RAYMOND HENDLER

Raymond Hendler in the studio, 1978.

"The artist is hero, sage and wiseman-leader in any field. The big person." Raymond Hendler

 

RAYMOND HENDLER: HERO

Raymond Hendler (1923-1998) was a Philadelphia born, first generation, action painter,who received his first set of oils at the age of ten. Responding to a calling, he began his art education in 1934, at the age of eleven. It included study at the Graphic Sketch Club, Philadelphia College of Art, Pennsylvania Academy of Art and the Tyler School of Art, Temple University. He studied with Philip Evergood, Lewis Daniels and assisted Moses Soyer at the Contemporary School of Art, in Brooklyn from 1948-49.

His mature work began in the ferment of postwar Paris, in 1949, independent of the New York scene. Supported by the G.I. Bill, he studied at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and exhibited at the Musee D'Art Moderne. He was one of the founding members of Galerie Huit, the first American cooperative gallery in Europe. Located on 8 rue Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre, just across the Seine from Notre-Dame; the gallery was intended to be a focal point for an exchange of ideas between European and American artists.

Through association with such luminaries as Karel Appel and André Breton, Hendler was exposed to surrealism and its intended program - the liberation of the human spirit. He credited his friend, the Australian sculptor, Robert Klippel, with support at a crucial moment that led to a career-defining breakthrough. An activity that involved the use of the automatic and the unconscious, he would later refer to as "serious doodling and judicious scribbling."

As Raymond told it, he was struggling to absorb his influences and go deeper into himself. Though he felt his work was promising, he had yet to find his voice. Things had gotten to crisis proportions and the idea of giving up painting and leaving Paris was becoming an increasingly attractive option. One evening at the legendary Left Bank hangout, Le Select - Raymond, his first wife, Muncie and Klippel, wrestled with the matter until the café closed. They made their way back to the couple's tiny Montparnasse hotel room (that doubled as his studio), where the session continued. The usually optimistic painter was at his wits' end. He asked in his frustration, "What do I do about this, Bob?" They repeated their usual routine, reminding him, "just be yourself."

The discussion continued into the "wee-est" hours of the morning (about 4 AM), when Klippel made this concrete suggestion; "Do like I do. Take a piece of paper - forget everything - just draw some shapes."

His friend left, his wife went to bed and with these words in mind, and graphite in hand, Raymond began. Drawing after drawing looked like this artist or that - Miro, Picasso - but "Raymond Hendler still wasn't there." That morning after a few hours of sleep he tried again, only to experience similar results. Finally, he paused disgusted, then with a certain kind of desperation, scribbled "madly" across the page. Looking at what he'd done there emerged a moment of profound recognition. Known for his urbane - with a touch of the vulgar - wit, he would sum up this moment as only he could. "It may have been shit - but it was mine!"

What began as an exercise to free himself became the birthplace of his liberation. Raymond had revealed in an instant - a way of going "inside" - he would investigate, develop and grow to understand, for his entire career.

As his work developed, success would come at a price. A majority in the American art colony ostracized him for the radical, non-objective painting he was now doing. "But," as he said, "the guys that counted helped." Among them, a perceptive painter of like mind, the French-Canadian expatriate, Jean Paul Riopelle (a member of Les Automatistes in Montreal), realized a kinship and befriended him. As an expression of their mutual respect, they would trade paintings during their association. At the same time in a 1950 review in La Revue Moderne, for Raymond's first one-man show, at Galerie Huit, art historian and critic, Georges Turpin recognized his deep search and acknowledged a unique approach to the canvas, starting from scratch as it were, ["sans systèm préconçu"] without any preconceived ideas.

With his return from Paris in 1951, he was introduced to the burgeoning New York art scene. A serendipitous meeting with the painter, Landes Lewitin (who was by chance, in the next bed during a brief stint in the hospital), led to Greenwich Village, the Cedar Bar and the 8th Street Club. He would meet and befriend important figures of an emerging vanguard, including art critic and historian, Harold Rosenberg and the painters, Philip Guston and Franz Kline. He and Kline became particularly close during the period of the fifties, remaining friends until the artist's death in 1962. He was a voting member of the New York Artists Club from 1951 until its end in 1957 and with the sculptor, Philip Pavia was responsible for its resurrection in the 1960's.

Throughout the fifties, Raymond participated in numerous exhibitions including, "an American, one-man premiere," at the Dubin Galleries in Philadelphia, "fresh from Paris" and historic invitationals at the Camino, March and Stable Galleries in New York.

From 1952-54, while he continued to paint, he attempted a brief foray into the gallery business. Hendler Galleries was the first and only avant-garde gallery in Philadelphia. Sam Feinstein wrote about the gallery in a 1953 Art Digest review, "It is a brave and pioneering effort in a city where polite indifference to 'radical' art has often succeeded in channeling the artists' viewpoint into safe and socially cozy academicism." He exhibited many of the top New York School painters including, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Guston and Kline and was the first to introduce to America (friends made in Paris), Sam Francis, Shirley Jaffe, Milton Resnick and Riopelle. When he found it interfered with his painting, he gave it up.

As early as 1950, dissatisfied with limitations he found in a purely automatic process, he began to systematically expand his activity to more fully involve the use of the "whole person". He wanted to bring to bear, on the canvas, as much of himself as possible - the conscious, as well as, the unconscious. By 1960, emerging from a period underground, he had developed from the original imagery, his own distinct vocabulary of form.

For the period of the 1960's he was represented by Rose Fried. Founded in 1944, the Rose Fried Gallery was one of the top five galleries of the time. A champion of early modernist painting, Rose was instrumental in introducing to the American public many abstract painters including, Marcel Duchamp, Juan Gris, Gino Severini, Torres Garcia, Piet Mondrian and Vasily Kandinsky. Raymond Hendler's work would find its way into many important public and private collections during this period.

Lawrence Campbell wrote in a 1962 Art News review, for a one-man show at Rose Fried,  "They are constructed in bands, cartouches, right-angled color planes which make a picture environment…the 'written' sign shapes (sometimes contoured with bold black lines) have a free, almost posterish appearance. They suggest greatly abstracted studios containing still-lifes, figures or sculptures. This present reviewer encountered a group of strong paintings, as emphatic as clenched fists."

His friend, Franz Kline, wrote in a forward for the exhibition catalogue, "Since first I saw Hendler's paintings in 1952 they have developed into a larger simpler form arriving at a personally abstract image controlled within a painted space. The direct austere design and color complexes paint the image without undue nuances - with clarity and mature independence."He was the only artist Kline ever wrote for.

Kline's passing was a blow. Raymond's personal files contain a touching and revealing note from the artist, Philip Guston, "Wednesday- 9PM Dear Ray - Here it is, right after your moving call to me - I know how much you loved this gentle, great artist, our dear friend. ever, Phil."

In 1963, he was the recipient of the Longview Foundation Purchase Award for the Walker Art Center, juried by art critic, Thomas Hess, sculptor, David Smith, de Kooning, Guston and Rosenberg.

In 1964, Georgine Oeri, curator and art historian wrote in Quadrum, the international magazine of modern art, "Raymond Hendler's work has vitality and freshness, a joyful, even playful exuberance. In his early work (which was close to, but independent of Pollock); he spread the overall web of linear forms as so many borderlines, between that first place of human awareness and that which is outside it, between the discovered and the undiscovered world, between ["l'être et le néant"] being and nothingness.

Raymond outlined his painting concepts in a statement for a museum exhibition,"The artist has always worked from what Joseph Campbell has called 'the focal point of human wonder.' Today, that point, that crucial mystery, is man himself. To make such a focus manifest the artist must reveal the reality (the what is) that is the razor's edge between his conscious and his unconscious."

He saw art making as a serious intellectual activity - "an ongoing deep inquiry." He believed, that a constant dialogue about the subject (with oneself and with others), was as vital to the creative act as was the work in the studio. One had to hone one's thinking against a larger social and cultural backdrop. While he resisted labels, Raymond would lightheartedly refer to himself as "a closet, first generation, action painter." He preferred action painter; Harold Rosenberg's seminal reference to the arena, to abstract expressionist, the commonly used term associated with the art critic and historian, Clement Greenberg - a tag he found insufficient.

Raymond's activity embodied a ritual of self-transformation that included self-expression, but was not limited to it. The "abstract" image on the canvas reflected his struggle - his search for meaning - his identity, not progress in the development of form. His context was the arena of life. His studio and canvas, a microcosm of that macrocosm. A place to take life on - a space to take oneself on, a field to do battle - a stage to act.

He differed with Rosenberg in a subtle, but consequential way. While he understood that Rosenberg's task was to delineate, the uniqueness of mid-twentieth century American painting, the import of its break with the past and its need to respond to the heart and soul of a modern age, there was this matter of emphasis. While he agreed that the canvas had become an arena, he also felt that it had always been just such a place - right back to the cave. More important for Raymond was not how American painting was different, but how it was the same.

The new painting was in his estimation, "the same thing - with a different look."

The crux of this difference in focus (he and Rosenberg discussed this directly) was the issue of "art and not art." Raymond saw as his fundamental task - the separation of the artist, "the big person," from a world of art pretenders. It was the question of standards in a world with no absolutes. One had to "draw the line" somewhere. His revolutionary, egalitarian response; "Everybody's stuck with themselves," one cannot abdicate this responsibility to others. Ultimately, these issues, these questions have to be tackled by the maker and by the viewer - by the individual.

* * *

In 1970, Raymond received the sad news that Rose Fried had passed away. In this single event he lost a dear friend, his dealer and his gallery. He deliberately chose not to secure new representation. He decided, as artists often do, to go underground. Tired of the distractions of exhibiting, coupled with "gnawing dissatisfactions" with his work, he wanted to focus his energies fully on developing his painting. This was a decision that would prove a blessing to his art, but a detriment to his career. Though his canvases would continue to appear in innumerable venues, they would not see a New York City gallery again - for many years.

* * *

Raymond's practice was generally to work on a group of related paintings, rather than individual isolated works - moving them in unison for an extended period of time toward completion. He would often include in his drawings or paintings, maxims or definitions "Hendlerisms" he coined, related to his art thinking. This program would extend to significant phrases, as well as his initials or dates. A practice he began in the early 1960's, they exist in the picture both literally and visually. Though his image could evoke figurative meanings, his process was strictly nonrepresentational. As he worked, he would summarily dismiss any suggestion of a recognizable form. He was not against the apple (though he abhorred its misuse) - objective painting was just not his way.

During his underground period, he produced a body of work that can be separated into fairly distinct phases. Early in the 1970's he became concerned that he was beginning to imitate himself. This phase, starting around 1975, represents a response to this concern - a return to his original format. "All that was getting back to myself," he explained, "I had to retrace all my steps." With occasional color accents, black "undulating line" and scribble produced imagery, dominate the canvas.

In this phase he would make a crucial commitment to a hard edge.

This is followed by several years where he strips all enhancement from his essential image; combining large panels of pure color with canvases in stark black and white. A juxtaposition of space that served to amplify certain paradoxes (the yin and yang) he found in his work. This culminates in a series of monumental, resonant, canvases that continue to exploit his source. Adding broad bars or thin stripes to many of the paintings, he finds the panels no longer necessary. These bold, iconic images stand elegantly on their own.

The 1980's reflect a deepened understanding of his process. He returns to a full palette of color and "reinvents" his unique vocabulary of form. With a nod to his 1960's on expanses of "fresh white," he would continue to consolidate and distill his infinitely varied Hendler alphabet for the remainder of his life.

* * *

Though it derives from the unconscious and the use of the automatic, one of the unique aspects of his imagery is its hard edge. While he would begin with a gesture, gone are the drips and the residue of the brush's drag, commonly present in mid-century American painting. This evolution was a gradual one. It was always his method to keep what he liked and change what he didn't like - his maxim, "like and good are synonymous." As he worked, studying his line and its impact on the picture and its space, he found he favored an increasingly cleaner, clearer edge.

While he was always open to chance and the significant role it played in his painting; he detested accident. The challenge was to determine the difference. He came to feel that there was just too much accident in a fuzzy edge and it muddied his space. It did not matter that so many of his contemporaries felt these effects enhanced their pictures. They were not for him. Raymond was searching for his own kind of clarity.

This led to his notion of "further choice." He did not just want to make the line thicker or thinner, straighter or less straight. He wanted to make it more how he liked it, more what he meant. He would feel his way, scanning the image again and again, syncretistically, involving his whole person; locating just that area (just that spot) that was bothering him. Sometimes making big changes, but often the most minute of adjustments. He would extend this approach to everything about the picture - carving, sculpting, putting in, taking out - painstakingly moving the image towards an end that was in his judgement, more evocative, more meaningful, "more Raymond". A painting was done, he would say, "when there is nothing more I have to do."

Painting was his obsession, but he was not obsessive. It was his goal, not to make it perfect (he did not believe in absolutes), but to make it "right," his "better-better," for all his reasons. He wanted to make it clear, but not free of all of the paradox and ambiguity of life. He wanted to make it pure, but not without his unfailing humanity. Creating his image was an ethical-moral involvement. He felt a deep personal and social responsibility to deliver real quality. In his view, art was and has always been a religious activity and "a biological necessity."

* * *

Raymond was never in a position to rely on his painting for a sustained income. Along with his gregarious nature he was blessed with a rare teaching ability. In his classroom he was the "benevolent dictator" who fought for his students' artistic freedom while demanding that they think for themselves. It would be an understatement to say he was popular. Throughout his career he held various notable teaching positions, including, the Moore College of Art and Parsons School of Design. He was at one time head of the painting department at the Minneapolis College of Art and later, Director, of the evening school at the Pratt Institute and the first year program at the School of Visual Arts. He taught at the University of Minnesota from 1968 until he retired, a full professor, in 1984.

When he considered his painting had grown sufficiently - "a properly important body of work" - he chose to retire early and moved with his wife, the painter, Mary Rood, to East Hampton, New York with hopes of re-entering the art world's stage - New York City. Though he made a sustained effort, he would never know that triumph. In his last days, at a particularly candid moment, he expressed his immense disappointment and the fear that no one would ever care.

The art world had changed dramatically in the time he'd been away.

On his roll top desk, where he spent many a sleepless night, in his final years, working with felt tipped pens on drawing after drawing; there lay his final work. With a few of his trademark shapes, it contained a prescient phrase, inspired by a youthful memory, "Maine,1942. Across the lake. Hero."

The painter, Robert Richenburg, his friend of fifty years, wrote for an obituary in the East Hampton Star, "With Ray Hendler's passing we lose a rare and tough individualist who insisted on seeing things his way. He has left us a legacy both harsh and profound. He was an astonishing designator who made marks that enable us to enter his vision of the world. I will miss him."

* * *

When people think of the New York School, what often comes to mind are the well known. History tells us that there is the potential for others who have made a significant contribution, to be missed along the way. Raymond Hendler's biggest liability may have been a profound distaste for self-promotion. He would often express the belief, that if one just worked at the work, quality would prevail. Sadly, if this were so, Raymond would not live to see it. It would be up to others - those who love him - to make this dream come true.

In 2008, he was the focus of an exhibition in New York City at the Katharina Rich Perlow Gallery, Raymond Hendler and Artists from his 'Avant Garde' Circle. Artists included were: Willem de Kooning, Sam Francis, Philip Guston, Shirley Jaffe, Franz Kline, George McNeil, Stephen Pace, Jackson Pollock, Milton Resnick, Robert Richenburg, Jean Paul Riopelle, Ludwig Sander, Yvonne Thomas and Jack Tworkov.

David Cohen, art critic and historian wrote in a review of the exhibition for the New York Sun, "Like the biblical Daniel, Hendler seems to have survived the Perlow's decision to place him in a lion's den. Posthumously, he is a prophet to be welcomed back to his adopted hometown."

Patrick Mealey 2009

 

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