Robert Young and ‘The Big One’


By Dion Wright


Robert Young and “The Big One”.

If Robert “Bob” Young hadn’t had a stash of salvaged telephone poles, “The Big One,” Young’s magnum opus of painting, might never have come to be, and would certainly never have survived the disaster.

“The Big One” is absolutely the largest painting ever done in Laguna Beach, took the longest time to get painted, and in this writer’s opinion is the single best work of art done since the days of William Wendt.

When Bob Young put on a diving mask back in the ‘40s and dove below the surface of the ocean at old El Morro, he was as transmogrified as St. Paul on the road to Damascus. In an aesthetic sense, he never came up again. He became an Eagle Scout, a Marine, went to UCSB on the GI Bill and  graduated from Chouinard. And through it all he drew and painted squid, crabs, fish and more fish.

One time long ago he and his brother, Richard, now one of the world’s foremost squid experts, shot a 300-pound black sea bass at Scotchman’s Cove and pulled it along the surf line to El Morro, where they could drag it up onto the beach for the astounded applause of all the girls. Life may not be a beach for everybody, but it was for them.

By the time he and I were working our first season at the Festival of Arts in 1959, his approach was already immaculate, in terms of content, and all that remained to be accomplished from then until he started in on “The Big One,” ca 1971, was to develop his talent to the level of his inspiration. He finally found a metaphorical reef in his backyard, one small dot of color at a time.

The surface of “The Big One,” like all of Bob’s ventures, began horizontally with vagrant splashes, washes and splatterings of overlapping colors across the surface from several directions, forces of spontaneity compelled to coalesce by the artist. After a while the random juxtapositions of overlapping layers of paint suggested directions to him, and when these indications had been subtly drawn into graphic intent, “The Big One” was raised on its massive stretcher bars to the vertical, supported and protected by a rigid structure contrived out of telephone poles. Bob had snaked those poles out, from where they had disappeared beneath a carpet of creeping ivy, sinking them vertically in his back yard, to create a large and temporary, but secure, painting space. With the painting surface vertical, Bob painted on.

And on and on and on. “I just have to make a few more moves,” Bob would say, popping another brewski, even though his legion of friends had long since told him that it was finished, already. The vague but colorful beginnings had developed and morphed into a dense field of lost and found. Structure emerged. Inhabitants were discovered. The painter’s intelligence caused entities to inhabit the reef, suddenly coming into focus the way real creatures suddenly appear in the sea. He covered the entire 9 by 15 surface, one dot at a time. Then he covered it again. Then he kept on developing and refining it until it got so thick that it might be regarded as sculpture. “For God’s sake, Young! It’s done seven times over!” we cried in frustration. He paid us no mind, and painted on. Then the storm came.

During the winter of 1978 there were wet storms, which dumped so much water on Laguna Beach that the floodplain of Laguna Canyon became soupy. One night the wind came up to a furious pitch, and blew down half of the shallow-rooted grandfather eucalyptus trees in the Thurston Park neighborhood. They fell in different directions, heavy as pig iron. One fell on Bob’s truck and squashed it flat. One fell on his house and destroyed it, miraculously leaving the occupants alive, but no such luck for the piano. One aimed to fall onto “The Big One,” but the structure of telephone poles protecting it did its work and fended off the blow that might have destroyed 10 years of work. Nevertheless, the time of painting on “The Big One” had come to an end with a solid punkt! It had to be moved.

After the storm Bob had to find a place where such a giant painting could be stored. Through personal connections, Bob was able to install “The Big One” at Sea World, and there it has remained. There is still no place in Laguna spacious enough to take it. It ought to be in public. Even at Sea World it’s been out of sight within administrative offices. Who will build the venue for Laguna’s most spectacular, conscious and fully realized art work? Maybe Norton Simon…

Young left a suite of smaller works as well, all stops along the same highway: well-defined, harmonious, pointillist surprises from under the sea, with a cast of thousands. There is a whiff of Impressionism in Young’s oeuvre, but just that: a whiff. He’s an inner-directed achiever who would scoff at the word, “genius”. To him it was a function of going to work every day with complete absorption, just as he drank his beer, smoked his Pall Malls (until he had to quit, cold turkey), joked and made love. The tide comes in and the tide goes out. What’s new?

Young passed away on May 6 after a long decline. He is survived by his wife, Deborah, his daughter Charlotte, his brother Richard, and a host of friends.


Dion Wright is a longtime Sawdust Festival artist.

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