Bob Loescher: In Memoriam (2008)

Bob Loescher: In Memoriam

Pablo Helguera

History is unjust with the best teachers for two reasons: first, because they are too busy teaching to care about pursuing recognition, and second, because while true teachers
possess a unique ability to capture our attention as students, they manage to remain self-effacing to the world. For these reasons I believe it is important to be fair for once, and remember a man who truly mastered the gift of teaching.

My first encounter with Bob Loescher was at the daunting undergraduate art history survey that he gave to many generations at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Presented at the dimly lit auditorium of the Columbus Drive Building of the school, my first view of Bob was one of a larger-than life, Orson Welles look-alike, dramatically lit from below by the light of the lectern while he looked over his notes with his reading glasses. As young students we would murmur to each other that he had been the editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Bob’s persona seemed to perfectly embody encyclopedism, as if his voluminous figure attested to the fact that he contained all that knowledge of infinite dates, styles and artists that had accumulated throughout history.

Everything about Bob was monumental. His all-enveloping operatic baritone voice, resonating through the auditorium as if it was the voiceover of a PBS documentary, would carry our impressionable student selves through trays and trays of slides of art and architecture, in a dream-like journey that was anything but a regular academic lecture. Showing off his vast travel experience and inserting his regular thematic codas of “duality” and “syncretism,” he would take everyone every night through his grandiose tours, giving detailed explanations about what one sees after coming out of a certain passageway through the Piazza de San Marco or after climbing one of the Mayan pyramids in Palenque. His red laser pointer caressed each image, signaling the right door through the right apse that lead to the grand interior of the cathedral, and the arches of the Mosque of Córdoba multiplied infinitely to make a labyrinth of mirrors. His lectures were about the overarching cultural concepts that defined every art period and how they manifested sensorially through art.

Bob’s lectures were addictive. Each session would become like the continuation of a recurrent dream, small journeys, travelogues filled with his personal comments that made everything come to life, convincingly making us feel that we were walking through one of those Romanesque churches in Cataluña or sitting at the foyer of the Minoan palace in Crete –which he loved—, overlooking at that mural with dolphins: “Those people really knew how to live.”

He clearly was more fond of Southern and Baroque cultures than northern European cartesianism, and would let his feelings be known. He hated rational, macho art, Ingres-like academicism and instead was pro-Delacroix, pro-expressionism. “Look at how boring this is,” he would say, as he would show us some German medieval church. For all his erudition, he actually was an unpretentious lecturer, never afraid of making the occasional off-the cuff sexual remark, never hiding his gay preferences, and sometimes even making a politically outrageous or goofy comment. He liked to stretch statements and stories, for effect. Once He showed us a slide that he claimed to have taken when he was only four years old at a family trip: “look at the butt of this Tula figure: what more evidence do you need that there were gay Toltecs?”

At some point his lectures would become less about art history and they more about art storytelling. But even when every now and then Bob didn’t get a name or a date right, and even if some of his stories were so embellished as to defy the limits of academic propriety, it wouldn’t have mattered. In his lecturing style there was a greater lesson that many years I learned as an educator: anyone can transmit information, but very few are able to plant a seed of curiosity in their students. Bob’s lectures were highly persuasive enticements for us to pursue our own personal searches.

He was a hispanophile. I remember being at the galleries of the Art Institute on the very day when the Spanish Government knighted him with the order of Isabel la Católica, right under El Greco’s painting of The Assumption of the Virgin. It was a fitting honor for a man who did so much to promote the appreciation of Spanish art. Bob’s lectures directly inspired many of us, including myself, to go see the Alhambra with our own eyes. Latin America, and in particular Mexico, were his greatest fascinations. He had studied art with the legendary Justino Fernandez at the University of Mexico. He had no qualms about making favorites with the Latin American students, something which always made me uncomfortable next to my envious American colleagues, but which I ended up accepting as part of Bob’s idiosyncracies. He took students anywhere from Pilsen to Mexico City, and made sure that many of them went to see the Mesoamerican ruins. Loescher should be credited in good part for opening the eyes of many artists to Latin America, especially in a city with a strong Latino population that remains culturally segregated.

As his physical size well attested, he was fond of food, both as an art historical and cultural phenomenon and as a practice. His art history classes on the art of food were legendary and always entertaining. He often invited his students to group dinners, sometimes at Café Ibérico or at Chicago’s Greektown restaurants. The table was an extension of Bob’s lectern, and he would be in his element, ordering a vast array of dishes and drinks that he would always introduce with erudite footnotes (“the retsina was the wine that Homer drank”). As the years started to weigh on him and his declining health started to limit his ability to travel, restaurants were the places where he transported himself.

Being one of the most liberal professors in the school, he had no patience for political correctness and he often spoke his mind, making others uncomfortable.

Along with his narrative prowress, Bob’s other gift was his extraordinary perceptiveness.
He would come to the art studios with his cane, sit at a stool and cross his arms, look at artwork with an investigative look; and just like a detective, would slowly start unraveling the identity of the student step by step. He quickly saw through our strengths and weaknesses, and was always direct, yet gracious, always wise. He believed in the rewards of self-examination. “You have to know why you do what you do in order to do it better”. He was the first one to ever tell me that I would never be a painter, and that I instead was a performer. I disagreed with him then, but time would prove him right. And it was in that decoding process of every student where Bob found great pleasure and joy, and this was the reason why he liked to hear from many of us years later, as we continued developing, touching base every now and then. For those students close to him, he played the role of mentor, career advisor, therapist, art critic, gossip buddy, personal conscience. Yet for all his preternatural ability to discover our innermost secrets, he was reluctant to disclose his own. Many facts of his personal life remained a mystery to me. But more than being unwilling to share, he simply seemed not too interested with his own life; instead, he thrived on exploring the lives of others. I did not always agree with his readings, but I always appreciated the seriousness with which he took his advisory role, and the fact that he always spoke about a student in terms of a fundamental, intimate quest that involved our entire personal history, our social condition, and not in the strict formal or theoretical terms that a more conventional instructor would.

He was a scholarly dilettante. He did not care much for institutional politics, careerism, or competitive scholarship: his lifeblood was his teaching, and once health forced him to retire, we knew that this would be the end of him.

On my last conversation with him, when he knew the end was near, he told me: “they tell me that I should write a book. But I really am not interested. There are already too many books out there. I rather use this time to read some of them before I go.”

He may have not seem to care too much about his legacy, but in truth, Robert Loescher left an incalculable, yet undeniable legacy in his four decades of teaching, forming many prominent artists, art historians and educators, many of who had the chance to truly shape art history— and he knew that, but never took credit for anything, in the truly selfless fashion of the true teacher. But today it is important for us to remember him, to honor his far-reaching contribution, his ever-optimist spirit, his endless generosity and that unique passion for helping others see art, and themselves. I, for one, saw myself through
his eyes in a way that I will be forever grateful to him, and I can
only see honoring his gift in my seeking to pass it on to others. ••••

Pablo Helguera is an artist, and educator, and a former student of Bob