The current work of Truro-based artist Robert Cardinal is a solid series of mature paintings, simple scenes of manmade objects in nature. His harmonious compositions blend complementary colors with definite, deliberate, and controlled lines and confidently rendered shapes lit by morning or evening sunlight. Despite the current pandemic and moving his Provincetown gallery after 28 years in the same location, the 83-year-old Cardinal continues to probe his art, experimenting with new ways of rendering his subjects.
Born in Montreal, Cardinal moved to Greenwich Village in the 1960s. He speaks fondly of working the counter at Café Figaro on the corner of Bleecker and MacDougal streets, remembering with amusement the assembled painters arguing the “big” questions of the day, such as “Why are we artists?” Those were the days, perhaps, but success didn’t come immediately for Cardinal.
“The beginning is tough,” he says. “Knocking on a gallery door and asking if they want to show your work, they give you that look that makes you feel like a bug. But if you stay with it and you’re very true to the way you paint, eventually, things come around.”
He lived his life riding an artist’s trajectory. He followed his peers to Paris, thinking it was a good idea, since, as a Quebecois, he spoke French. He lived in Montparnasse, studying for five years at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière before returning to New York. There, a bunch of his friends were going to Provincetown, a place he’d never heard of, where they could make money doing portraits on the street.
“In those days, you could trip over the easels on Commercial Street,” Cardinal says. That’s how he discovered Provincetown.
This was the 1970s, and Cardinal says that there were two things working in an artist’s favor in Provincetown: the light that all artists rave about from being surrounded by water, and a market for art. “There weren’t many galleries in those years, but you could make a living selling paintings,” Cardinal says. “We’d find a building, take it over for a weekend, and display our art.”
Cardinal became a Provincetown fixture. He continued painting and opened Kiley Court Gallery, which at one point represented 21 artists. (Now, there are 12, including his son, Julian; the gallery is moving because of reduced space at its former location.) Cardinal’s work is heavily influenced by Maxfield Parrish and Edward Hopper, he says — the former for his palette, and the latter for how he could render a complex scene with simplicity.
Cardinal starts with 9-by-12-inch studies painted on location in oil, working quickly, maybe only for 20 minutes per sketch, because the light he wants doesn’t last long. Then it’s back to the studio, where he’ll determine what to work on.
“Not all small paintings can become big ones,” Cardinal says. “The more you labor on a painting, it just dies in front of you. The poor little painting is telling you, ‘Please leave me alone.’ ”
He continues to experiment to this day. He’s now painting larger canvases and more minimally, which makes him concentrate on his colors. The larger works demand more physicality, but, Cardinal says, that also gives the painting more energy.
And the more he can leave out of a painting, the better he feels about it. “I like to let the viewer finish the painting, so I stop a little earlier. That way, the viewer doesn’t get bored with it,” Cardinal says. “You have to realize that when we paint a painting, we might spend a week or two on it, but the person who buys it will spend years looking at it. Eventually, that person will know the painting better than I did.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has, of course, affected Cardinal. His age makes him vulnerable to the virus, so he has isolated himself from his family, sequestering himself in a cottage he’s fortunate to have on his property. There’s a garden where he can meet at a safe distance with his family.
“At the beginning it was tough to paint,” he says, “because I’d be thinking of other things, as we all were. But I’m getting used to it. I try not to watch the news too much and come to the studio for peace.”
Cardinal laments the new, different world. “Provincetown was famous for its Friday night openings, but that’s not going to happen this year,” he says. His wife, Barbara, and daughter, Camille, run the family’s gallery, and they’re in the middle of dealing with the opening of the new space, down the block at 398 Commercial St., during the pandemic.
“We are ready to open with the approval of the state and the town, and our plan is to allow one or two people in at a time,” says Camille via email. “Thankfully, we have two French doors and a deck with seating that will allow people to comfortably wait and view the inside. We will continue to use our website and social media as a means to connect with people in a safe way. Right now, it’s a wait-and-see situation.”