Miami artist Robert Thiele and an array of his artwork, inside his studio
When meeting Robert Thiele, it’s best to toss aside the reigning conceptions of Miami’s current art stars. Thiele is neither baby-faced nor prone to invoking a mishmash of postmodern theory. And he’s anything but effete. Instead, the 70-year-old sculptor stands well over six feet tall and still retains the bear-size frame that earned him a football scholarship to Ohio’s Kent State University, followed by a position with the Dallas Cowboys. As Thiele recalls with a chuckle, “My painting teacher at Kent State once said, ‘I’ve been trying to figure you out. On Saturday you go out and tackle people and you’re really aggressive. Then on Monday you go into the studio. How can you make these two things work?’” Thiele’s wry response? “I told him I was even more aggressive in my studio than I was on the football field.”
He’s only partly joking. There’s a quiet intensity that has marked Thiele’s artwork since he first arrived in Miami in 1966, ditching his football career to become an art instructor at the then-fledgling Miami-Dade College, where he taught alongside painter Robert Huff, painter Salvatore La Rosa and the late sculptor Duane Hanson.
Over the subsequent decades, Thiele would become increasingly synonymous with the Miami art scene, literally so in 1975 when he and La Rosa were the first South Floridians ever to be chosen for the nationally trendsetting Whitney Biennial. Not that Thiele’s admirers were able to easily classify his hanging columns and towering stone monoliths, most with Plexiglas-shrouded compartments offering blurred internal views—sometimes of intriguingly cryptic shapes, sometimes of no less intriguingly obscured women.
Reflecting on a 2009 exhibition at Wynwood’s Dorsch Gallery, Miami Art Museum senior curator Peter Boswell likened Thiele’s pieces to those of Christian Boltanski, noting the “continuous play between revelation and concealment, between object and illusion, between the intimate and the imposing.” Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale director emeritus George Bolge has suggested that the best way to understand Thiele’s monoliths is to dispense with the contemporary art world altogether: “I see Celtic grave markers, these large stones with the glass in them, and inside the glass are little stories, marvelously masochistic, sexual things going on.”
Thiele fully intended to spend 2011 continuing to spin out those “little stories,” dividing his time between his studios in North Miami and, come summertime, in Brooklyn. But then came the sale of the sprawling warehouse where he leased his North Miami studio. “I’ve been there for 15 years. It’s full of tons of my work—literally, it weighs tons.”
Thiele (LEFT) with Salvatore La Rosa at Bridge Red Studios. BELOW: Thiele’s 2009 Dorsch Gallery show
Rather than move all those massive stone sculptures to a new space, it just seemed easier to scrounge up the money to buy the warehouse himself. Once he’d done so, he couldn’t imagine evicting his fellow artists also ensconced there. Enter Bridge Red Studios, and call Thiele the accidental landlord. Thiele then had an epiphany: Add an exhibition space—one devoted to the artists he’d evolved alongside, the artists who’d been left behind in the wake of Art Basel’s Miami arrival. Enter Bridge Red Studios Project Space, and call Thiele the accidental gallerist.
“Students graduating now are thinking in terms of a career; they’re thinking about how they can turn their art into something that puts food on the table. That never occurred to any of us,” he explains of his generation of Miami artists. “It was just assumed that when you got out of graduate school, you better look for a teaching job—or at least a bartending job.
“Because of the renaissance—or what people call a renaissance,” Thiele says of the explosion of Wynwood-centered activity, “the rush of the new, the rush of the immediate, ran roughshod over the art scene that used to be here. And still is here! We never left; we never stopped working! But this kind of blitzkrieg of new activity marched through.”
Last spring’s debut exhibition of Salvatore La Rosa’s paintings set the template—a career overview from one of Miami’s most talented painters whose handiwork was sadly collecting dust while the barely formed ideas of barely legal “emerging” artists were filling the walls of Wynwood’s most prominent galleries. The enthusiastic response to La Rosa’s work, as well as a subsequent exhibition by local heavyweights Robert Chambers, William Cordova (a former student of Thiele’s) and Barbara Neijna, has proved there’s an audience hungry for a program focused on mature talent. It’s an attitude seconded by the Knight Foundation, which has named Bridge Red a finalist for one of its annual Arts Challenge grants.
Plans call for five new shows a year, with no shortage of worthy candidates. “There are so many artists in South Florida who have fallen through the cracks and should be looked at again,” Thiele says. “For one reason or another, they don’t have gallery representation and they don’t show in the museums. Yet the reaction to Sal [La Rosa]’s work at Bridge Red was incredible. So many younger artists—who’d never seen his work before—just said, ‘Wow! This is how you can make a painting!’ There is this degree of energy, and it’s building from one show to the next!” Thiele catches himself and begins laughing: “At the last opening, someone said I was sounding more and more like a gallerist. I didn’t know if that was a compliment or not.”
“Set,” featuring the artwork of Tom Schmitt, Odalis Valdivieso and Kerry Ware, opens September 4 at Bridge Red Studios Project Space, 12425 NE 13th Ave., North Miami. For more information, visit bridgeredstudios.com or call 305-978-4856.