Carl Robert Holty
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|“Only when the shapes are large enough can they speak properly”
Abstractionist Carl Robert Holty was known for his biomorphic abstract forms as well as the geometric abstractions he painted with his vibrant color palette. Born in Frieburg, Germany in 1900, Holty's family emigrated to the United States within a year of his birth. There they settled in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. From a young age Holty's raw artistic talent fueled his determination to distinguish himself in the art world. In 1919, he enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago, and shortly thereafter attended the Parsons School of Design. He spent a short time at the National Academy of Design and studied with Francis Coates Jones, younger brother of H. Bolton Jones, the well-known landscape artist. In 1923 Holty returned to his hometown of Milwaukee, where he aspired to make his career as a portraitist.
After he married Holty and his new bride crossed the Atlantic so he could study at the prestigious Royal Academy in Munich, Germany. While en route, a chance meeting with friend and fellow artist, Vaclav Vytlacil, led to Holty switching his enrollment to the Hans Hofmann's school instead. At the Hofmann School Holty was exposed to the world of Abstract Expressionism—a style that would come to define much of his future work. In 1927 Holty’s wife contracted tuberculosis so he withdraw from Hofmann's school in order to relocate his wife to Switzerland for treatment. Despite his short tenure at the Hofmann school, Holty maintained a personal friendship with Hofmann, and continued to incorporate Hofmann's teachings into his work.
Holty’s early work shows influences of Fauvist colors and the work of French artists Maurice de Vlaminck and André Derain. Following his studies at the Hofmann School of Art in Munich, Holty traveled extensively throughout Europe and Northern Africa. Although he is strongly linked to the Abstract Expressionist and Geometric Abstractionist Movements, it is important to note that Holty also experimented with Abstract Creationism, which swept through Paris in 1932. The artist Robert Delaunay sponsored Holty's membership to Paris's Abstraction-Creation Group, where Holty found greater artistic acceptance than at home in the US. The Group published some of Holty's curvilinear abstractions in their magazine the following year. His true passion lay in exploring the Cubism and Neo-plasticism of Mondrian, and after a year's membership, Holty left the Group to explore these techniques.
Upon his return to the United States, Holty played a major role in the establishment and successful operation of the American Abstract Artists organization in New York, an organization comprised mainly of European modernists. He became the chairman in 1938 and exhibited his work with them until his departure from the group in 1944. He also surrounded himself with his old friends from Europe, including Hans Hofmann, Vaclav Vytlacil, and Stuart Davis. His strong advocacy for modern art brought the American art scene exposure to emerging styles, and helped to establish him as a leading American Abstract painter.
Holty's work in the 1930s shows an aesthetic awareness and technical execution derivative of the stylings of Juan Gris, the Synthetic Cubism developed by Pablo Picasso, and even the Organic Surrealism of Joan Miro. Soon he developed his own personal interpretations and application of Cubist concepts which ultimately became biomorphic shapes whose sense of movement became less and less constrained by the Cubist spatial principles. Holty did not give way completely to his inclinations to stretch the structure and guiding principles of Cubism. He respected the structure as well, and its influence is present in his work. He was known to have used tape in order to ensure crisp and exact lines for each form on the canvas. The 1940s saw Holty continue to push the boundaries of Cubist structure with the freedoms of abstract expressionism, while adhering to its technical and aesthetic guidance. By the 1950s, Holty's name had become forever linked to American abstractionism with its large, soft-edged color forms mixing with or floating on chromatic stains. By the 1960s, Holty found himself immersed in experimentation with the relationship between space and form within two-dimensional planes. Using his technical abilities to combine thinly layered tones with a subtly of color, Holty's renderings of space challenged the American art community to see the world in new and cutting-edge ways.
Holty passed away on March 22, 1973 after a long and prolific artistic career. He was survived by his second wife, Elizabeth and daughter from that marriage, Antonia. His teaching career included two years at the Arts Students League in New York and six years at Brooklyn College. In 1970 Holty was given the title of Professor Emeritus of Brooklyn College. A major contributor to the Modernism and Abstract Expressionism in the States, Holty's work continues to influence the world of American painting.
Written and compiled by Hali Thurber
Works for sale
1900 Born June 12 in Freilburg, Germany
Moves with family to Milwaukee
1919 Studies at the Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois
1920-1921 Studies at the National Academy of Design and Parsons School of Design
1923 Returns to Milwaukee to paint commercial portraiture
1926 Moves to Munich, Germany to study at the Royal Academy
Meets Vaclav Vytlacil, and together they enroll at Hans Hofmann School
1926-1935 Travels to Germany, Switzerland, France, North Africa and Hungary
1927 Moves to Switzerland due to wife’s worsening health
1932 Returns to Paris after his wife’s death
Joins Abstract-Creation group
1935 Moves to New York City
1936 Helps establish American Abstract Artists Group
1939 Teaches at the Art Students League, New York
1948-1950 Artist-in-Residence at the University of Georgia, Athens
1950 Teaches at the Art Students League, New York
1950-1952 Professor of fine arts at Washington University, St. Louis, MI
1951 Summer residency at the University of California, Berkeley
1955-1959 Joins fine arts faculty at Brooklyn College, New York
1961 Summer Artist-in-Residence at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
1969 Co-authors The Painter’s Mind with Romare Bearden
1970 Becomes a professor of the Emeritus of Brooklyn College, New York
1973 Dies on March 22nd in New York
1927 Simonson Galerie, Paris, France
1937 New Art Circle, New York
1940 World’s Fair, New York
1943 Nierdendorf Gallery, New York
1944 San Francisco Art Museum
Seattle Art Museum
1946 Carnegie Institute of Pittsburgh
1948 Carnegie Institute of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh
Samuel Kootz Gallery, New York
1953 J.B. Neumann, New Art Circle, New York
1956 Graham Gallery, New York
1969 Georgia State University, Atlanta
1972 The City University of New York
1973 Andrew Crispo Gallery, New York
1926 Milwaukee Art Institute Wisconsin Painters and Sculptors
1944 New Art Circle, New York, NY Abstract and Surrealist Art in America
1945 Whitney Museum of American Art (’57, ’59,’62, ’65, ’69)
1950 Metropolitan Museum of Art American Painting Today
1951 Museum of Modern Art Abstract Painting and Sculpture in America
1963 Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois, IL
Works by the artist may be found at the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Oral history interview with Carl Holty, 1964 December 8, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
American Abstract Art of the 1930s and 1940s. The J. Donald Nichols Collection, Wake Forrest University. Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Harry N. Abrams, Inc.
Virginia M. Mecklenburg. The Patricia and Phillip Frost Collection American Abstraction 1930-1945. National Museum of American Art. Smithsonian Institution Press. 1989. pp. 112-114.
Susan E. Strickler and Elaine D. Gustafson. The Second Wave: American Abstraction from the 1930s and 1940s. Selections from the Penny and Elton Yasuna Collection. Worcester Art Museum.
New York Times. Carl Holty Dies; Abstract Painter. March 24, 1973.
Smithsonian Archives of American Art