cabin at Antietam, Flowing with Blood” an enormous, sprawling work of intricate and bloody detail. Some critics have called it the American “Guernica,” and it is certainly the highlight of this exhibition.
Ross’ pop-art is different than Warhol’s but no less influential. He influenced a whole generation of artists, from Eduardo Whitmore to Dahlia Kohan. Throughout his work, there is a constant and consistent homage to the Hudson River School, which served perhaps as Ross’ largest influence. Echoes of Thomas Cole abound in Ross’ work, though Ross’ revolutionary style is clearly demarcated at every turn.
Ross’ first major show was curated at the Whitney, and despite his prolific nature, at a recent American painters’ auction at Sotheby’s two well-known Ross lithographs fetched well into the seven figures. Much of the art is on loan from the Bob Ross Institute of America (based in Tuscon, Arizona), where Ross donated most of his paintings following his untimely death. The Art Museum’s exhibition is surely the most in depth Ross retrospective in years – it is a coup de grace for the University, and flocks of people are already taking the train in from New York to see it.
In 1991 – three years before his death – Ross gave up painting to focus himself entirely on his poetry, writing a series of widely-translated haikus in 1992 (though they were only published posthumously). In “The Lost Decalogues,” he wrote:
“Cabins and forests
are so calming and peaceful,
Lay my bones to rest.”
The Bob Ross retrospective – entitled “Television Art” – will be shown at the Princeton Art Museum until December 13, 2004.