Harry Holtzman and American Abstraction
October 4, 2013–January 26, 2014
FLORENCE GRISWOLD MUSUEM
Harry Holtzman and American Abstraction is the first retrospective of abstract painter, teacher, and writer Harry Holtzman (1912–1987). Drawing from the holdings of the Holtzman Trust, public collections, and private lenders, the exhibition brings new attention to the role Holtzman played in shaping abstract art in America from the 1920s to the 1980s. A close friend and colleague of Piet Mondrian, Holtzman is best known for helping to bring the originator of Neoplasticism to America. This exhibition of roughly 60 paintings, sculptures, and drawings features many works not exhibited since Holtzman’s death and highlights the different facets of his role as perennial stalwart of the New York avant garde.
Harry Holtzman and American Abstraction examines Holtzman’s career from the 1920s to the 1980s, charting three distinct periods of abstraction in his work. The first section of the exhibition, Early Abstractions: 1928-1934, examines the years when Holtzman was a prolific young artist attempting to find his artistic voice.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, Holtzman enrolled in the Art Students League in New York in 1928. There, he began experimenting with a variety of styles – making copies after Cézanne, invoking Regionalist figures in scenes from a Harlem speakeasy, referencing Cubist collage in ink drawings over existing text – while reading the freshest ideas of the day.
Thriving under the tutelage of the German abstract painter Hans Hofmann from 1932-1935, Holtzman developed a commitment to expressiveness and color while beginning to search for a new direction in his art. He found one in 1934 when he encountered Piet Mondrian’s work. Fascinated by those paintings he began tentative experiments with gridded, geometric abstraction.
The second section of the exhibition, Pure Plastic Painting: 1934-1950, explores the rigorously Neoplastic paintings, drawings, and freestanding sculptures Holtzman made from 1934 to 1950 under Mondrian’s influence.
After seeing Mondrian’s work in 1934, Holtzman became convinced of their shared sensibility and raised funds to travel to Paris to meet him.
Holtzman spent four months in Paris studying under Mondrian, during which time the two artists established what would become a lifelong friendship.
When Holtzman returned to New York in early 1935, his work was transformed as he adopted a Neoplastic style – replacing the bold gesture that defined his work under Hofmann with new compositions that used a grid of black lines on a white ground balanced with primary-colored shapes to produce purely non-objective paintings.
Works such as Mondrian’s Fox Trot A call attention to the concern that the Dutch artist and Holtzman shared for establishing a dynamic balance of line and color.
Where Mondrian tipped the square painting on its end to exploit the tension of the diagonal format, Holtzman contemplated similar issues of space by pushing his work from two dimensions into three. Moving away from framed canvases that would hang on a wall, he constructed four-sided columns such as Sculpture (Yale University Art Gallery) to encourage viewers to confront the interaction of line and color in space and on a human scale.
This was a vital period for abstraction in America, and Holtzman was at the forefront of the struggle to establish this new art.
He was a founding member of American Abstract Artists in 1936 – a group whose members included Josef Albers, Ad Reinhardt, Arshile Gorky, Lee Krasner, Burgoyne Diller, and George L.K. Morris in its early years.
Holtzman helped arrange Mondrian’s immigration to New York in October 1940, as the violence of World War II spread across Europe. Holtzman also introduced Mondrian to American boogie woogie records that would inspire Mondrian’s most beloved paintings—ones that pulsated with the energy of life in New York. Upon Mondrian’s death in 1944, Harry Holtzman became both his legal heir – inheriting the entirety of his personal and artistic estate – as well as his artistic successor, taking up the mantle and cause of Neoplastic painting in America.
The final section of the exhibition, The First Paintings in History: 1950-1987, seeks to explain a long period from 1950 to 1987 when Holtzman produced very few finished works, and instead directed his creative energies towards theorizing a new art that would unify ambitious ideas of language, science, history, and aesthetics. It was an extremely productive time for his work as a writer, professor, editor, lecturer, and activist. As interest in Mondrian grew, he increasingly committed himself to the attendant demands of managing the Mondrian estate and promoting his legacy. Along with a large collection of paintings that he would gradually sell over the years, Holtzman became responsible for Mondrian’s collected writings, which he published in the year before his own death. After years absorbed with securing Mondrian’s legacy, Holtzman returned to the studio, creating a series of towering painted sculptures that took Neoplastic ideas in a new direction. Excited with the potential of these works and this new chapter in his artistic life, Holtzman described the sculptures as the “first paintings in history.” The exhibition will include a number of these works, as well as the artist’s dynamic, over life-size studies.
Holtzman was dedicated to the cause of the Abstract movement, which before the 1930s was seen as an exclusively European art movement. He was a founding member of American Abstract Artists, a group determined to promote abstraction to a reluctant American audience, was involved with the Eighth Street Artists Club in the 1950s, which served as an incubator for Abstract Expressionism, and taught for three decades at Brooklyn College alongside an impressive roster of abstract and conceptual artists. At every stage of his career, Harry Holtzman pursued new ideas and philosophies through the language of abstraction. Where traditional histories of American Modernism treated Neoplastic painting as a passing fad, Holtzman’s work stands testament to its lasting importance to a dedicated circle of artists who advanced the embrace of Modernism in this country.
In this, it is possible to discern the larger story of abstraction in America.
Connections to Connecticut
Organized by the Museum’s curators Amy Kurtz Lansing and Benjamin Colman, this exhibition is the third presented by the Florence Griswold Museum that brings a better understanding of modern artists that lived in the greater Lyme area, an often-overlooked chapter in Connecticut’s rich artistic history.
Holtzman was part of a local community that has been little studied but included significant artists. In 1962 Holtzman chose a monumental barn along the country roads of Lyme, Connecticut, to personally convert into a home and studio workspace. He lived and worked there until his death in 1987.
In 2010, the Museum presented a rediscovery of the work of the Bauhaus-influenced artist and Yale professor Sewell Sillman, followed by a 2011 retrospective of the work of photographer Walker Evans, who discovered the artistic community in Lyme in the 1940s and lived here in the last decades of his life. This ongoing series of exhibitions helps to fulfill the Museum’s institutional goal of fostering an understanding of American art in all its forms.
Harry Holtzman, Sculpture, 1941-1942. Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of the artist to the Collection Societe Anonyme
Harry Holtzman, Lateral Volume #2, 1940. Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of the artist to the Collection Societe Anonyme
Harry Holtzman, Untitled (#674). Gouache on paper, 23 1/4 x 19 inches. Holtzman/Mondrian Trust
Harry Holtzman, Untitled (#768), 1933. Oil on paper, 24 x 18 3/4. Holtzman/Mondrian Trust
Harry Holtzman, Untitled (#631), ca. 1930’s. Pencil and tempera on paper, 19 7/8 x 13 3/4 inches. Holtzman/Mondrian Trust
Harry Holtzman, Untitled (#645), ca. 1930. Crayon on paper, 16 x 15 3/4 inches. Holtzman/Mondrian Trust
Harry Holtzman, Vertical Volume with Yellow and Blue (#858), 1944. Oil on gessoed wood, 7 3/4 x 17 inches. Holtzman/Mondrian Trust