Robert Cole Caples was a legend in Northern Nevada before he left for Connecticut in 1958. An expatriate from New York City, he studied at the Art Students League and participated in the Federal Arts Project during the Great Depression. Caples worked in a variety of media including painting, etching, and charcoal, and he penned and illustrated The Potter and His Children, a book that failed to reach appreciative readers. On the other hand, his portfolio, "People of the Silent Land: A Portfolio of Nevada Indians," published by the University of Nevada Press in 1972, is sought by collectors to this day.
Below is reprinted with permission from the Nevada Historical Society Quarterly.
Nevada Historical Society Quarterly
Volume 33, summer 1990, Number 2
Marcia Cohn Growdon
ROBERT COLE CAPLES (1908-1979)
Robert Caples was gone from Reno
by the time I encountered his elegant mixed-media desertscapes in 1978. Following Caples's death in 1979, I had the opportunity to come to know him, through the memories of his wife Rosemary and his many friends and through his own correspondence, notes, and writing. His art tells all who will look that he was a quiet, reflective man. He was also personable and had many friends with whom he maintained lifelong connections over time and distance, and with whom he shared his distinctive sense of humor.1
Walter Van Tilburg Clark
, in an essay written for a 1964 retrospective of Caples's work at the University of Nevada, Reno, chronicled Caples's life and development as an artist.2
Reared in New York City, Caples studied briefly at the National Academy of Design, and then at the Art Students League. He joined his father, a doctor, in Reno in 1924, later attending the Community Arts School in Santa Barbara. Returning to Reno in 1929, he set up a studio in the Clay-Peters Building on North Virginia Street. In addition to being a landscape artist, he became a successful portrait artist; but the portraiture began to bother him. He discovered that he was not interested in any particular landscape view, but in a landscape that was an essence of landscape, that captured, as Caples told Clark, "chunks of shadow, pieces of mountain, clouds and stuff." He began to draw American Indians for similar, "impersonal reasons." The "sketches became less and less portraits. They sought Indian, not single Indians." The portrait business came to an abrupt end.
As an employee of the first Federal Arts Project during the Great Depression of the 1930s, Caples continued to draw American Indians. In the second Federal Arts Project, he was an administrator, a position which put him in contact with many artists, continued his education, and helped him resolve the directions of his own art. An interlude at Indian Springs, near Las Vegas, was cut off by World War II.3 After service in the navy, further time at the Art Students League in New York, and recuperation from a long illness, Caples returned to Reno. In the decade of the 1950s, Caples's painting came of age.
Caples's paintings from the 1930s are a fresh, pleasing assimilation of some of the major styles evolving among such artists as Edward Hopper, Stuart Davis, or John Marin, and even the regionalists like Thomas Hart Benton or Grant Wood. Views of Virginia City
in all the subtle greys and roses of worn wood and faded paint show Caples playing with some of the spatial concepts first tested by the cubists, or creating an airless, timeless view of the village reduced to the very geometric essence of structures. He continued for some time to draw American Indians, and the University of Nevada Press published two portfolios.4
In the 1950s and 1960s he created elegant, haunting landscapes that portrayed no place in particular, but were precise distillations of the desert, mountains, and dramatic atmospheric effects experienced in the desert. Space is at once telescoped and expanded infinitely. The substance of the mountains and the volume of air are sucked out in favor of the essence of mountains and glowing atmospheric effects. Later, he painted a series of mixed-media works on board that dealt with the cosmos; they look like images of stars and galaxies seen through a powerful telescope, or like tracks of subatomic particles exploding across the surface of a powerful microscope.
As Van Tilburg Clark stated, "the attractions of line, form, light, shadow ... not for themselves ... but as ways of gathering in reality, took hold of Robert Caples very early." Caples dealt with those issues over and over in his art. He was a very private person, and few—not even close friends—ever saw him at work in his studio. We get glimpses of Caples at work from his letters. Always it is light and pattern that occupy him. Discussing his drawings for a mural of pictographs made from iron and designed for the school at McDermitt, Nevada, Caples says that it was to have been
a series of iron shapes ... affixed to a cement block wall ... comprising one sunlit facet of a school being built ... The sun was an important factor in the planning behind the project. All the forms ... were to have been attached by metal pins driven into the wall ... all held the same distance away from the wall. [They] would have cast shadows immediately behind them, adding (I hoped) an element of "flat depth" to the dozen or more shapes arrayed along the fifteen foot high wall.5
Later, turning down a mural commission, Caples wrote friends, commenting on having recently seen a large mural (mid-1960s) he did not like. "It depressed me. I thought at the time, how pleasant if a pattern of shadows and white light could be projected on a wall, a thing that would emerge or devolve depending upon the amount of light in the room." He mused as to whether a lighting expert could control such a happening:
I can see it in my mind's eye rather better than I can describe it—a pattern of cool gray shadows in a long pool of light—and then, with cool lights, warm shadows superimposed ... The last time we were looking about in the Metropolitan Museum I found the shadows cast by the exhibits far more timelessly compelling than the exhibits themselves. It's another world behind the glass cases—forms mingle and reinforce themselves in the most stately and untroubled way on the flat wall ... It made the guards nervous so I stopped staring. But there it was—the same magic; complexities projected weightlessly through empty space and coming to life again in regions of flat depth—in terms that met the demands of the wall as perfectly as a branch of bamboo painted by old Su Shih himself.
In Caples's studio there were hundreds of small note cards with quotations he found intriguing or comments of his own. Clark quotes some found on the studio wall: "The line has an infinite expression but limited duration—it has life-force but not life-spirit. The line is exclusive. The circle has finite extension but infinite duration—a living continuity—it too has life-force, but of a fluid kind. The circle is inclusive. The line is logical, direct, uncompromising. The head. The circle is adaptive, non-direct, emotional. The heart." On another card we find: "The Image is actual; the object is 'factual.'" 6
Always, Caples is interested in pattern—in the pattern of our living, in the patterns of our world and of the cosmos. His art deals with pattern; he comes to it over and over again in his writing, in letters to friends, in his recreational pleasures (like chess), and in his book on the Potter.7
The Potter and His Children, an allegory of creation, is a work that engaged, even obsessed, Caples for many years. He began it at least twice in the 1950s, and there are a couple of finished chapters among his papers. After moving to Connecticut in 1958, Caples put aside all other interests to write and illustrate the book, which was published in 1971 by Carlton Press, New York. There are hundreds of preliminary drawings in Caples's estate, delightful ink drawings of animals, children, and the Potter, all in a freer style than the elegant finished drawings of the published text.8 Many readers have been baffled by the book, which has a complex story, seemingly beyond the reach of a child. Caples thought otherwise. In a letter to an anonymous reader he wrote that he thought of the Potter's story as "an amiable Creation myth." He admits the story is simple and the pace deliberately slow. "Too simple for most." But the author/artist is working on many levels—delving in word and illustration toward that same core he sought in his landscapes.
Except for The Potter, Caples did not paint after moving to Connecticut in 1958. He did continue to reflect and write on the process of making art. In a letter to a Reno friend, Caples wrote:
Something I heard (or read) many years ago: "a successful painting will share in equal measure those elements of response that are both intellectual and emotional—the statement must be balanced between these two." One could hardly ask for a more agreeable arrangement of words, and they meant next to nothing to me for a long time. Later, much too late ... it came to me that there was something lurking in there after all ... I'd been saying it but not seeing it truly ... I incline to think that the heart's image is the truer image, that those things "heard with the blood" are nearer the center of things than those things more carefully handsomed-up by the "educated" eye ... I've come to distrust the objective eye: it's not sufficiently involved in the deeper substratum of things. I think, if I were to paint again—which is highly unlikely—that I would rearrange the ... equation referred to above and bend it in favor of the ancient inward eye—the one that was fixed on that inward Dragonengendered light long before painters began to concern themselves with a tricky third dimension ... It's not that I would dismiss surface appearances ... It's just that one begins to sense the flowering orchard at the core—the galaxies of petals, the weight of summer, the dark branches supporting snow ... There is a great dance going on behind the mask of things. My obedient mind tells me that we all share a heavenly saucer, brimming with wonders and held aloft in empty space by the space of God. My head tells me that Nevada does not swing free of our globe, like a mountainous rat floating on blue air—but my heart speaks differently. I'm reasonably sure that sage does not squint on windy days or that thunder will [not] dislodge stone—I can only say that things feel this way.
1. Caples's love of whimsy is perhaps a surprising discovery to those who know him only by his formal artwork. He used humorous drawings of animals to mock human foibles. His own signature sometimes turned the R into a fish wielding a paintbrush and the C into a palette wrapped around another little figure with a raised brush. He sent cards with funny doodles and quotes to friends. Caples and a friend designed a business card for the fictitious partnership of Mike & Nardo: "Exterior and Interior Painting; Stonework a Specialty. You Catch the Ceiling, I'll Catch the Wall. M. Buonarroti and L. da Vinci, Piazza di Medici Evenings." The printer wanted to know if they didn't want to add their phone number. Caples declined without explanation. For illustration, see Robert Cole Caples, The Artist and the Man: An Exhibition Organized by the Nevada Museum of Art [formerly Sierra Nevada Museum of Art]. Essay by Marcia Cohn Growdon. Nevada Museum of Art, Reno, NV, 1982, 6.
2. Robert Cole Caples: A Retrospective Exhibition 1927-1963. Foreword by Walter Van Tilburg Clark. University of Nevada, Reno, 1964. No pagination.
3. Caples's house at Indian Springs reflected his whimsy, being an improbable structure he constructed himself from leftovers, the roof anchored by driftwood. It was topped with a carving of a long reptilian creature of ambiguous origin, from which came the name of this magnificent abode, The Lizard.
4. People of the Silent Land: A Portfolio of Nevada Indians (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1972).
5. Quotations from correspondence are clearly indicated. Letters are either held by their recipients, who wish to remain anonymous, or by the estate. Caples rarely dated correspondence. This particular letter is from the 1970s in reference to a study for the McDermitt mural now held in the Great Basin Collection of the Nevada Museum of Art, Reno.
6. Growdon, Robert Cole Caples: The Artist and the Man, 5.
7. With the game of chess, Caples's art and recreation merge. He designed and patented two chess sets, economical and ingenious in their design. One, machined from steel, has conical-shaped pieces that fit inside each other. The other has wooden shapes that interlock to create a block, a three-dimensional wooden puzzle. See Growdon, Robert Cole Caples: The Artist and the Man, 5, for illustrations.
8. For illustrations, see Growdon, Robert Cole Caples: The Artist and the Man, 12 and 15.