Robert Mallary became a central figure in the Neo‑Dadaist assemblage and junk art movement that followed on the heels of Abstract Expressionism. In an idiosyncratically dark vocabulary, he combined fragments from his surroundings with the pioneering use of resin to create moody, allusive meditations on the nature of materiality and the contemplation of transience.
Born in Toledo, Ohio, Mallory studied art from childhood. As a teen, he developed an interest in the Mexican muralists that led him to Mexico City in his 20s to study with José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Inspired by Siqueiros’ advocacy for the use of technology in art, Mallary began experimenting with plastics in 1938 and by the 1940s and 50s was making luminescent sculptures with Lucite, acetate, fiberglass, and liquid plastics. While teaching in Los Angeles, Mallary exhibited paintings made of polyester at the Urban Gallery, New York, in 1954, and was included in three annuals at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Until the late 1950s, he spent time in New Mexico teaching and making reliefs incorporating sand and straw with polyester resin on semi-rectangular panels that alluded to the region’s landscape and petroglyphs. In a catalog for the New Mexico University Gallery’s 1956 exhibition Forty California Painters, Mallary said “I am inclined to believe that my recurrent ‘black’ paintings must reflect a kind of existential viewpoint in a philosophical sense,” a trait that would be central to his 1960s work.
In 1959, Mallary took a teaching position at Pratt and moved to New York, where he would combine the brooding weight and density of the New Mexico abstractions with ephemeral urban detritus, creating works that established him among the core artists exploring junk art, such as John Chamberlain, Richard Stankiewicz, Claes Oldenburg and Lee Bontecou. Encountering New York with mixed feelings, “the place hit me with an impact that was both numbing and hyper-stimulating,” he adapted to his new, confronting environment by “assimilating as much of the city directly into my work as I could…images suggested by old walls, encrusted and peeling paint and the erosion and fractured configurations of sidewalks and streets” (catalog for Contemporary Urban Visions, New School Art Center, 1966). Resin provided a physical permanence and a means to present fragile, fragmentary and eroded subjects: trash, cardboard, cloth and clothing, gravel and dirt, wood scraps. By melding these diverse and humble sources with polyester resin as a binding agent, Mallary sought to reconcile structure, gesture and content, in ways not unlike his abstract expressionist forebearer Franz Kline, whose paintings combined energetic brush work with architectonic forms originally inspired by his surroundings.
While his work had intuitive, dynamic and experiential qualities akin to Abstract Expressionism, Mallary’s interest in the associative potential of materials, their physical presence and allusive effects, distinguished him as a unique voice among the varied artistic experimentations in New York of the late-1950s and 1960s. In 1959 Mallory was included in two Museum of Modern Art exhibitions Sculpture U.S.A. and Sixteen Americans, followed by a 1960 Guggenheim International Award and exhibition. In 1961, Mallary’s work was featured in Life magazine and the Museum of Modern Art exhibition Art of Assemblage. At Allan Stone Gallery he had three solo shows in the 60s and a group show with sculptors John Anderson, César and John Chamberlain. By 1968, Mallary was also included in five annuals at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the VII Bienal de Sao Paolo, the Seattle and New York World’s Fairs, and had a retrospective at SUNY Potsdam.
Due to illness, Mallary gave up the use of resin, writing an essay about the hazards of materials for artists, and shifted his focus to other mediums including bronze casting. He turned to computers as a tool for making art, exhibiting in London in 1968 one of the first computer-designed sculptures. He continued to write, lecture and develop software for creating sculpture. From 1967 until his retirement in 1996, Mallary taught art at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He died in Northampton, MA in 1997.
Mallary’s use of new polymers and plastics in combination with overtly low-tech materials expanded creative inroads for both technology and democratized sources. By assimilating dirt and grime in his works and surmounting their effects, he assimilated time and entropy as subjects, claiming them as part of the content of the work. His works’ anthropomorphic references and undercurrents of doom, both in the imagery and in titles sourced from classical mythology, invoked enduring ideological quandaries. Ultimately, the significance of Mallary’s work persists because of the transitory nature of its origins, a condition that resonates in its paradox.