He was something of a godfather to a generation of artists in these parts, one of the truly influential figures behind contemporary painting in Louisiana over the past three or four decades. He was also one of a long line of Midwestern artists who grew up in the iconoclastic Chicago tradition and ended up calling New Orleans home. In art, Chicago had always gone its own way, seemingly unimpressed by the lockstep uniformity of New York, and in New Orleans, which painter George Schmidt has so aptly described as "the capital of an empire that never was," a similar independence of spirit prevailed.
A Wisconsin native, Robert Warrens attended college in Milwaukee, just across the state line from Chicago, where he was exposed to great art museums as well as the antics of movements such as the Hairy Who. Inspired by art of the insane champion Jean Dubuffet's visit to Chicago in 1966, its art would eventually be known as Chicago Imagism. A grotesquely surreal sort of Middle American expressionism that was as coarse and outrageous as New York art was cool and urbane, Chicago Imagism seemed almost prescient by 1967, when all things outrageous and psychedelic were suddenly the rage. That was also the year when Warrens was hired by LSU in Baton Rouge after a stint in West Virginia, which must have been a shocking transition in any number of ways. But he had his Chicago Imagist outlook to fortify him and help him adapt to a brave new world as well as a colorfully crazy state.
Many of the earliest of Warrens' works at this Ogden expo date from the '80s, and the Chicago influence is still clearly visible but with numerous local modifications. Much of that had to do with the brilliant light and tropical colors, especially the sunsets he saw driving along the industrial corridor from Baton Rouge to his home in Lakeview. Warrens believed those sunsets were especially spectacular because of the pollution spewed into the air by all the refineries, and he may have been right because, as the pollutants have been reduced, our sunsets seem less blazingly colorful than they once were. But look at Warrens' paintings from the period and it's all still there, somewhat exaggerated yet a reflection of the time. The other thing you notice is how often water appears in his work. Even before it became fashionable, he focused on the environment, and in south Louisiana that meant water and lots of it.
Underwater Still Life, a chaotic and wildly colored interior with a vase of flowers and an aquarium on a table, is emblematic of his '80s style. Everything appears animated as if by some poltergeistlike life of its own, as a rising tide outside the window threatens to wash it all away. Hmmm. It's not the first premonition of the deluge in his work, and neither was it the last. Aesthetic Warrior is a self-portrait from the period depicting him clad only in a towel standing amid a blizzard of paint with a baboon on his palette and an aqua nude paddling a canoe in a puddle in his studio. This dates from a couple of decades ago, and while his work in the '90s may have mellowed slightly, the wild colors and zany compositions remained constant. In 1998 he retired, and although he kept a home in Lakeview, he built a studio on the Northshore, where his paintings suddenly became unusually serene -- an uncharacteristic turn that caused no end of angst among his fans. Was this Northshore Syndrome or what? But then, after a few years, came Katrina.
Fast-forward to the present, and his way with painterly drama effectively evokes the angry seas and flooded cities of the recent past. Searching for General Diaz in Lakeview depicts a couple in a boat looking for their home, and here the vividly expressionistic colors turn somber. Presenting 6054 General Diaz and A Dream of Lost Treasures are poignant reminders of how the things we lost to Katrina can still haunt us. But Warrens' real treasure may be an influential creativity that inspired Louisiana movements such as the Visionary Imagists as well as a generation of painters whose colorful audacity can be seen as his living legacy.
- In his painting Presenting 6054 General Diaz, Robert Warrens' Lakeview home appears as a wrecked dollhouse.