From Robert Natkin, A Retrospective: 1952-1996. Exhibition catalogue, The Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio, 1997

The earliest works of Robert Natkin, most often portraits, date back to the 1950s. “Philip Natkin, the Father of the Artist”, a pencil and charcoal drawing on paper, dates back to 1952. Portraiture for Natkin has always been an intuitive rather than a didactic process. The artist, an admittedly poor drawing student, recalls himself unable in class to master the techniques of perspective and of measurement and placement associated with traditional portraiture. He relied instead on intuition, on the more primitive process of “trial and error.” Through the working and reworking of rough scribbles and smudges, Natkin would passively experience the slow emergence of his portraits.

The specificity of “likeness” factor of portraiture was never of much interest to Natkin. Of far greater consequence was the mystery of creativity embodied in the editing process itself. The improvisational and spontaneous approach was central not only to the artist’s early, representational paintings and drawings but stands at the aesthetic core of his abstract works as well. Natkin’s process, the merging of his scumblings and marks through working and reworking is, itself, his subject matter.

When discussing his work, Natkin refers often to the “skin” of the canvas–the surface woven from the build-up of marks and smudges. In both his drawings and his paintings he strives to convey a sense of “luminous thickness” achieved through the structuring of light. This preoccupation with light and modulation has served as a leit-motif throughout the artist’s career, visible in his early drawing, in his vibrating straight-edge works, and later throughout Natkin’s Bath Apollos with their Tuneresque smokiness.

After leaving the art school at the Chicago Art Institute in 1952, Natkin began working on a series of expressionist paintings inspired by Rouault, Soutine, de Kooning, and Munch. These works, although they portray human faces, are not portraits. Natkin considers these works–“Man Eating His Hand”, for example–visceral dramas in which the canvas’s markings become as much plot as story line as the faces and the figures depicted. Indeed, the artist’s use of the human figure in these works appears almost incidental. Natkin adopted a representational format featuring non-specific figures as a means of visually communicating strong emotional content. It is the physicality of the painted surface as much as the works’ subject matter that plays a central role.

- Leda Natkin Nelis