Profile: Robert James Reed Jr (1938-2014)

Robert James Reed Jr. born in  Charlottesville, Virginia was an American artist and Professor of Painting and Printmaking at Yale University School of Art for 45 years. In 1987, Reed was appointed to Yale School of Art’s tenured permanent faculty making him, at the time of his death, the School’s first and only African-American to be so appointed in the School’s then 145 year history. In his artwork, Reed is known for his geometric abstraction and personalized symbols to create a language of abstraction. He employs abstract symbols, color and deeply textured brushwork to create his iconic imagery. As Reed would explain, fragments, paths, cultural and universal signs and symbols, remembered childhood images and places are organized into his imagery. His abstractions are referential and have their basis in “real” form that exists solidly in the real world in real space. His work includes paintings, drawings, monotypes, prints and collages.

Early life and education

Reed was born in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1938. He attended segregated public elementary (Jefferson) and high (Burley) schools in Charlottesville. He graduated with a B.A. from Morgan State, an historically black college in Baltimore, MD (1958). However, unable to make the final tuition payment Reed’s graduation date was recorded as 1959 when he was able to pay off what he owed. He earned his B.F.A. (1960) and M.F.A. (1962) at Yale School of Art. While at Yale, Reed studied with and was influenced by Josef Albers, Neil Welliver, and Jon Schueler. In later years, he was influenced by Philip Guston who was a colleague at Skidmore College in the mid-1960’s.

While a student at Yale, Reed was selected to attend Yale Norfolk Summer School of Art in 1960. Reed credited this summer experience as being pivotal to his development as an artist. There he meet another student, Ozer Kabas. When Reed returned to Yale at the end of the program, Kabas arranged a job for Reed working for Josef Albers. Mr. Albers, as Reed always referred to him, hired Reed to work at Alber’s studio in Yale’s Street Hall in preparing Alber’s first  Interaction of Color book. Reed’s job was doing the mixing for the plates. The plates were given to Reed and his job was to take the colors and mix them in silkscreen ink and to record the color recipes. Mr. Albers woud come in regularly and say “Yes” and “No” keeping tabs on Reed’s work. The recipes would then go to the silkscreen company.

Reed was an ardent adherent of Albers pedagogy and Foundation Studies in art which Reed continued to advocate throughout his teaching career. 

Career

Academic

Reed’s career as an art educator began as an Assistant Professor at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in 1962. This was followed by his appointment as Assistant Professor at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY from 1965-1969.

Reed’s 45 year teaching career at the Yale School of Art began in 1969 as Assistant Professor of Painting followed by appointment to the tenured permanent faculty as Professor of Painting in 1987 until his death in 2014.

Artistic

Throughout his academic career, Reed continued to be a prolific artist producing new bodies of work every 8 to 10 years. His artistic career began in the 1960’s and found early success with a one-man show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1973. A committeed abstractionist he resisted pressure in the 1970’s to create Black identity art. As Reed would state in a 1986 interview “I think of myself as an artist who is Black. An artist who goes to the same well as Black identity artists for metaphors for experiences that I have had in the stereotype Black experience. I know what it is to automatically go to the back of the bus. I know what it is to be spat on. And you find some other way or representing that.” However, Reed was, for the most part, overlooked during the Black Arts movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s. He continued to work in a self-imposed obscurity due in part to his persistence in developing his personal visual and symbolic language of abstraction; and in part to the murder of his mother and sister, his only sibling, in 1965 which left him deeply reclusive about both his personal and artistic life. 

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