By Jessica Vento
Inspiring images suggestive of music are featured in the exhibit “The Music of Painting” by the late John Heliker. The Art Gallery opened this exhibit March 13, and it will continue to run through April 20.
The exhibit focuses on Heliker’s small paintings of figures, landscapes and still lifes, as well as material from his copious daily sketchbooks and manuscript material from his relationships with prominent American composers.
“Heliker loved music, and I think he and some of the composers he was close to — Merton Brown, Lou Harrison, John Cage — responded to some of the same artistic ideas,” said Deborah Rosenthal, professor of Fine Arts, who curated the exhibit. “Heliker was for a while an abstractionist, and he, like those composers, was interested in the modernist ideas that had originated in Europe in the early part of the 20th century. All this, I think, is evident in his work, in his color, in the way his painting resembles drawing.”
During the opening reception of the exhibit, a special “Recital of American Art Song” was featured. Professors Lindsey Christiansen and JJ Penna of Westminster Choir College worked with Rosenthal and arranged a recital of songs with texts by Americans.
“It was just a marvelous set of performances by Westminster vocal students,” Rosenthal said. “It was particularly gratifying to experience the music and its relation to the paintings while sitting in the gallery looking at the paintings.”
Born in 1909, Heliker played a vital role in the artistic and cultural life of New York until his death in 2000. A teacher of painting, he taught at Columbia University for 27 years, and was among the founding faculty of the New York Studio School and the Master of Fine Arts program at the Parsons School of Design.
In Maine, his works are in The Farnsworth Art Museum, The Portland Museum, The Ogunquit Museum and museums at Bowdoin and Colby Colleges. His paintings are included in numerous public and private collections, including the Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Walker Art Center, the Philadelphia Museum and the Whitney Museum, among many others.
“Heliker depicts people in reverie, people a bit apart from the viewer, engaged in drawing, thinking, looking, reading; and we are drawn into the mood of the people and the places he depicts,” Rosenthal said. “His landscape drawings and paintings reflect his longtime residence on the coast of Maine during summers when he came to know look and feel of one place very well.”
In addition, Heliker cofounded the Heliker-LaHotan foundation in 1993 in New York. According to Heliker-lahotan.org, Heliker and his cofounder Robert LaHotan “left their estates to a foundation with a mandate to operate the complex of buildings on Great Cranberry Island in Maine as a place for artists to live and work.”
The Heliker-LaHotan Foundation archives both artists’ pieces from their “long and productive respective careers and a digital database of works, personal papers and other information,” according to the website.
In conjunction with the exhibit, the Heliker-LaHotan Foundation has donated 10 of John Heliker’s sketchbooks to Rider as part of the Foundation’s Sketchbook Project. Some are currently displayed in Moore Library, and all will be available, by appointment, for study by Rider’s art students.
“This is an extraordinary gift,” said Rosenthal. “It offers our students the opportunity to see a major artist’s working process, thinking process, on our own campus — it makes teaching drawing so much more real and serious an endeavor.”
Rosenthal believes there is an immense amount that people can learn from these works of art.
“These paintings represent the dedication of a skilled and devoted artist, working year after year on motifs that never ceased to interest him,” said Rosenthal. “We can understand his devotion to tradition, to the artists he admired, such as Bonnard, and at the same time feel his own personality persistently, and yet graciously, asserted in the work.”
Printed in the 3/26/14 edition.