Carl Holty, a bridge between European modernism and the American art scene of the ’60s and ’70s, found original solutions to some of the deepest problems in abstract painting.
To call someone “an artist’s artist” is generally considered to be damning with faint praise, but in the case of the abstract painter Carl Holty, it is both literally true and in no way derogatory. Born in 1900, Holty started doing important work in the 1930s but really came into his own during the ’50s. His best paintings were made during the ’60s and early ’70s, right up until his death in 1973. Throughout all these decades of steady work, Holty never found fame with the general public, but he was held in extremely high regard by his peers—for his artistic achievement first and foremost, but also for his efforts as a theorist and teacher to define the nature of modern painting and, not least, for his genial and unselfish collegiality.
His friend and fellow artist George L. K. Morris recalled his first encounter with Holty, at the 1936 meeting in New York at which the American Abstract Artists group was founded. During the ’30s, abstract art had a hard row to hoe in this country, due to the dominance of social realism and the more figurative aspects of Surrealism. Those artists who wanted to work in a purely abstract mode felt the need to band together for mutual support and to promote their ideas. Morris later wrote, “It soon became apparent that Holty provided just what the organization needed. Although complete as an artist, he was by nature pragmatic—he had no patience with nebulous comments. In other respects he was also unique; many of the New York abstractionists of that period—for good reason—were suffused with perpetual Weltschmerz. Not Carl Holty, who seemed possessed of a native buoyancy. I never saw him shy or retiring; he always had a way of countering negativism with some pertinent anecdote.”
Holty’s own life could furnish the materials for many an anecdote. While, as a Midwesterner, hailing from Milwaukee, he might seem provincial with respect to the New York art world he inhabited, in fact he was a very cosmopolitan man. During the 1920s and early ’30s he lived and studied in Germany and France, absorbing the principles and practices of modern art at its source. His background also opens a window onto a lost world of vibrant German-American culture that was still very deeply connected to the Old World. Holty’s father had emigrated from Germany to Milwaukee, which was then home to one of the biggest German communities in the U.S. There, he worked first as an actor in the German-language theater and then became a medical doctor. In 1899, in search of more medical training, he took his family back to Germany, which was, in the years before World War I, a destination for seekers of scientific and artistic education from all over the world. In the city of Freiburg, the next year, Carl was born. When the future painter was less than a year old, the Holty family returned to Wisconsin.
As a boy in Milwaukee, Holty used to go on walks and errands with his grandfather, and on one of those occasions, when he was 10, they wandered into the Layton Art Gallery (its collection is now incorporated into that of the Milwaukee Art Museum). Holty recalled, “When we turned to our right and entered the first picture gallery my emotional reaction was almost frightening. I believe that my hand reached out for my grandfather’s because he asked me if something was wrong. Nothing was wrong, but everything about that day and all other days had been transformed, and I had my first glimpse of what was to be the medium of the most real sensations of my life.” Of that encounter, Holty also said, on another occasion, “This is the day I would say I was born.”
A few years later, in 1914, Holty got his first exposure to modern art when a group of 100 Cubist paintings from Paris were exhibited in Milwaukee thanks to Gimbel’s department store, which commissioned the works for a U.S. tour in the wake of the 1913 Armory Show. By then he was taking private art lessons and painting constantly in the attic of his family’s house. After high school graduation, Holty studied art—in the traditional academic way, with much copying of casts of Greek and Roman sculpture—at the Milwaukee Normal School; his teacher there was Gustave Moeller, who had been a fellow art student, some 20 years earlier in Milwaukee, of Edward Steichen. At the age of 20, Holty left for New York, where he spent two years studying at the Parsons School of Design and the National Academy of Design. After a few years back in Milwaukee supporting himself with portrait commissions, Holty received a family bequest that enabled him to live independently for the following 25 years. With this money, he went to Munich, Germany, in 1926, to study with Hans Hofmann, the great teacher of modernism who would eventually come to America and whose influence spans several generations of artists on both sides of the Atlantic.
While studying with Hofmann, Holty mastered a precise, structured style, based on the reduction of forms and elements of space to geometric shapes, that remained dominant in his work until the 1950s. In 1930, he moved to Paris. There he befriended Robert Delaunay, whose Orphic school espoused an intensely color-based type of abstraction. Through Delaunay, Holty was invited to join an international cenacle called the Abstraction-Creation group, whose members included such luminaries as Theo van Doesburg, Jean Hélion, Albert Gleizes, and Jean Arp. The only other American in the group was Alexander Calder. The influences from van Doesburg and Mondrian’s Neoplasticism and other “non-objective” currents absorbed in Paris led to Holty’s leaving virtually all references to nature and the external world behind by the mid-1930s.
In 1936 Holty was back in New York, which would be his base from then on—although he returned to Milwaukee at regular intervals throughout his life. It was in that year that he co-founded American Abstract Artists; as an emissary from the avant-garde of Europe and an accomplished practitioner of hard-edged geometric abstraction, he naturally had the standing to do so. His fellow members included Morris, Albert E. Gallatin, Josef Albers, Burgoyne Diller, Ibram Lassaw, Giorgio Cavallon, and Ilya Bolotowsky. The AAA’s formation was partly motivated by outrage at the fact that MoMA’s 1936 exhibition “Cubism and Abstract Art” included almost no Americans.
Paradoxically, after his heroic efforts for the cause of abstraction, during the early 1940s Holty allowed figuration to return to his compositions. His paintings from this period seem haunted by the recurring figures of a horse and rider, which must have had a deep psychic resonance for him. He felt that there was a necessary awkwardness in this imagery, and wrote, by way of explanation or justification, “We will struggle long before we arrive at a complete new imagery…and our work will perhaps have a fanciful character for a long while, but its indistinctness will be like the shadows on the wall from Plato’s fire. The images that cast the shadows cannot yet be discerned.”
After again abandoning figuration as a dead end, Holty continued to search for the “images that cast the shadows” in other ways. The late ’40s and early ’50s saw him experimenting with an “all-over” style using tiny recurring formal elements like tesserae, and striving for greater and greater flatness—a preoccupation at the time of both painters and critics, notably Clement Greenberg. “Every bit of ‘background’ must be dissolved,” wrote Holty, “and brought into two dimensional equilibrium with the forms and lines invented.” His canvases from this period seek solutions to the same problems of space, structure, and form as before, but with a painterly rather than a hard-edged approach.
In 1957, Holty had a breakthrough that led to the last and greatest phase of his work. He began working with thinned-out washes of color, which allowed him to express himself in a more lyrical, contemplative way. It was as if a Romantic spirit had enlivened the Classical rigor of his former hard-edged, analytic abstraction. And while figuration did not reappear, Holty’s abstract paintings from this time on must be seen in reference to nature, a source of inspiration that the artist associated with his Wisconsin roots. Light coming through clouds, various colors of the sky, and even suggestions of rural landscapes can clearly be seen—albeit very much abstracted—in his later paintings. This interest in nature put Holty at odds with some of his earlier associates and mentors; in a theoretical book called The Painter’s Eye (1969), Holty and his co-author and friend Romare Bearden wrote, “Mondrian like Kandinsky, whom he detested, fell into the same trap—namely, to destroy the memory of the world as seen and sensed.” In his last body of work, Holty was painting at many removes from sight and sense, neither literally nor even metaphorically; but he was painting, in a very subtle way, the memories or psychic traces of the experiences of seeing and sensing.
Bearden described his friend’s method of working during the 1960s—placing the canvas in a horizontal position so that the washes of diluted paint, applied with big house-painting brushes, wouldn’t drip downward, and then walking around the canvas to check the composition from all sides, because “Holty’s composition depended on an interpenetration of color planes from each side of the canvas, as opposed to the usual method of planes moving in varying approximations of depth from a frontal position.”
Despite an early start and exposure to the best minds at a formative age, Holty had to wait a long time before all the elements coalesced into an art that fully satisfied him. While he created strong and distinctive work throughout his career, he is an example—J.M.W. Turner is another—of the liberation that comes with “late work.” With certain creators, age brings not declining powers but the ability to relax into spontaneity and make a surprising new statement. And no wait is too long. As Holty himself put it, “If the problem is solved in a lifetime, why that is soon enough.”
By John Dorfman