Shaping the Structure of Painting
by Robert C. Morgan
MARC STRAUS GALLERY | SEPTEMBER 5 – OCTOBER 5, 2012
I have followed the work of Charles Hinman over the past 30 years, well aware that he has been working much longer than that. Add another 25 years, and you’ll get the approximate length of his distinguished career and inexorable commitment to a single idea, comparable to Sir Isaac Newton’s reputed single-mindedness; Hinman has been painting hard-edged, shaped abstract canvases for over half a century. His active involvement as a painter parallels Frank Stella during the mid-1960s when both artists became involved in changing the format of a painting from a mainstay rectilinear surface to other improbable shapes. In some ways, Hinman’s early painting from 1964 became a touchstone for artists who gradually began to focus their attention on the shaped canvases. The genre, in which both he and Stella were major practitioners, evolved during a strategic period in the history of contemporary abstract painting, a period that refuted the authority of the gesture in favor of geometric space. As new variations on this theme began to arrive on the scene, works by Leon Polk Smith, Ellsworth Kelly, and Ron Gorchov, among others, came to the forefront of critical attention. When such enthusiasm begins to take hold, often the origins of such momentum are left by the wayside, which to some extent has been the dilemma for Charles Hinman.
In theory, the prototype for this development may go back to Barnett Newman’s “The Wild” (1950), a single linear vertical “zip” framed without a color field as if the wall itself would replace the absent chromatic field. Although Newman’s interests did not take this notion much further, he was clearly focused on the rectangle as the source for his framing support throughout the greater span of his career. Then, two years before the artist’s death, he painted two triangular paintings, “Jericho” (1969) and “Chartres” (1969). Newman laid the groundwork for Hinman and Stella—including the latter’s metallic paintings from 1963, and color polygons from 1966—to break down the doors and move outside the conventional rectangle. (Although the two artists were working virtually at the same time, they were structuring their canvases very differently from one another. Stella continued to work systematically on a flat surface, while Hinman projected the surface forward using wood supports underneath. The distinction between these two forms of shaping their paintings played a crucial role in how their styles evolved.)
Hinman’s early recognition came with work he included in an important exhibition at Sidney Janis Gallery in 1964 – 65, in which he showed “Poltergeist” (1964), a constructed painting resembling a large, somewhat threatening hairpin. Regardless of its associations, the painting immediately grabbed the attention of critics and curators alike. This led to an important show at Richard Feigen’s gallery and inclusion in another major exhibition at Tibor de Nagy titled Shape and Structure, in which Stella proved influential in supporting Hinman’s participation. MoMA soon acquired “Poltergeist” and other museums followed in purchasing others of his shaped canvases.
The current exhibition at the Marc Straus Gallery on the Lower East Side may represent a long overdue comeback for Hinman. The show features an important selection of works—chosen from the artist’s complex triangular constructions, called the Gem series (2010-11), and the sandwiched Eclipse paintings (2010)—which were shown recently at the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio. Four recent paintings, based on semi-precious stones such as “Aventurine,” “Turquoise,” “Chrysoprase” (Yellow), and “Jasper” (Red)—all from 2012—are being shown for the first time. These are accompanied by one of Hinman’s truly majestic paintings, titled “Dyad” (2012), where two panels that appear identical are shown together, moving vertically in two directions, one up, the other down. The geometrical shapes—one on each panel—are painted white, leaving the remainder of the linen raw. Upon first glance, the illusion of light and shadow, rather than paint and material, creates a nearly irreconcilable paradox. Given the title, which refers to the smallest sociological group, being two persons, the visual paradox seems to move beyond the painting proper into the realm of a conceptuality whereby the abstract forms suggest an interpersonal relationship.
What distinguishes the earlier “Gems” is the amazing reflection of color that rises on the white wall from behind the paintings, so that even as the cubic shapes are painted white, the subtle hint of color gives the work a complete sense of harmony and balance, miraculously bringing the beautiful and the spiritual into a single focus. These works, preceded by “Dark Yellow Eclipse” and “Blue Eclipse” (both 2010), in each case feature a square white canvas in front that literally covers a monochrome behind it, with a slight separation on one side to allow the color to emerge. The exhibition is filled with such phenomenological investigations. Finally, one might conclude (to use the phrase of D.H. Lawrence), these works represent an “intelligence of the heart.” They are paintings that are meant to exude feeling as we look and encounter them. They are the paradigms, if not the harbingers, of what it means when we communicate with an artist through a work of art.
299 Grand St. // NY, NY
ContributorRobert C. Morgan
Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.