I’ve heard it said that there are many doorways into the dharma: some students enter through reading texts, some through listening to teachings, and some through art. A number of teachers, including the mystic G. I. Gurdjieff and the meditation master Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, have spoken of artworks that embody higher consciousness and have the ability to transmit this awareness just by their visual presence. Robert Beer’s own paintings and drawings, and the work by contemporary Newar [indigenous people of the Kathmandu Valley] masters he discusses here, may be such art. I first encountered Beer’s work when in the late 1980s I came across a copy ofMasters of Enchantment: The Lives and Legends of the Mahasiddhas, translated by Keith Dowman and illustrated by Beer. Beer’s dazzling paintings were based on traditional Tibetan iconography, but were done with an airbrush and colors that aren’t otherwise used in thangkas—soft but vibrant peaches, electric pinks, minty greens, and such. I’d never seen that combination of Western and Eastern techniques—and I haven’t seen it since. Beer’s work, at that time, took me to another world. And it continues to do so. I never tire of his Encyclopedia of Symbols and Tibetan Motifs, from 1999.
I first met Beer in 2001, on the occasion of an exhibition of his work at Tibet House in New York City; I met him again in late 2009 when he returned to Tibet House, this time for an exhibition of Newar and Tibetan master paintings from his personal collection. You’ll find some of those paintings in these pages. As you will see, Beer is many things; boring is not one of them.
Tell me a bit about your early art background—art school and so on. When I was a child my father sometimes drew airplanes and sailing ships for me, and I learned to copy these from memory. Later I inherited a book called Tanks and How to Draw Them, and I learned a lot about perspective and illustrative techniques from this military manual, which strangely had much in common with the imagery of wrathful deities. I also was good at model making, which later led to the acquisition of skills such as grinding mirrors for telescopes and building a harpsichord. But most of all I was interested in drawing, especially narrative illustration, which first began to develop from the epic poems and ballads that we learned to memorize in school.
Unfortunately, I could not enter art college because I was red-green colorblind. In retrospect this was probably a good thing, for it was at this time that I met a very eccentric artist named John F. B. Miles, who was destined to become my mentor and lifelong friend. “Eccentric” is a mild word to describe John, whose father was a landscape painter and a rationalist intellectual and militant socialist, and whose mother was an ex-Carmelite nun with strong spiritual, religious, and sexual yearnings. John was the real thing, a true artist in every cell of his being and certainly one of the finest visionary painters of our time. He wasn’t just larger than life; he was gigantic and, like Rasputin, egotistical, fearless, and outrageous in his devilish wit and sensuality. I was seventeen and homeless when I was absorbed into this alchemical crucible of art, where the passions were volcanic and often volatile beneath its dome of many-colored glass. Yet somehow I managed to retain my innocence.
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