Robert Sivard

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Time, February 15, 1963

Robert Sivard, 48, is a sort of bureaucrat with portfolio. As director of exhibits for the United States Information Agency, he and his sketch pad have traveled widely, and as he tends his USIA business Sivard has been able to pursue a novel art: painting the fronts of buildings and the people who go with them. Last week an engaging show of Sivard’s sideline opened at Manhattan’s Midtown Galleries.

Sivard, in horn-rims, has the quietly desperate air of a man who has dealt with unceasing pressures for so long that a sudden letup would give him a bad case of the bureaucratic bends. But as his fun-filled, detail-packed little canvases show, this worried air conceals an indestructible sense of humor. He started his artistic life as a muralist’s assistant, later became an adequate commercial artist and illustrator, then dabbled a bit in abstractionism. But he had to give it up: “It’s awfully hard to get a touch of humor in an abstraction, and I can’t keep going without a touch of humor.”

The Fine Print. One day when he and his wife Ruth were living in Paris, Sivard went around the corner to buy some salami, and was enchanted with the charcuterie where it was sold. “It struck me,” he says, “as the sort of memory I would like to take home with me.” He sketched the charcuterie with the owner and his wife and their cat and dog, adding some torn posters and wall scribbling. Sivard has been doing things like it ever since.

Sivard’s “touch of humor” is in all his paintings, though it sometimes takes a jeweler’s loupe to read all the fine print. In one painting a Paris streetwalker in all the trappings of her profession, from necklace cross to handbag to ankle bracelet, loiters in her doorway next to the Hotel Beau Sejour. There will be no sejour today, however; on the hotel’s door a tiny sign reads: “Closed for vacation.” In another of Sivard’s pictures, a Parisian nun is emerging from a Metro station with the frosted-glass peacock’s fan of the canopy forming a sort of art nouveau halo behind the good sister’s head.

Ancient Surfaces. A great borrower and transplanter, he confesses that he often takes a detail of a building here and adds it to another there. In all his paintings there is a loving treatment of ancient surfaces: tattered plaster, ravaged brick, gnarled woodwork, scabrous paint bespeak his affection for old well-used places and things. His most impressive paintings are from that unpainted and usually humorless terrain, Russia, which Sivard saw out of the corner of his eye when in 1958 he handled negotiations for the American National Exhibition in Moscow, and came back home to Washington with enough sketches to keep his evenings and weekends busy ever since.

Sivard at his best is in the tradition of Rousseau, with a sophisticated innocence and an ability to capture in a wink a mood, a moment, and to make of an exaggerated reality a pleasant fantasy.