Robin Antar: Robin Antar was born in Atlantic City, NJ in 1957 and has been sculpting in stone since 1974. Her mission as a sculptor is to create a visual record of modern culture through the meticulous replication of everyday objects. Once committed to stone, these commonplace subjects become monuments to contemporary life. Antar’s works have been exhibited in shows and galleries across the country, including Sotheby’s, The National Arts Club, Nabisco Gallery, Fine Art Management Enterprises, The City Museum of St. Louis, The Provincetown Art Museum, and The MGM Grand. She lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.
Tell me a little about your recent work. How do you select the objects you choose to represent?
What is America, and what’s fun? America is comfort food. Everybody loves potato chips, Oreos, Milanos, and that’s what I go after. I don’t go after a square iPhone because to me it’s boring. I like to go after something with form, mass, volume, and creases. I just did a bagel and lox.
Why stone? Why choose such a difficult medium?
Because it’s fun. Stone is fun. I started carving stone in 1974. The minute I touched that stone, I was hooked. I’ve cast things in bronze, but I don’t have total control of the process. I like when I control the whole process. Yes, it’s very expensive when you’re doing each piece as an original and you’re not reproducing. Sometimes I reproduce them in bronze. I had a collector once who bought a lot of my boots, and he said to me, “I’m buying all your boots, but I want you to make molds,” because he felt the bronzes would increase the value of the originals. So I did It. I had a guy who made the bronzes. I pretty much controlled it. When it came time to patina it, I was standing right next to him, watching him, telling him darker or lighter. So I had control.
The New York Daily News called you “Brooklyn’s answer to Andy Warhol.” Do you embrace this comparison? Would you consider yourself a Pop artist?
When it comes to American icons, I would consider myself a pop artist, but I also have another line of work with the abstracts. So, I really have two bodies of work that run side by side.
You created abstract works for many years before making the transition to realism. What motivated this stylistic shift and what is it about realism that continues to captivate your interest?
I’ll tell you why I did realism, and you’re going to laugh: I was doing abstracts. I was always against decorative work. I don’t like to produce decorative work except for my decorative bowls. I was always like, “if you do a sculpture you have to express yourself.” Even when I was fifteen or sixteen years old and I was teaching, I always said, “express yourself.” I found art to be a freedom of expression and a healing tool. While I was doing abstracts, one of my students came to me and said, “I want you to polish this boot.” I said yes, but I ended up having to re-carve the entire boot. I’d already given her a really stupid price because, like an idiot I didn’t open the bag, and, since she was a former student, I’d figured she knew what she was talking about. It was a challenge, but it turned out really well. When my middle son saw it, he said, “Ma, why don’t you do a Nike sneaker?” That was it. I sent the boot to Sketchers, and within ten minutes they contacted me asking me to make a Sketchers boot. So I did. It came out cool and I decided I was going to do another boot. Then I started doing shoes. I got into the swing of it. It was fun. I liked that when you looked at the stone sculpture and then at the real boot next to it, you had to do a double take. That’s when I knew I’d succeeded. Eventually, I decided to move to monumental. 9/11 happened and I thought, “what am I going to do to depict 9/11? I’m not doing towers, and I’m not doing flags. Everyone’s going to do a flag and everyone’s going to do the Twin Towers. Let’s do something different. What is America? America is comfort food, potato chips, Milanos, Oreos.” So, I did a bag of M&Ms. Then I carved out a six thousand pound block of stone and made a bag of potato chips. The bag is complete. It’s just waiting for a customer. I was going to take limestone, carve out potato chips, and cast them in resin the way I did my others. But now, since the technology has changed, I can take a regular potato chip, get it scanned, go to a 3D printer, blow it up, and make fifty potato chips. It’s much less expensive and much less work. That’s my plan, but I want to get someone who’s interested first so I can get it in their brand. Every potato chip is a different shape, size, and color, so I really can’t do anything until I get a commitment. It could be a cookie bag too, but I intended it to be a potato chip bag. That’s how I started. My son said, “Ma, why don’t you make a Nike sneaker?” And that was it.
You hold a BFA from The School of Visual Arts. What impact did art school have on your creative practice?
Art school was great, but I don’t think you learn anything in art school. It’s not long enough. I learned all my techniques on my own from experimenting and playing. The trick is to have some fun money. When I first started out in high school, I sold jewelry. I took leftover stone chips, made little abstract shapes, and sold them. Why did I do that? So I could afford to go to the paper store and spend two hundred dollars on complete junk. The money I made gave me the freedom to experiment. I started staining wax paper with a technique I developed, then I took that technique and I turned it to canvas, then stone. In the 1980s I almost killed myself trying to grind a stone I’d painted with flake light paint. Not so cool; the paint is full of lead. Thank God I got the flu that week and never did it. Somebody upstairs got me sick so I wouldn’t poison myself. I learned from that experience. You learn as you go. I’m still learning. Every year I go to sculpture symposiums. I love them because all you do is talk shop, and you’re always learning. It’s good to share. It’s not giving away your secrets because if someone doesn’t have the vision to sculpt the form, telling him what grinder to use isn’t going to make him a better sculptor. I had a guy come to me last week asking what tools I use and where I bought them, so I gave him a catalog. It’s not going to make him a better sculptor. Yeah, if you have the tools you can do a better job, but your vision is in your head and nobody can steal your vision or your power. People try to copy my knots all the time, and I encourage it because they’re not going to do it as well as me.
What are some resources that you wish you’d had access to, or known about, as a young artist?
I guess meet-ups and meeting artists. You keep going up the ladder. I just had an inquiry from China to do something. They found me on the Web. I couldn’t do the job because it was impossible to do that many works that fast, but people find you and you go up the ladder. You never know. Maybe next year I’ll do a project with them. You called me up for an interview—that’s something—last week I did an interview for another thing. Students call me up constantly. I do any kind of interview as long as I know the source is legit. For instance, I’ve known Artists Equity for years.
As an artist, what are the greatest advantages of living and working in New York?
You’ve got tons of opportunities in front of you. You’ve got tons of people right here. If I were in Manhattan I guess I’d really feel it, but they’re still pretty close to me.
What advice would you give to someone hoping to pursue a career as an artist?
Have a vision and never give up.
Robin reflects on the memorial she made for her son, David, and how the experience helped her heal.
This piece is called “David’s Knot in Flame.” This is the whole essence of why someone becomes and artist. Not to do a memorial for their son, but to do something where you express yourself and it heals you. This was a healing experience for me. I wouldn’t be sitting here today if I hadn’t done this piece. The sculpture started out as a fifteen-hundred pound block of stone. I began working on it nine months after David’s passing, and I was in a rage. I was in a rage because David had a heart of gold, and his passing was an accident that could have been avoided. When I started the sculptures, I wanted to make a hole from the front to the back of the stone. Usually you would take a core, a long drillbit, and measure from the angle on the side with a straight edge to make sure you’re going in the right direction. I wasn’t doing any of that shit. I was in a rage. I took a five-inch diamond wheel, didn’t even go from the front, and I just made the hole. The hole was supposed to come out eight inches higher, but I was in a rage, I was fuming mad, so I was sculpting strictly by emotion. I was hitting that stone like a maniac. I wasn’t doing it systematically. When the hole turned out 8 inches lower, it didn’t match the model, so I had to make a split. I ended up making the knot break and the flame coming from the broken knot. When you think about it, it works better as a composition than the flame coming from the side, but I didn’t intend it that way. I was in a rage. I was fuming. For me, this was a learning experience. It didn’t cure me, but it healed some of the pain. Yes, I’m still in pain. Yes, I go to his grave site and I freak out. That’s not going to stop, but the sculpture helped. When you say that somebody’s an artist, that means they can express pain in their medium and then release it.
Interviewed by Ben Stolurow