I thought Joe Hirschhorn was going to have a heart attack charging up the steep stairs to Charles Hinman’s loft on Spring Street early in 1965. Hinman had moved from his first studio on Coenties Slip, home to many artists including Hinman’s friends Jim Rosenquist and Bob Indiana. In fact it was Rosenquist who introduced the former baseball player to Dick Feigen at whose gallery on East 81st Street Hinman had his first solo (and sold-out) exhibition in November, 1964. My title at the gallery was “director of exhibitions” which in those pre-“gallerist” days meant multi-tasking, often on a ladder.
Joe Hirshhorn was 66 and I was 20 and panting behind us was Joe’s curator Al Lerner . Despite his age and girth Joe made it through the door first and although Chuck rarely seems alarmed he did raise his eyebrows as we piled breathless into his studio where he was working on several amazingly beautiful shaped canvases destined for his next exhibition.
Within ten minutes Joe had selected the three best works in the studio (he had an amazing eye) and, pushing me aside, grabbed the artist by the arm and offered himself a 50% discount. After we hondled in a lively but friendly way Joe ended up with Cloud, Red Wing and Interlocking which today are in the permanent collection of The Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.
The early sixties in New York saw the emergence of a number of very talented artists working with three-dimensional painting including not only Hinman but Richard Smith (who also exhibited at Feigen) and Sven Lukin. Smith and Lukin are very different from each other but their work at the time echoed the graphic impact of advertising and was often included in the big tent of “Pop”.
Unlike either of them, or anyone else at the time, Hinman hewed to a discipline of color, line and composition that in its precision and clarity has Bauhaus roots but is dynamic and dimensional in a uniquely American way. Over the decades he has developed and increased his vocabulary without losing the thrusting energy of his early innovations. Hinman’s paintings (as well as works on paper) encompass an infinite variety of structural combinations at turns monumental and epic as well as intimate and lyrical.
In today’s commoditized art world it is fashionable for artists to boast they employ highly skilled crafts people rather than get paint on their own hands so it is probably un-postmodern of me to extol Hinman’s extraordinary degree of skill in being able to build (himself, from scratch) whatever his inventive imagination conjures. His first collectors were amazed at the light geometry of his volumetric paintings and that quality endures, both metaphysically and physically as they easily pass the tests of time. There is also a powerful spontaneity in the work that is only possible if the thinking and making occur simultaneously.
In the summer of 1966 I was Chuck’s houseguest (mattress in the basement, very glamorous) when he was one of three artists-in-residence at the Aspen Institute in Colorado. The other artists were Gerald Laing and Friedel Dzubas and all three created strong bodies of work that summer while also participating in seminars and gatherings that included scientists, philosophers, civil rights leaders and business men and women brought together by the indefatigable collector John Powers and his wife Kimiko. Also invited was Max Kozloff, the reigning critic at Artforum magazine whose acerbic diatribes interrupted many promising careers. He was brave, however, to take a corner of Laing’s studio and experiment with painting himself. His ambition was modest but he wanted to start from scratch and one morning I came upon him struggling quite unsuccessfully to stretch a small square canvas (Max has since become an accomplished photographer).
During those summer weeks Hinman, with a small handsaw and no assistance, built fifteen structurally complex canvases that were shown that October in Tokyo to great acclaim. I say “built” because the principles of his astonishingly aery paintings suggest engineering worthy of sailboat design.
Hinman’s breadth of vision and invention (while sustaining a deep commitment to abstraction) is seemingly endless and has kept him away from the trap of variant repetition and the blind alley of novelty-seeking that tempted other artists of his generation who made a strong early mark with “signature” images. In exhibitions at the Denise Rene Gallery in New York in the 1970’s he dazzled with free standing floor canvases, ceiling works and epic but eloquent all-white paintings. In the 1980’s he produced an amazing series of complex overlapping horizontal harmonies in wonderfully subtle colors. Hinman continues to rely on canvas but at various times has produced stunning works using cast paper, painted wood and Lutrador, a polyester-based fiber which lent itself to a series of monochrome works with subtly deckled surfaces.
Hinman’s Space Windows in this exhibition incorporate non-woven acrylic fiber, wood and Plexiglas. To me they are forcefully more expressive and youthful (and profoundly affirmative) than much of the depressingly off-hand work by younger painters that feeds today’s possibly short-lived frenzy of speculation. Later work of serious artists is often among their very best, freed from a need to “keep up” or prove anything. With titles suggesting some nostalgia for the streets of the SoHo that was once a community of international artists these ”windows” by Hinman are highly spirited, very poetic and refreshingly direct.
- Michael Findlay, January, 2015