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Robert Kushner

IT is early on a weekday morning, and on the fifth floor of a converted loft building a little north of New York's East Village and less than a block from Fifth Avenue, the Robert Kushner household is beginning to stir into action. Eleven-month-old Lila, having just finished her breakfast, is being dressed by her father for an excursion with the baby sitter. Six-year-old Max, his attention evenly divided between one of the family's three cats and his food, finally finishes the latter and leaves the table to ask his mother a question. And Ellen Kushner, preoccupied with thoughts of the day's activities, still manages somehow to come up with an acceptable answer.

Nothing could be more typical or ordinary than this scene of early-morning domesticity. With slight variations, it is being repeated, at this very moment, in millions of homes throughout the United States.

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And indeed, no mention of it would be made, were it not that the father in this little episode is neither typical nor ordinary.

Robert Kushner is, in fact, one of America's most talented and successful younger artists.

He wears his success easily, despite the fact that his list of credits -- acquired over his roughly 15-year career -- runs to more than 14 closely typed pages and grows more impressive every year. The number of American and European museums that either own or have shown his paintings, drawings, or prints expands significantly from season to season, and his numerous solo and group gallery exhibitions both here and abroad have made his name almost as well known in Italian, English, and German art circles as in those of Los Angeles and New York.

For the moment, however, all that is of little consequence. It is a little after 9 a.m.; family time is over, and an unfinished painting awaits Kushner's attention.

His studio is a large, rectangular room a short distance down a hall from the kitchen and next to Ellen's almost equally large studio, where she teaches yoga and corrective exercises. Except for its paint-spattered floor, painting materials near one of the windows, and a few drawings and color studies tacked to its walls, it doesn't seem at all like the kind of place in which art is made.

It is bare for a reason, however. Since Kushner prefers to work directly on the floor -- often on huge, unsized, and unstretched canvases that take up a great deal of space -- it is essential that his studio be kept as uncluttered as possible.

There is also the problem of very young children and of pets, both of whom have been known to wreak havoc in artists' studios. By keeping his room clear of anything that might prove irresistible to little hands or paws, he guarantees that what he produces will remain as he intended.

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On this particular morning, one of the narrower walls is almost entirely covered by a richly patterned and brilliantly colored 10-by- 20-foot abstract painting -- which, upon closer examination, turns out to be a lively figurative work consisting of various fabrics stitched together and worked over in strategic places with acrylic paint.

On an adjacent wall hangs another huge canvas in the first stage of its development, since it is bare except for a few broadly sketched-in figures.

``Fallen Angels,'' the finished piece, also began as an oversized line drawing. Working within its guidelines, Kushner fleshed out its forms with a wide variety of fabrics, always remaining alert to what occurred when particularly exotic patterns, textures, shapes, or colors came together. If a portion of a sumptuous Japanese kimono, a piece of thick plaid, a bit of lace curtain, and an area of textured paint overhung with tassels related well in combination, fine and good. If not, he had countless numbers of other combinations to try out.

Such flexibility has always characterized both Kushner and his art. ``I began as a performance artist [performing on stage with dancers], after all,'' he responds, when asked about his unprejudiced approach to art, ``and so keeping an open attitude toward anything creative is nothing new to me.

``Just as important, I come from southern California. Art is treated differently there than in the rest of the country. People are more informal about it, more willing to let it go off in new directions or even at a tangent. And don't forget, I started out as a biology major, so I had fewer preconceptions about what art is or should be. It was only later, when I got to know the art faculty at the University of California at San Diego, that I discovered how much I loved art and switched to become an art major.''

Once he knew what he wanted, however, he acted swiftly and unerringly. He moved to New York in 1970, and within a year, his performances, featuring fanciful costumes made by him and worn by the groups of dancers, had established him at age 22 as an up-and-coming talent.

Unfortunately, being a performance artist -- even a successful one -- didn't pay the bills. And so in 1972, after periods in Boston and California, he returned to New York and a job, first as dessert chef, then as chef, and finally as manager of a restaurant. This work didn't squeeze out his art, however. In addition to his performances (which lasted through the decade), he continued to paint, to make collages, and, increasingly, to draw on fabric.

In 1974 he went to Iran. ``What I saw there changed my life,'' he states unequivocally. ``For the first time I realized that decoration [as seen in Persian rugs and architecture] could be art. I had always looked down on it, had thought it minor, even unimportant. But those 2 months in Iran changed my mind completely. Everything about Islamic art excited and challenged me, from the incredibly beautiful designs on their buildings to the tribal costumes worn by Iranian women.''

Back in New York, Kushner immediately began to translate his newfound respect and enthusiasm for decoration into his own colorful and richly patterned form of art. Before long, his paintings on -- and incorporating -- fabrics began to attract serious attention. Among the first to respond was Holly Solomon, who was already one of New York's most open-minded and free-spirited art dealers, and soon to become one of its most influential as well.

Kushner acknowledges her importance to his career. ``I owe so much to Holly,'' he declares. ``Even before she became my dealer, she had been buying my things, making it possible for me to only work part time. But it was more than that. She was very supportive. She trusted me. And so, when she offered me a show in 1976, it was the most natural thing in the world to accept.''

His exhibition came at a most auspicious time. The art world was changing rapidly. Formalism (the approach to art which puts the primary emphasis on the structure of the form), in general, and Minimalism (a movement that advocated reducing idea and expression to their purist, simplest forms), in particular, were out. Greater individuality and spontaneity were coming back in.

More specifically, for the first time in decades -- since the French painter Matisse had temporarily legitimized it -- the word ``decorative'' was no longer viewed automatically as a pejorative term.

The stage was set for what Kushner and a handful of like-minded artists wanted to do. Heading the list was the desire to give greater validity and importance to the decorative impulse, to take it out of the realm of craft, where it supposedly belonged, and into that of art.

``We were angry that any form of decoration, no matter how beautiful, was inevitably considered inferior -- or even nonart,'' he recalls. ``It seemed so terribly unfair, even sexist -- as though decoration, because of its association with work done by women, represented a primarily feminine sensibility, and so couldn't possibly be as important as the kind of art that expressed what was perceived as an essentially male point of view.'' Kushner and the others wanted to change all that.

The art world was obviously ready for what they had to offer. Success came quickly to this small band of ``pattern painters,'' as they were often described, with an increasing number of solo and group shows of their richly decorative paintings opening to generally good critical response every year.

Things have only become better since then. Kushner's reputation, in particular, has grown steadily. And with good reason, for his expansive, holistic attitude toward art, with its emphasis on cultural continuity and renewal as well as on change, stands in marked contrast to the more purely novel, theoretical, or self-serving positions of many of his contemporaries.

Kushner is represented in almost every major survey of contemporary art, and it is difficult to find a print show that doesn't have at least one of his pieces in it. His exhibitions in Venice and London last year and in Cologne, West Germany, this April were well received, and future plans include a display of his bronze sculpture at the Holly Solomon Gallery next spring, a show in Paris, and a ``career summary'' at Philadelphia's Institute of Contemporary Art.

Throughout, he has remained remarkably modest and open, traits he attributes to his practice of meditation. ``The art world is so intense,'' he explains, ``and success can be so distorting, that I need something to help me maintain a sense of proportion.

``I have a full life,'' he concludes. ``My career is going well. I support myself entirely though my art. And there are so many new ideas, art forms, and artists to investigate. I'm going to try my hand at ceramics and will continue to draw as much as I can. And then, of course, we have the house in the country, where we spend many of our weekends and the entire summer. It's not a grand life, but it's a good one.''

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