Miami artist Robert Thiele and an array of his artwork, inside his studio

When meeting Robert Thiele, it’s best to toss aside the reigning conceptions of Miami’s current art stars. Thiele is neither baby-faced nor prone to invoking a mishmash of postmodern theory. And he’s anything but effete. Instead, the 70-year-old sculptor stands well over six feet tall and still retains the bear-size frame that earned him a football scholarship to Ohio’s Kent State University, followed by a position with the Dallas Cowboys. As Thiele recalls with a chuckle, “My painting teacher at Kent State once said, ‘I’ve been trying to figure you out. On Saturday you go out and tackle people and you’re really aggressive. Then on Monday you go into the studio. How can you make these two things work?’” Thiele’s wry response? “I told him I was even more aggressive in my studio than I was on the football field.”

He’s only partly joking. There’s a quiet intensity that has marked Thiele’s artwork since he first arrived in Miami in 1966, ditching his football career to become an art instructor at the then-fledgling Miami-Dade College, where he taught alongside painter Robert Huff, painter Salvatore La Rosa and the late sculptor Duane Hanson.

Over the subsequent decades, Thiele would become increasingly synonymous with the Miami art scene, literally so in 1975 when he and La Rosa were the first South Floridians ever to be chosen for the nationally trendsetting Whitney Biennial. Not that Thiele’s admirers were able to easily classify his hanging columns and towering stone monoliths, most with Plexiglas-shrouded compartments offering blurred internal views—sometimes of intriguingly cryptic shapes, sometimes of no less intriguingly obscured women.

Reflecting on a 2009 exhibition at Wynwood’s Dorsch Gallery, Miami Art Museum senior curator Peter Boswell likened Thiele’s pieces to those of Christian Boltanski, noting the “continuous play between revelation and concealment, between object and illusion, between the intimate and the imposing.” Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale director emeritus George Bolge has suggested that the best way to understand Thiele’s monoliths is to dispense with the contemporary art world altogether: “I see Celtic grave markers, these large stones with the glass in them, and inside the glass are little stories, marvelously masochistic, sexual things going on.”

Thiele fully intended to spend 2011 continuing to spin out those “little stories,” dividing his time between his studios in North Miami and, come summertime, in Brooklyn. But then came the sale of the sprawling warehouse where he leased his North Miami studio. “I’ve been there for 15 years. It’s full of tons of my work—literally, it weighs tons.”

  Thiele (LEFT) with Salvatore La Rosa at Bridge Red Studios. BELOW: Thiele’s 2009 Dorsch Gallery show
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