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Out for a Stroll
October 20, 2005

Robert Cottingham and Clydes Restaurant Sign

Robert Cottingham's Art juxtaposed with a photograph of the Clydes Restaurant sign installation (Photo by Jeff Gates).

When you work in an office building, especially if you sit at a computer all day, you need to force yourself to get outside every once and a while. Fortunately a stroll around here often rewards one with something interesting to see. The museum is in a neighborhood full of change: new stores, restaurants, clubs, and dwellings open every day, not to mention the hubbub of the renovation of our building.

Thus I found myself standing at 7th and G streets NW last week, right across from the museum, gawking at a gigantic golden “L” hanging from a crane. Workers were herding the letter over to join a “C” which was already bolted to the front of a building. Behind, its’ kinfolk, the letters Y, D, E, and S were waiting patiently on a truck. By the end of the day the workers would be gone and a brace of spiffy gold letters would remain behind spelling C L Y D E ‘S, the name of a regional restaurant chain.

I probably wouldn’t have noticed the new sign if I hadn’t witnessed it being built, and I certainly wouldn’t have noticed how remarkable the big gold letters are, or what a cool composition they make against the curving green facade and the patterned brick in the background, but I got excited when I thought of someone who would.

Robert Cottingham would have noticed. Cottingham is an artist in SAAM’s collection who has been noticing the amazing graphic compositions in commercial signs and turning them into fine art for over thirty years. He’s one of those people —maybe all artists are like this— whose eyes see the same stuff as the rest of us but whose vision allows them to turn what they see into something special.

So I had a little “ah-ha” moment there on my walk. It’s a thrill to see or hear something that reminds you of great art, even more so when it’s unexpected.

Posted by Michael Edson on October 20, 2005 in American Art Everywhere


I think that sign marks the Times-Squarification (it's a word I swear!) of the neighborhood; oversized, glitzy advertisements compete for the eye in an overwhelming surfeit of commercialism. When I saw them hanging each ostentatious golden letter after ostentatious golden letter it reminded me of American photographer Henry Wessel who like Cottingham, makes banal subjects into interesting artworks. Go check out his recent work where he documents the construction of Las Vegas's many casinos and exposes their rather thin facade of glamour and prestige.

Despite the impression of photo-realism in Cottingham's work, his final prints are really carefully selected details from reference photographs. The act of selection, detailed in this exhibition, impacts the construction of meaning. For me, this makes the parallel between his work and the Clyde's sign in our neighborhood especially poignant. How much the story that sign tells changes as you zoom out over the neighborhood to include the Chinese characters on the storefronts (reminding us that this is Chinatown), the MCI center that influenced the evolution of the neighborhood, etc. To follow my own stream-of-consciousness, the work is then akin to some of the installations of Shimon Attie who documents and projects evidence of the past history of a chosen area.

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