Robert Kulicke’s Second Act

No second-act artist more captivates me than the late still-life painter Robert M. Kulicke.

His is a Horatio Alger story… with a poignant twist.

Kulicke became rich and famous in the late 1950s, not as a painter, but a frame-maker.

He designed all three of the 20th century’s most-used picture frames—the sectional metal frame, the “floater,” and the “plexibox”—and built nearly all of the frames you see today in art museums worldwide.

His name in museum circles was legion.

But colossal success as a frame-maker was a consolation prize.

Kulicke wanted to be a painter.

As a teenager, he had studied painting at two prestigious art schools, his courses interrupted only by World War II, when he served in the South Pacific.

Like all serious painters at mid-century, Kulicke moved to Paris after the war, tapping the GI Bill to pay for a master class being taught by the renowned Cubist painter Fernand Léger.

During an especially harsh classroom critique, Léger told Kulicke he should quit painting. His paintings were precious and insignificant. “Kulicke, you have no talent,” Léger pronounced through a translator.

Kulicke was crushed. He put away his brushes and palette—forever, he believed—and out of necessity drifted into a full-time apprenticeship with a Parisian frame-maker, where he discovered a new passion: ornate frames.

Kulicke learned frame-making so quickly and well that within just a year he opened his own firm in Manhattan—the one that, within five years, would make him a rich man and a household name among curators.

Still Life. Giorgio Morandi.

But the wounded painter still lingered within.

Absolution came in 1956, when Kulicke’s firm won a contract to build frames for 330 still-lifes by the then-unknown Italian artist Giorgio Morandi.

Spending so many hours with the painter’s work convinced him he’d found the mentor the arrogant Léger could never be. Kulicke took up his brushes again, rediscovering his passion for painting intimate still-lifes in the style of the 17th century.

Kulicke’s paintings were typically small—10 x 10 inches and smaller; his compositions sparse; his signature subject the pear.

He returned to the pear again and again “in order to get it right,” he once told a writer. “In art you never hit what you’re aiming at,” he told another, “but the difference may not be downward.”

Kulicke called himself an “intimist” and said his work combined “Zen philosophy and Medieval art.”

During his lifetime, he mounted major exhibitions in New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco, and sold some of his still-life paintings to The Met in New York, the Smithsonian in Washington, and the Victoria & Albert in London.

Kulicke died in December 2007, beloved by collectors and friends the world over.

Few people enjoy careers as prolific as Kulicke’s; fewer still enjoy two, as the portrait below, aired by CBS in 1994, illustrates.

NOTE: Thanks go to my teacher Milena Spasic for introducing Robert M. Kulicke’s work to me.