By Nancy M. Better
Photography by ChiChi Ubiña
On a midsummer morning, Robert Mars drops his two young sons at day camp, then heads to a local coffee shop to discuss plans for a skateboarding park with fellow community members. Clad in blue jeans and t-shirt, with gray hair and a scruffy beard, he looks like any other Fairfield County dad – until he returns to his back-country studio to create internationally renowned contemporary art masterpieces.
From his Redding home, Mars produces mixed-media collages that have been exhibited worldwide and hang in museum collections in London, New York, Munich, Tokyo, Moscow, Paris, and Amsterdam. Influenced by Pop Art masters and abstract expressionists including Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Egon Shiele and Richard Diebenkorn, Mars explores the intersection of celebrity and consumer culture. On his canvases, photos of Hollywood idols overlap with images of vintage muscle cars and Coca-Cola bottles to dazzling effect.“My work is rooted in Pop Art, but it’s not Pop Art,” Mars explains. “I like to explore how high culture and low culture inform each other. It’s all about the mix, and the layering of history.”
In June, Mars mounted a solo exhibition at Greenwich’s Gilles Clement Gallery. Titled “These Important Years,” the show paid homage to Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, Kate Moss, and Mick Jagger, among others, revealing the timeless relevance and enduring influence of these American icons.
“I’m constantly researching the past,” Mars says. “The story stays the same, but the characters change. I’m trying to capture these stars at their finest moments, when they were perceived as flawless.”
Each Mars canvas invites close inspection, due to his unique creative process. He begins with birch wood panels and builds up layers of brown paper as a base. He then adds ephemera culled from his vast collection of 1950s and 1960s magazines – including LIFE, LOOK, Time, Playboy, GQ, and the Saturday Evening Post — as well as U.S. travel maps and newspapers. Finally he paints the surface, adds computer-generated transfers, and uses sandpaper to create a distressed appearance. “The slight imperfections are intentional,” Mars explains. “I finish with two coats of epoxy resin, which provides UV protection and gives the pieces a shiny façade.”
In 2017, to accompany a retrospective at DTR Modern Art Galleries in Manhattan, Mars published a glossy book titled Futurerelics: Past is Present. It features an essay by noted art critic Eleanor Heartney, in which she describes Mars’ paintings as “meditations on a time that is at once tantalizingly familiar and irretrievably distant.” She writes: “Mars conjures up a panorama of postwar America that owes as much to the fantasies of a country emerging triumphantly from decades of turmoil as it does to the actual conditions of a society where consumption and identity were becoming perilously intertwined.”
Born and raised in central New Jersey, Mars began drawing and painting at an early age. During high school, an art teacher introduced him to several controversial artists – and Mars was hooked. “He taught me about Damian Hirst and Chris Burden and Andre Serrano,” Mars recalls. “He showed the tough stuff, and it was eye-opening. The 80s were a tumultuous time for art, and a really influential period for me.”
After graduating from NYC’s Parsons School of Design, Mars worked in graphic design and fashion design for 20 years, living in Los Angeles and Portland, OR. “My last job was as creative director for a skateboard company’s apparel line,” he says. “I spent most of my time traveling to overseas factories to handle production. I finally set a financial goal and when I reached it, I was ready to pursue my own art.”
Mars doesn’t regret his design career. In fact, he feels it developed critical skills that contributed to his success: “I understand deadlines, and how to manage my time. Running an art business is like running any other business, and you have to treat it that way. The idea of being an artist sounds like you’re free and you can do whatever you want, but that’s not the reality.”
As Mars’ reputation spread, galleries offered representation, and by 2013 – when he moved to Redding with his wife, the costume designer Brenda Phelps – he had a loyal following. Today, in addition to Gilles Clement in Greenwich, Mars has relationships with galleries in Manhattan, Boston, Miami, Tulsa, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, and the Napa Valley.Over the years, Mars’ style has spawned imitators, and he admits to frustration with the flood of lookalikes on the market. “When collectors see the construction of my work, they understand the quality,” he says. “Most young artists don’t have the budget to do what I do, but it’s hard because we’re dealing with the same images. I don’t own them and they don’t own them either.”
Recently, Mars has turned his eye on current stars. “I’m interested in people who transcend, who do more than one thing,” he explains. “Brad Pitt acts, produces, directs, and is a philanthropist. Lady Gaga is like that, too. She’s a figure in the music world, the fashion world, and the art world. I think stars like this are icons already. That’s why I call them Futurerelics.”