As a boy growing up in Sumter, Robert Courtright dreamed of being an artist and visiting places far beyond the town limits.
Guided by his talents, Courtright would use both of these dreams to create a world-renowned career, spreading his unique work with masks and monochromatic collages throughout the world.
The artist, painter and sculptor, who was a Sumter native, died Thursday in France, where he had lived for decades.
After studying at the Art Students League and the New School for Social Research in New York and at St. John’s College in Maryland, Courtright visited Europe in 1949 before moving abroad in 1952.
Drawing from both the Mediterranean Romanesque architecture he sought out near his eventual home in southern France, and his fascination with Commedia dell’ Arte, Courtright embarked on a career of more than 60 years.
“I’ve always been terrifically influenced by Italian 14th and 15th century artists, but there are very few artists I don’t find interesting,” Courtright said in a 1983 interview with The (Sumter) Item newspaper, while also pointing out he tried to create his art by allowing the work to take over the effort, rather than trying to impose a theme.
“I am trying to create a picture, the same way you would write a sonnet,” Courtright said.
The 1943 graduate of Sumter High School first gained attention for what he liked to call his “collage constructions.” In these works, layers of materials such as French paper, special marble paste, cotton rag paper and acrylic are held together loosely to create a floating effect. Found materials also were popular for Courtright’s collages.
In the 1970s, Courtright began to turn his attention toward creating artistic masks, which he said was first inspired by a set of dime-store French carnival masks he spotted in Nice, finding them both haunting and engrossing.
This led to acclaimed exhibitions in New York and Paris, before spreading throughout the world. Courtright’s work is currently represented in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, among others.
During his long career, Courtright had ongoing gallery representation in New York, Paris and other cities.
Courtright has remained close to old acquaintances in South Carolina, and in recent years made new friends and fans in his home state.
For South Carolinians, Courtright’s acclaimed work was best displayed in 2009, when one of the largest and most comprehensive exhibitions of his work ever mounted – “Robert Courtright: Collages, Collage Constructions and Masks 1953-2008” – was held at the South Carolina State Museum.
The retrospective show featured more than 100 pieces, from early collages and masks to new constructions made specifically for the exhibition. It was on display for six months, offering South Carolinians a rare look at Courtright’s work.
“With this exhibit he returned to his home state to bring back part of what he learned in other parts of the world, combined with the parts of South Carolina culture he took into the world with him,” the museum’s chief curator of art, Paul Matheny, said at the time.
Recognizable images in his collages gave way in the 1960s to more abstract work, which remained the core of his art.
His collages usually are grids of colored paper, each lightly attached to a support rather than overlapping as in traditional collage. Although these pieces are monochromatic, each piece of paper has color and texture variations.
Some collages are made of recycled paper, some bleached out but at times giving glimpses of their previous incarnations. Some newer works involve heavier, high-grade paper that has been painted, sanded and painted again.
“I think his collage work is directly related to the whole tradition of abstract painting,” Pavel Zoubok of the Pavel Zoubok Gallery, Courtright’s gallery in New York, told The State newspaper in February 2009. “What’s interesting about his work is that we usually don’t associate collage with reductive or minimalist aesthetics.”
Courtright created three large pieces – among the biggest he ever made – specifically for the State Museum show.
After helping install the work and attending the opening reception, he headed to Edisto Beach, where he had gone since he was a kid, to make more art.
State staffers contributed to this report.