Side Image: 

Robert Cottingham (American b. 1935), Hamburger, 1979. Lithograph, 17 7/16 x 10 ½ inches. Anonymous gift. Collection of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.

About the Artist
Robert Cottingham

Before becoming widely known for his paintings and prints of city architecture and neon signs, Robert Cottingham had worked in graphic design as an art director for an advertising firm. He became interested in the ways that form and text combine in urban signage for commercial and psychological impact. He had studied art at the Pratt Institute in his birthplace of Brooklyn, New York, and drawn inspiration from the urban-influenced paintings of Piet Mondrian, Edward Hopper, Stuart Davis, and Charles Demuth. In 1968, after having worked in advertising in Los Angeles, he decided to become a full-time artist. He began photographing building facades, highlighting interesting words and language in their attached signage, and then using the photographs as a basis for making paintings and prints. He adapted the advertising techniques of cropping and enlarging for calling attention to interesting or amusing features. Early in his career he had taken photographs of Broadway, a commercial street in downtown Los Angeles, as well as of towns and cities along Greyhound Bus routes, and they have formed the basis of his images ever since. Cottingham’s work is related to the style of Pop artists who drew on visual imagery in contemporary culture, including Jasper Johns and Robert Indiana, who demonstrated how letters and words could effectively deliver style and meaning; James Rosenquist, who worked in large scale; and Andy Warhol, who also had a background in and employed the sleek surfaces and typography of advertising. 

Key Ideas
  • Commonplace scenes of urban America that document a real moment in commerce and culture
  • Words and phrases from urban signage incorporated into art for their symbolic power
  • Perspective and techniques of advertising applied to choice of subject matter and technique in works of art
Discussion Questions
  • What do you think is the shape of this whole building? Why do you think it has this shape?
  • Where would you be standing if you were looking at this corner from the perspective of the artist?
  • What is your opinion of the effectiveness of the advertising used here?
  • What are your thoughts about choosing this ordinary corner as the subject of a work of art?
  • What do you notice that tells you this scene is a moment in the past? What are some words or symbols that would look different now? What are your thoughts about representing times of the past in works of art?
  • In what ways do you think that Robert Cottingham’s first career influenced his thoughts about making Hamburger?
  • What places in your own environment would make good subjects for creating a work of visual art? What qualities might make those places interesting?

architecture  a general term to describe buildings and other physical structures; the art and science of designing buildings; the style of design and method of construction of buildings
commerce  activities that relate to the buying and selling of goods and services
commonplace   something that happens or appears in many places and is not unusual
culture  the beliefs, customs, arts, etc., of a particular society, group, place, or time
façade  the front of a building
marquee  a covered structure over the entrance to a building (such as a hotel or theater)
lintel  a piece of wood or stone that lies across the top of a door or window and holds the weight of the structure above it

What Do I See? Exploring Contemporary Art

The print Hamburger helps us realize how quickly our eyes absorb visual information from shapes, colors, and text. An ordinary city building, covered with advertising signs, is presented as a detailed geometric pattern. Lines and colors join in jazzy rhythms. The busy clutter of signboards embellishes the building’s underlying architecture, a typical corner construction in which the point of the triangle has been ‘shaved off’ to form an extra plane for a door and upper windows. An overhanging marquee completes the triangle and serves as both sunshade and surface for advertising the Coral cafe below. On the building’s second floor a beauty salon offers “haircutn restyling,” and a partially hidden window sign promotes cleaning and styling for wigs. Another business sells uniforms for waitresses, nurses, and doctors. Even though the scene seems commonplace, prices and sign designs are clues that it is a moment in the past. The Coral announces that it sells breakfast specials of eggs, juice, toast and coffee for 75 cents, with extras of ham and bacon for 20 cents more. Sponsored signage by a familiar soft-drink company announces that this is a place to get frankfurters, hamburgers, and cold drinks. Everything appears solid, like the cream-colored bricks and stone window lintels, and also angular, like the walls and window frames and the marquee—except the folded-up blue awnings with their scalloped edges and the curving letters in the soft-drink logo. The words in English, the prices in cents, the iconic food items, and the red, white, and blue color notes all declare that this is a typical American city.

Robert Cottingham depicts everyday, unexceptional scenes of urban commerce with precise detail of geometry and text. He is interested in the ways that signage is applied to architecture for communicating information and conveying values of modern American culture. He often shows just fragments of signs in order to highlight the power of language, sometimes changing the words on the signs to suggest mysterious or comical meaning. As a result, his images often appear both realistic and abstract. Cottingham works back and forth between photographing a building or scene as a “starting point on which to build an image,” then drawing a scene onto a grid, and eventually creating a painting or a print. He typically works in series, centered on themes. Over time, his works have evolved from his early facades of buildings to broader views of storefronts, neighborhoods, railroad imagery, and vintage typewriters. He has most recently focused on a series based on each letter of the English alphabet as it is revealed in urban architecture.