Robert Richenburg decided early in life that he wanted to be an artist. His studies at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, DC, and the Art Students League of New York were interrupted in 1942 by the draft. During World War II, he served as a US Army combat engineer.
Back in New York by 1947, he studied with Hans Hofmann where he encountered European modernism and was introduced to its intersection with abstract expressionism. Through his teaching at the Pratt Institute alongside older artists like Adolph Gottlieb and Philip Guston and socializing with New York School painters like Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, Richenburg was squarely in the vortex of abstract expressionism.
Richenburg’s greatest success were his so-called “Black” paintings. His breakthrough came in 1958–59 when he would paint a color abstraction, then cover the entire surface with black. Later he scraped, peeled, or scratched off the dried pigment to reveal bursts of vivid color below. He sometimes also added another layer of black paint, creating grids or structures to channel and release the dynamic energy he sought to create in his work.
Richenburg made more than sixty “Black” paintings over seven years while continuing to explore new approaches. Solo exhibitions at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, Richenburg’s then dealer, were held almost every year from 1959 to 1961 and 1962 to 1964, and his paintings were included in group shows at the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum, and the Whitney Museum.
Then in 1964, after a disagreement with administrators who considered his teaching methods too freewheeling and experimental, he resigned from his position at the Pratt Institute. This, with the waning of abstract expressionism’s popularity, led to his departure from New York and a new teaching job at Cornell University. He taught in Ithaca for the rest of his career, briefly moving back to New York in 1967 to teach at Hunter College, and then returning in 1970 to Ithaca College until his retirement in 1983.