The passing of a mentor: Robert Tiemann

by Bob West, January 7, 2017

On New Year’s Day, artist and Trinity University classmate Liz Walker tagged me in a Facebook post. She’d received word from her father that Robert Tiemann, a former professor of art at Trinity, had passed away.

My peers and I are more frequently losing our personal heroes — often our age or only ten to fifteen years our senior. Tiemann was one of those heroes for me.

I earned a Bachelor of Art degree with a concentration in painting at Trinity. I’d chosen the school partly because it had a small art department, and I wanted a program where the instruction was more personal, with less ruthless competition. So I made my academic home at Trinity, and enjoyed — as many college students do — the best time of my life.

Bob Tiemann was a huge part of that life in terms of artistic influence, even though we didn’t spend a tremendous amount of time together. I took a series of painting courses with him, and we would sometimes talk outside of class.

Tiemann — as most students called him — was a great gushing pipeline of art knowledge, in terms of methods and materials and technique and history and genres and schools and painters. He could explain why a certain abstract painting “worked” in a way that anyone could understand — and that became my standard paradigm for understanding and making abstract art.

But more than his technical explanations, his serious love of art and his enthusiasm for the work of certain painters — which his generally energetic-but-soft-spoken manner could never dim — sparked a deeper love of art in me, especially of abstract expressionism.

In 1975 to ’79, there were a variety of art movements underway, and the influences of recent movements were still bouncing around. Pop, op, minimalism, post-minimalism, photorealism, land art / earth works, postmodernism, deconstructivism, installations, color field painting, and others.

Fiberglass and resin sculpture were popular. Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol were revered, and sometimes mocked. Video was exploding in installations. Robert Smithson had recently created the Spiral Jetty — a 1500-foot earthwork in Utah’s Great Salt Lake. Christo was wrapping coastlines and curtaining off entire valleys and regions. It was a thrilling time to be an art student.

Bob Tiemann was a powerful advocate of abstract art — especially abstract expressionism. The work of the New York School was a frequent topic. Pollock, de Kooning, Kline, Rothko, Hofmann, and Motherwell were discussed and studied and enthused over and often used by Tiemann’s students as a jumping-off point — or jumping-on, for the less adventurous. The work of Kline, Pollock, and especially Rothko and Motherwell had and still have a major impact on my own work, and Tiemann’s deep thirst for and evangelism of great abstract expressionist painting were the conduit for that impact.

One San Antonio social columnist covering a 2011 gallery show said that Tiemann “used to confound his Trinity University students by teaching art-making as solving a visual problem, not seeking beauty.” While that’s a moderately accurate technical assessment of Tiemann’s formalistic approach to abstract art, that approach didn’t confound me at all… it clicked with my conscious efforts to counsel my brain’s hemispheres into a happy and productive marriage. Tiemann found beauty in a “successful” painting — even though he might not have used the B-word.

In and out of class, we discussed things like reflecting the painting’s framing edge, and — frequently — defining the surface of the painting. For Tiemann, the most important contemporary work was non-representational; it existed — and succeeded or failed — as a thing on its own, and any attempt to reflect some other object in nature or of human device was a distraction and dilution.

He knew what worked, and he instinctively knew that beauty — by any name — lives in the sum of the work’s parts, and their relationships with each other and the viewer. Beauty itself usually has an underlying layer of quantifiables, like symmetry and proportion. The golden ratio is found in nature, and in great works of art. The quantities and the quality are one and the same. Tiemann nudged me in the direction of that realization.

The language of abstract formalism is one that can break through to those who don’t have any appreciation for abstract art, and Tiemann was a native speaker. While I still don’t have nearly his vocabulary, learning what I could from Tiemann has allowed me to become an informal ambassador for abstract art. Over the years, several people have told me that after we talked about abstract work – sometimes at a museum – they finally began to understand it. As I had, they came to realize that a painting doesn’t have to “look like something,” and that success doesn’t have to be measured in terms of a work’s representation of or relationship with anything else in the world — or how “pretty” it is.

Tiemann gave me that gift, and I’ve done my best to pass it on, to open up that world to others.

When I was in college, I was still easily intimidated by authority figures, and while I was actively working on becoming more confident in social settings, I infrequently took advantage of Tiemann’s office hours and almost never engaged him socially off campus. While it was easy for others to invite a teacher for a drink – or accept an invitation – that was a difficult concept for me at the time. I had never experienced off-campus mingling of teachers students, so this college thing – this hanging out and discussing and arguing and drinking with a teacher as you would with a peer — was an entirely foreign concept for me. But, when I did connect with Bob, it was always rewarding.

His third-floor office was more of a studio — as it should have been. In my memory, the lighting was often low, and the place was pleasantly cluttered with paintings and posters and racks and boxes of materials. In the center of the room was a low box-like table over which was always draped a canvas in process. Around it were cans of paint — not artist’s paints from some over-priced art supply store, but household paints, along with things like spackling compound and a variety of objects that could be used for application or mark-making. As he chewed his short, unlit cigar, he’d fire up a hotplate and talk about how he boiled house paint, to get rid of every hint of gloss.

He would talk about three-dimensional canvases — he disliked them. He seemed to feel that painting should be painting, and sculpture should be sculpture, and never the twain should meet. I ended up taking more sculpture classes from the wonderful Philip John Evett than were actually in the curriculum — but when it comes to painting, I am still a fan of two dimensions. At the same time, Tiemann was a fan of the work of sculptor Donald Judd, and his minimal boxes and wall installations are among my favorite three-dimensional works even now. Because of Tiemann.

He did his best to draw me out and engage me, but I felt I knew too little, and I was just too afraid of sounding like a fool in these informal gab sessions. Once at a reception, Tiemann introduced me to Walter Darby Bannard, a painter he had often referred to in class. Bannard had become legend in my mind. The three of us began to discuss the work of various painters, and I managed to expose my lack of knowledge on who wasn’t a formalist and who really was. I said I’d better go before I embarrassed myself further and bowed out, even as Tiemann — with genuine empathy — encouraged me to stay and talk.

That’s what Tiemann did — he encouraged. He was an imposing figure and could be rough around the edges — stubble-faced, with cigar stump between his fingers or teeth — but he often had a ready smile and easy-going air.

Then, at turns, he challenged. He was strongly opinionated. He could tear an argument apart in seconds. Tiemann is said to have developed some sort of rep as San Antonio’s “Bad Boy” artist; he became well known for his gritty, down-to-the-bare-metal critiques of other artists. But I remember him as being unfailingly enthusiastic about students’ work, even as he guided them off in different directions. While many of us in his painting classes would go the abstract route, some would continue to develop their own style, and Tiemann was there to marvel at the level of detail or use of color. He’d often find something that could use improvement, but he also would find something to praise. He was a serious artist, and he challenged us, but he knew not to kill a young artist’s own enthusiasm.

He was, by every definition, a great teacher, and a great mentor.

I suppose you could say that I earned a Bachelor of Art degree with a concentration in Tiemann.

In 1997, I was in Santa Fe for a series of recording sessions. I’d just finished a chicken fried steak at the Plaza Cafe when I walked out onto the square – and ran into Bob. We hadn’t been in touch since I left Trinity in 1979. I was thrilled to see him, and to my surprise, he not only remembered me, but was excited to see me as well. For me, that was a major ego-boosting moment.

We talked a bit, and I found out he was there for the opening of his “Veiled Threats” show at Charlotte Jackson Fine Art. I had nowhere to be, so we walked to the gallery.

His freshly-hung work was all around me. And it was different. Tiemann had evolved, as dedicated artists do, and he was producing three-dimensional painted pieces. He was now exploring something that would have been close to anathema to him in 1978. He had retained certain motifs, like the grid, but circles had become a common feature in his work. And the work… worked.

In that same San Antonio column, the writer said, “Something more like existential pleasure shone through Tiemann’s sculptural take on his usual grid theme ….” I’d say that was about right.

Santa Fe is ridiculously photogenic, so I had my trusty SLR with me. Bob said that no one with the gallery seemed to have a camera, and asked me if I would mind photographing the show. The film I had wasn’t very sensitive, so I futzed with settings and shot each piece as steadily as I could, promising I would send him prints or slides.

And that was the last time I saw him. I’d botched nearly all of the photos — just not enough light — and I didn’t have the heart to tell him. I hope someone properly photographed the show for him. My apologies, Bob.

So now there are no more opportunities to reconnect with him, except through others and scattered articles and photos. This seems to have become a pattern: the loss of someone I never got to know as well as I would have liked. Or do most people experience this regret? I don’t know.

Because of this, and because of his influence on me, Bob Tiemann’s passing has been a little harder for me than with some others who have moved on.

But I am deeply grateful that Tiemann was a great teacher, a dedicated mentor, and an artistic hero who opened up my eyes and my mind — and those of others — to a new language and the world that speaks it. He taught me how a serious artist thinks and feels about art.

He is missed, but his influence will be felt for many years to come.