Text by Hrafnhildur Schram curator
FROM UNUHÚS TO WEST 8TH STREET
In the early 1940s, New York had supplanted Paris as the centre of the art world, and over the next two decades a new artistic movement emerged there: Abstract Expressionism, the first American art movement to become an international phenomenon. Abstract Expressionism, also known as Action Painting or the New York School, began as a revolt against the constraints of a narrow artistic approach which had become predominantin the United States during the isolation years of the Great Depression.
At this eventful time two Icelandic women artists set off for New York for postgraduate study: LouisaMatthíasdóttir (1917-2000 ) andNína Tryggvadóttir (1913-68). Both had graduated from art training in Copenhagen and then spent time in Paris, which had long been regarded as the finishing touch in the training of Nordic artists. Before leaving for the United States they had been regular visitors at Unuhús (Una’s House), a little red house on Garðastræti in the old part of Reykjavík, where the host, Erlendur Guðmundsson (1892-1947), held open house for guests – artists and others – who had adopted a bohemian lifestyle.
In 1943 Louisa and Nína began their studies with Hans Hofmann (1880-1966). An immigrant from Germany, he was one of the multitude of European artists who had fled the Nazi threat and found safe haven in the United States, where they went on to enrich American culture, not least in art and architecture. Hofmann had lived in Paris 1903-14 and observed the rise of Fauvism and Cubism, and he was personally acquainted with the pioneers of these first international art movements of the new century, such as Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. From 1938 to 1958 Hofmann ran an art school above a nightclub on Eighth Street in Manhattan, as well as a summer school in Provincetown, a well-known artists’ colony onCape Cod, Massachusetts.
Hofmann became a very influential and popular teacher, and a link between the USA and radical European modernism. His ideas would shape American art over the following decades, and he attracted students who went on to be among America’s most renowned artists and critics. He fulfilled their expectations of a European maestro, who never wavered from his convictions about “art for art’s sake,” or art as an autonomous reality, which required no justification, and had its own integral purpose.
Hofmann developed a technique he called push and pull, with which he demonstrated that it was possible to create space, depth and even motion on the two-dimensional plane of a canvas, by using colour and abstract forms rather than the conventions of perspective. He saw nature as the foundation of art, and colour as the most powerful element of a painting. He reiterated to his students that “it is not the form that dictates the colour, but the colour that brings out the form.” Hofmann’s handling of colour is undoubtedly the legacy which had the greatest impact on his students, who developed it, each in his/her own way.
Hofmann himself largely gave up painting to devote all his energy to teaching, although he continued to draw throughout his career. It was not until the 1950s, when he was in his seventies, that he gave up teaching and once more started to paint, with great drive, works which shone with colour and plastic texture. With these late works he took his place among the leading Abstract Expressionists in the USA, such as Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorki, Clyfford Still and Willem de Kooning, all of whom were a generation younger than Hofmann.
Hofmann’s many students included American artists Nell Blaine (1922-96),Robert De Niro senior (1922-93) and Jane Freilicher (b. 1924), whose works are here introduced to the Icelandic public for the first time; all are respected figures in the American art world. These three artists, together with Louisa Matthíasdóttir, took a different direction from the Abstract Expressionists, working mainly on the basis of visible reality. Nína Tryggvadóttir, on the other hand, tended towards lyrical abstraction with strong natural elements.
Nell Blaine started her career as an abstract painter around 1943, and at the age of 21 she was the youngest member of the American Abstract Artists (AAA), an organisation founded after the groundbreaking show Cubism and Abstract Art at the Museum of Modern Art in 1936. The AAA proved a great stimulus to its members, most of whom painted in a rigorous geometrical style inspired by the neoplasticism of the De Stijl group and Russian Constructivism.
Blaine joined the Jane Street Gallery in Greenwich Village, which operated from 1943 to 1949 –the first gallery run as an artists’ collective. Other members included Robert De Niro senior, Jane Freilicher, Louisa Matthíasdóttir, and her husband, painter Leland Bell (1922-91), not a Hofmann alumnus. The work of the artists of that time reflected the new America: the fast rhythm of the big city, the stimuli of urban life and, not least, jazz. The Jane Street coterie loved the new music, and some of its members were themselves competent jazz musicians, feeling a strong connection between this music and abstract art. The rhythms of abstraction were irregular, like jazz, and their idols were such men as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, the pioneers of Bebop. Among the artists captivated by jazz rhythms was Dutch artist Piet Mondrian, who lived in New York during the war. One of his best-known works is Broadway Boogie-Woogie.
Blaine abandoned abstract painting around 1950 after a stay in France, and she is best known for works which are odes to nature – not least plants and gardens, which she depicts in all the colours of the rainbow. Robert De Niro senior, a precocious artist, began his art training at the age of eleven. He worked on the basis of visual reality: landscape, still life and models. Unusually rigorous in his approach, he made dozens of sketches for each painting; these are characterised by vibrant colour, the forms emphasised with black outlines.
Jane Freilicher is the only living artist among the exhibitors here, and in her eighty-fifth year she is still hard at work. In March this year she opened a one-woman show, including new paintings, at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York.For many years she has been painting her immediate environment – still lifes and views from her home in Greenwich Village and her studio on Long Island – documenting the ever-changing visage of the city, and encroachment on the green areas of Long Island.
The exhibition comprises over 40 paintings by Hans Hoffman and his students. All the works by non-Icelandic artists are on loan from private collections in the USA.
Louisa Matthíasdóttir and Nína Tryggvadóttir are counted among Iceland’s most renowned and admired artists, and they are the focus of this exhibition. Part of the show is dedicated to Unuhús, where Una Gísladóttir (1854-1924) provided board and lodging at economic rates.Her son, Erlendur Guðmundsson, later took over the business, and over the years many of his guests became his close friends. Erlendur turns up in their work: he is said, for instance, to be the principal model for the character of the organist in Halldór Laxness’ novel Atómstöðin/Atom Station; and, in Nína Tryggvadóttir’s mosaic mural in the chancel of Skálholt Cathedral, Christ has Erlendur’s face.
Louisa and Nína attracted attention in the small town of Reykjavík, where they made a bohemian, exotic impression: wearing trousers, painting in the town centre, and even scrambling up onto roofs for the best view over the town. At Erlendur’s suggestion they painted portraits of guests at Unuhús, who patiently posed for them. The resulting portraits, with their simplified, dense, solid forms, mark a turning-point in Icelandic portraiture. They are a unique record of a vanished generation of artists.
The exhibition will seek to give the visitor a wider perspective on the development of the Icelandic painters, by including works from other periods of their art, many of which have never been shown in Iceland before. In the early days Louisa and Nína worked closely together, painting each other or the same subjects, and at that stage it can be difficult to distinguish between their paintings. But in due course the art of each developed in different directions. Nína gradually moved away from representation of reality, while Louisa upheld objective reality throughout her career. Both artists spent most of their careers outside Iceland, yet found inspiration in Icelandic nature and the environment of their home country, and it is clear that their emotional bond to Iceland lasted all their lives.
The works in the exhibition have been loaned by many bodies and individuals. The Reykjavík Art Museum wishes to thank the Renate, Hans & Maria Hofmann Trust,Ameringer &Yohe Fine Art, the Estate of Robert De Niro, Sr., Ameringer &Yohe Fine Art, the Tibor de Nagy Gallery and Leigh Morse Fine Arts in New York for the loan of many works of art, and for their generous assistance in preparation of this exhibition. The Museum also expresses its gratitude to Una Dóra Copley and Temma Bell, and thanks the following people and organisations for kindly loaning works of art: Arnar Sölvason, Árni Benediktsson, Hildur Gunnlaugsdóttir, Jóhannes Sigurðsson, Jón Nordal, Jón Óttar Ragnarsson, Margrét Hrafnsdóttir, Matthías Matthíasson,Sigríður Halldórsdóttir,Tómas H. Heiðar, Gljúfrasteinn, the National Gallery of Iceland, the ASÍ Art Museum, NBI hf. and the National University Library of Iceland.
Hrafnhildur Schram curator
English translation Anna Yates Print