I’ve written here about a number of self-taught artists who create their work from some hidden inner core that demands expression. Some have suffered through forms of mental illness en route to their creations but perhaps none show the depth of their illness so readily as Royal Robertson, shown here in front of his home before his death in 1997.
Robertson was born in 1936 in Louisiana and trained as a sign painter. He married his wife Adell in 1955 and they produced 11 children in 19 years of marriage until Adell left Royal for another man , taking the 11 children with them. Already in the midst of his paranoid schizophrenia, this departure sent him reeling into an angry pit of despair fueling a misogynistic rage that saw him create numerous pieces featuring Adell in various forms, mostly as a whore and sometimes in a very explicit manner.
There’s a lot more than can be written about Robertson’s life and illness– the visions and alien visitations he claimed, for example– but I want to just talk about his work a bit. It’s a bit different from most self-taught or outsider artists that I have looked at in that it doesn’t settle into a recognizable self-vocabulary for him. His work seems to dart all over the place in different styles and looks , never really finding that singular voice, probably a result of the unsettled nature of his mind. It sometimes looks like comic books, sometimes like pastoral scenes that just happen to have alien crafts hovering through and sometimes just crude drawings of a naked Adell. And sometimes it will coalesce into a piece that is quite graceful. It’s difficult work of which to get a grasp, to say that it easily attracts or repels me.
One thing that did attract me was his practice of filling the backs of his work with the words of his prophecy. It reminded me very much of a piece of paper that I have around here somewhere. It was done by a man who used to come into the restaurant where I worked when I first began painting. His name was Sam and he would come in and sit at a table for hours, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. He was always disheveled and muttering, obviously possessing a disturbed mind. He was eventually barred from the restaurant for yelling at the other patrons.
But while he was there he often would have a sheet of paper on which he would make lists in a beautifully graceful manner. One day he left one and I made sure to grab it before it hit the trash. It was a wonderful piece of work. It had lists of government officials, Hollywood starlets, PGA golfers and characaters from the Godfather movies. He often called a young server, whose name was Mary, Tina Brazzi, saying that she was the daughter of Luca Brazzi, the character in the film who eventually slept with the fishes. Mary was a little uneasy about being recognized as Tina. But the sheet itself was beautiful, with lovely calligraphy and an order that belied Sam’s own mind. It’s a piece that always brings me both joy and sadness when I see it, a reminder of how fine that line often is between beauty and madness, something to which the work of Royal Robertson also attests.