Robert Swain was born in Austin, Texas, in 1940, and grew up in Arlington, Virginia. During high school in the late 1950s, he spent his summers in Guatemala and Nicaragua working on the Pan-American Highway. He attended The American University in Washington, DC, where he later received a BA in Fine Art in 1964. During his undergraduate studies, he spent two years in Madrid, Spain, studying at the University of Madrid. In 1964, he moved to Provincetown, Massachusetts, and worked as a studio assistant to the American Modernist painter Karl Knaths.
Swain moved to NYC in 1965 where he permanently settled in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood. In 1966, Swain began his first color-based work followed a year later by his first work utilizing the grid. He participated in his first group exhibition, Light and Line, organized by John Baldwin at the legendary Park Place Gallery in NYC in 1967. That same year he met sculptor Tony Smith who became his close friend and mentor for many years. In 1969, Swain began to develop his own color system, a project that continues until today.
Swain has exhibited his work nationally and internationally for more than 52 years.
His paintings have been included in countless landmark exhibitions. He participated in the seminal exhibition Art of the Real curated by Eugene Goossen at the Museum of Modern Art, NYC, in 1968. The exhibition traveled for the next two years to the Grand Palais, Paris, France; Kunsthaus, Zurich, Switzerland; and The Tate Gallery, London, England.
Swain exhibited in The Structure of Color curated by Marcia Tucker at the Whitney Museum of American Art, NYC, in 1971.
In 1974, he mounted his first solo museum exhibition at The Everson Art Museum, Syracuse, New York.
In 1974, he participated in Color as Language curated by Kynaston McShine and organized by the International Council of the Museum of Modern Art, which traveled throughout Central and South America, including to the Museo de Arte Moderno, Bogota, Colombia; Museo de Arte Moderno de Sao Paulo, Brazil; Museo de Arte Moderno, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Museo de Bellas Artes, Caracas, Venezuela; and Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City, Mexico.
His work was also twice included in the Corcoran Biennial at The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC (1969, 1998).
Swain’s work is represented in nearly 300 public and private collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Walker Art Center, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Milwaukee Art Museum, Denver Art Museum, Detroit Institute of Art, Everson Art Museum, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts, among others.
He has completed major commissions for IBM, Johnson & Johnson, American Republic Insurance Company, Schering Laboratories, Harris Bank, Travenol Laboratories, Tupperware World Headquarters, and the University of Buffalo.
He has received awards from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts (1976, 1989), New York State Council on the Arts, and the City University of New York.
In addition to his artistic work, Swain taught in the Department of Art & Art History at Hunter College from 1968-2014, where he educated and mentored countless generations of artists. For his teaching, he was awarded the Distinguished Teaching of Art Award from the College Art Association in 1998.
In 2010, Swain was the subject of a major 45-year survey exhibition entitled Visual Sensations: The Paintings of Robert Swain curated by Gabriele Evertz at Hunter College/Times Square Gallery, NYC.
In 2014, he installed a major museum exhibition of large paintings entitled The Form of Color at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, Santa Monica, CA, curated by Jeffrey Uslip.
During 2015 he had a solo exhibition at Minus Space, in Brooklyn, New York, entitled Color Energy, organized by Rosanna Martinez and Matthew Deleget.
In 2016 Swain exhibited a series of “Brush Stroke Painting” at the Nina Freudenheim Gallery, in Buffalo, New York entitled:The Sensations of Color.
In 2017 he had a solo exhibition at Minus Space, in Brooklyn, New York, entitled Color as Color, organized by Rosanna Martinez and Matthew Deleget.
In 2017-18 he exhibited his work in a solo exhibition at the David Richard Gallery, LLC entitled Color: Theory and Affect.
“French painters, he would continue, may have seen a rainbow. Nature may have given them some taste for nuance, some sense of color. But I have revealed to you the great and true principles of art. I say of art! of all the arts, gentlemen, and of all the sciences. The analysis of colors, the calculation of prismatic refractions, give you the only exact relations in nature, the rule of all relations. And everything in the universe is nothing but relations. Thus one knows everything when one knows how to paint; one knows everything when one knows how to match colors.”
– Jean-Jacques Rousseau, from The Essay on the Origin of Languages
Color is a form of energy derived from the electromagnetic spectrum that stimulates our perceptual processes and is instrumental in conveying emotions. In some instances, color is culturally encoded, projecting content through symbolism or associations. The origin for such references are found in the way that the energy (wavelengths), from a particular color, generates feeling; a physiological change produced by the wavelength (energy), of a particular color or colors. The energy which emanates from green is distinctly different from the wavelengths that define red. In some cultures, pure red is associated with danger. Feelings and attitudes created by the aggressive, radiate energy, which is unique to the red part of the spectrum. When pure red is altered, its emotional attributes change, as in the stability associated with red earth colors, or the whimsical fluctuation produced by pink. In this sense, color transmits feeling(s) through the perception of energy (wavelengths) from the electromagnetic spectrum. Freed from cultural restraints, red can be experienced by itself as a phenomenon, which possesses substantial content. When red is placed next to green, the contrast is heightened, as M. E. Chevreul has observed, and the experience resides in the energy generated by the convergence of these unique spectral wavelengths.
Robert Swain has spent his entire career devising a unique system for organizing over two thousand colors and studying how humans interact with and feel color. His approach to color is less theoretical and more empirical as evidenced by his highly systematic approach to painting over the past four plus decades. Through his rigorous evaluations, Swain has gone beyond how we perceive the physical effects of color to how we experience the emotional and physiological sensations produced by color in certain arrangements and configurations. Thus, his paintings go beyond physical observation to a phenomenological affect.
Robert Swain thinks of color as energy and a trigger for a series of physiochemical reactions in humans that results in certain sensations. Through abstract painting, Swain can uncouple color from any cultural signifier and cognitive system and examine the pure affect of color on the human psyche. The emotional and psychological ramifications result from the combination of the particular colors, their values and degree of saturation as well as adjacency to other colors, overall organization and scale. In this exhibition, two series of Swain’s paintings will be presented: the well known meticulous grids with their flat pristine surfaces and his newest all-over paintings with their lush painterly surfaces referred to as the “Brushstroke” series.
Robert Swain received a BA Degree from the American University in Washington, D. C. in 1964. Currently, he lives and works in New York City and is a Professor at Hunter College. He has had eighteen solo exhibitions, the most recent being a major retrospective at Hunter College / Times Square Gallery in 2010. His work has been included in over sixty group exhibitions, including The Corcoran Gallery of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney Museum, The Albright-Knox Art Gallery, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, among others. In 1968 he was included in The Corcoran Gallery of Art’s Thirty-First Biennial and again in 1998 for The Corcoran Gallery of Art’s Forty-Fifth Biennial. Swain’s artwork is represented in over 284 private and public collections, including The Albright-Knox Art Gallery, The Corcoran Gallery of Art, The Detroit Institute of Art, The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, The Milwaukee Art Center, The Everson Art Museum, The Denver Art Museum, The Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts and The Metropolitan Museum of Art.