Robert Engman was raised in Arlington, Massachusetts, the son of a tool and die maker. The metalworking skills he learned as a boy and young man were invaluable when he found sculpture to be the career path he desired to follow during his graduate training at Yale University. He created many pieces over the years, which can be found in collections and museums around the world. During that time, he was also a popular professor at Yale and the University of Pennsylvania. His sculpture is distinctive, characterized by organic shapes connected and defined by warped and curvilinear planes.
The following is excerpted from Theme and Variations: Robert Engman Sculpture by Robert Engman, Nancy Porter and Anders Engman (Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2016):
My involvement with sculpture began in 1954 at Yale University. Josef Albers ran the Graduate School of Art and Jose de Rivera was the major force in the study of sculpture at the school. Jose was widely admired for his elegant work and was an important factor in my discovering the path I have taken in sculpture in the years since. De Rivera said that the creative act could only be achieved by the individual without the clear inspiration of his teachers. He said that when this happened, when the source of the design came solely from the artist, then the result would be a work of art that had never existed before.
I worked hard to find my own path in sculpture in the early years, but found myself making work that was reminiscent of others, specifically de Rivera and the German sculptor Max Bill. Albers would look at my work and remind me that I was “following” and not “finding,” that if I continued on this path, my work would be thought of as derivative of others. During the summer of 1955 Albers had left for Germany and I was desperate, working alone at Yale in the basement of Street Hall. I tried to simplify my approach and thought, what would happen if I simply bent this thing, and if I bent it, what would happen if I bent another one just like it and stuck them together? It wasn’t a question of thinking of forms as much as it was the consequence of the process. I took a sheet of brass that was ¼” thick and about a foot square. I started to hammer the edges with a cross-peened hammer, which spread the metal as it struck it. I continued hammering about ¼” each row all the way around, which warped the sheet because the hammering had increased the surface area along the edge. Gradually the two opposing corners of the sheet came up and touched, and a new form was created.
When Albers returned from Germany at the end of the summer, he asked me if I had done any work and I showed the piece. He seemed very pleased at what he saw and said, “Now you are on your way.”
Everything that takes place happens in a sequence. We age in time. Plants grow in time. They become bigger and mature in time. After I made the first form, I probably produced a dozen or so related forms. Then I started to realize what was happening. Each of these was a growth experience in my mind. I was starting to accumulate a notion of sequence in these shapes. They were evolving.
As I made something, it did two things: it answered the question of why it occurred in the first place, but it also asked the question, “What’s next?” A lot of times, it was more than one thing offering several possibilities. It becomes a circle this way and a circle this way, with two holes that are this way in the center. I thought to myself, That’s amazing! I didn’t add anything. I didn’t take anything away. It was absorbed, controlled action.
For the past ten years I have been working on a series of small pieces, working in a scale that is reduced in size from earlier pieces allows me to experience more of the formal relationships than before. By reducing the physical size of the pieces, it has allowed for a quicker development of certain principles that each piece represents. The future presents the opportunity for many more variations.