Pioneers from Provincetown: The Roots of Figurative Expressionism

    Installation shot of “Pioneers from Provincetown: The Roots of Figurative Expressionism” curated by Adam Zucker at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum during the summer of 2013.

Installation shot of “Pioneers from Provincetown: The Roots of Figurative Expressionism” curated by Adam Zucker at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum during the summer of 2013.

In the summer of 2013 my research on the East Coast Figurative Expressionist movement had culminated in the form of an exhibition at the Provincetown Arts Association and Museum, as well as an accompanying exhibition catalog. For me this marked the beginning to a mapping of the aesthetic and social aspects of this under represented movement. Picking the artists was no easy task, Provincetown was a hotbed for the avant-garde expressionists and creative minds, especially during the 1950s and 60s. There are artists who I’d have liked to include, and a much larger and more extensive Provincetown-centric survey would certainly include several additional artists. Notably Benny Andrews, Peter Dean, Nanno de Groot, Sherman Drexler, Mary Frank, Nicholas Sperakis, and Anne Tabachnick. Below, I have condensed as well as edited my catalog essay into a more concise overview of the rise of the avant-garde in Provincetown. To read more please consider purchasing a copy of the exhibition catalog. In future posts, the Figurative Expressionist zeitgeist will be mapped out from New York City, to Chicago, to the West Coast Bay Area.

Provincetown and the Growth of the American Avant Garde

Summer in Provincetown, Massachusetts is full of sunshine, fresh air and spirited, colorful pigment being applied on canvas through the brushstrokes of the many artists who make the pilgrimage there to paint. Provincetown has been both a popular and central place to study and produce art since the early twentieth century, when Charles W. Hawthorne founded The Cape Cod School of Art (1899) and taught plein air figure painting to aspiring young American artists.[1] By 1916 the Boston Globe described Provincetown as the “Biggest Art Colony in the World.”[2] For over one hundred years, in fact, it has operated as an art colony that attracts creative talent of all kinds, making Provincetown America’s longest continual functional art colony, one in which artists, writers, and performers form supportive communities to foster artistic endeavors. It is not difficult to see why Provincetown became a painter’s settlement. It sits on the very tip of Cape Cod, surrounded by beautiful blue water, crisp golden sand, and wonderful natural light. It is a quaint village, free from bustling industry and loud transportation. There is fresh air, chirping birds, and the sounds of friends, neighbors, and strangers all happily engaged with one another. From the moment one arrives, there is a feeling of absolute freedom, vitality, and individuality.

Blessed with such natural and human virtues, Provincetown earned a place in the chronicle of American modernism and the avant-garde as a crucial pioneering location, serving as the starting point for many important American artists and acting as a bridge to New York City for many artists and artistic movements. In the late 1940s and 1950s Provincetown emerged as one of the nation’s premier art localities for contemporary American art. The first major exhibition of Abstract Expressionists, called Forum 49, was held at 200 Commercial Street in Provincetown in the summer of 1949.[3] Gallery 256, established in 1953, was the first artist cooperative, and at this time branches of Manhattan galleries began to open along the main drag of Commercial Street. One major gallery was HCE Gallery, run by Nat Halper at 481 Commercial Street. HCE was known as the Kootz Gallery, as it was founded by New York art dealer Sam Kootz in 1953. It showed blue chip artists whose names were already established in New York City.[4] HCE facilitated commercial success and mainstream notoriety for Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), Milton Avery (1885-1965), Robert Motherwell (1915-1991), Franz Kline (1910-1962), Mark Rothko (1903-1970), and many other Abstract Expressionists.

Hans Hofmann (1880-1966), who was the axis of the art scene during the forties and fifties, taught his unique method of making art in Provincetown during the summer.[5] During this time, the art scene centered almost entirely on Abstract Expressionism, and Hofmann’s students—such as Lee Krasner (1908-1984), Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011), Fritz Bultman (1919-1985), and Nicolas Carone (1917-2010)—included many of the first generation of U.S. Abstract Expressionist painters.[6] Hofmann’s approach to color and to spatial theory, which he called “Push and Pull,” [7] set the tone for anti-illusionist painting. While he urged his students to use impulsiveness in rearranging accurate details, Hofmann still used a model or set up representational still lifes in the classroom. As he circled around the classroom and worked on students’ drawings, smudging and fixing their strokes, lines, and compositions, he would give constructive criticism, suggesting alternative methods his students might take. On Fridays many in the town would line up to listen to Hofmann’s public critiques, which he presented outside the classroom.[8]

* For a very extensive survey on Provincetown’s modernist and avant-garde roots, I suggest reading the catalog for The Tides of Provincetown exhibition which was exhibited at the New Britain Museum in 2011. *

Figurative Expressionism in Provincetown

The influence of Hofmann’s expertise in the method of modern painting was also significant in many of the seminal Figurative Expressionist artists’ compositional development. Hofmann’s students (in New York City and Provincetown) in the early 1950s, such as Jan Müller, Wolf Kahn (b.1927), Gandy Brodie (1925-1975), George McNeil (1908-1995), George Segal (1924-2000), Jay Milder, Red Grooms (b.1937), Selina Trieff (b.1934), Robert Henry (b.1933), Robert Beauchamp, and Robert De Niro, Sr. (1922-1993), became completely concerned with avant-garde figurative art. The rise of the Figurative Expressionism (see American Figurative Expressionism and its Roots), had reached its zenith in Provincetown, Massachusetts during the mid-1950s through the early 1960s. In addition to their affinities with abstractionism, the artists of this school were influenced by the Renaissance and Old Master paintings as well as European cubism and expressionism, and they drew subject matter from the Old and New Testaments, from Romantic poetry and theater, and from other visual and literary archetypes, much of which was filtered through notions of the human psyche and of human experiential horizons that were derived from or inspired by the psychoanalytic theories of Carl Jung and that reflected the human condition in the wake of World War II.

Jan Muller, Seated Figures, 1953, Oil on canvas, 54 x 49.5 in.

Jan Müller, Seated Figures, 1953, Oil on canvas, 54 x 49.5 in.

One of the seminal artists in this stage of the figurative movement was the German refugee Jan Müller, who attended Hofmann’s school in Provincetown from 1945 to 1950. Müller’s early work shows the unmistakable influence of Hofmann’s style of abstraction, with paintings from the period 1948 to 1950 consisting of erratic squares and primary colors. However, Müller’s mosaic-inspired abstractions soon shifted toward gestural figuration, and Müller eventually clashed with his mentor by returning to completely figurative painting.[1] In his breakthrough work, the artist presents the horrors of fascist utilitarianism revealed through the idyllic lyricism of biblical and classical mythology. Some of his greatest monumental figurative works, such as The Great Hanging Piece and The Search for the Unicorn, were produced in Provincetown in 1957. Around this time Müller expressed the following resolution: “Abstraction is no longer enough for me. So I am returning to the image. The image gives me a wider sense of communication.”[2] Each of the artists included in this exhibition echoed this sentiment in his or her work.

Bob Thompson and Tony Vevers were particularly touched by Jan Müller’s legacy. Thompson first traveled to Provincetown in 1958, six months after Müller’s death. He had never met Müller, but the style that he developed was both unique and indicative of the late artist’s influence. In fact, it was Müller’s wife Dody who told Thompson that he should take an interest in the works of Renaissance and Classical painters.[3] By the time he arrived in New York’s East Village, after his first summer in Provincetown, Thompson’s canvases were full of flat, cut-out figuration of fantastic, idyllic scenes that were rife with allusions to old master painters.

Bob Thompson, Red Cross, 1959, Oil on wood, 15 x 18.5 inches

Bob Thompson, Red Cross, 1959, Oil on wood, 15 x 18.5 inches

While Thompson may have honored the work of the old masters by appropriating and improvising their masterpieces in almost all of his mature works, it was clear that Müller’s foray into figuration had a tremendous impact on his painting. Thompson’s landscapes were just as tumultuous as Müller’s; moreover, just as Müller had been alienated as a refugee from Nazi aggression, Thompson had felt the pressures and disaffection of racism. Each of these artists, too, felt the furor of contemporary life with particular acuteness, resulting in a sense of a race against time and mortality that is evident in their work. Thompson’s riotous landscapes are unique improvisations on themes and subjects from the European masters, and through these biblical and romantic paintings he portrayed both the beauty and the struggle of the modern human condition. At the same time, the artist’s fusion of African culture and aesthetics into a predominantly Western medium showed that being black in a “white world” was something of which Thompson was keenly aware.[4] Nonetheless, his paintings do not convey the contemptuousness of an outsider looking in. Rather, like his reflections of the old masters, Thompson’s images of jazz culture—of the ecstasy of life on the streets and in the clubs of New York City—provide a profound reflection on life in the melting pot of post-World War II America.

Tony Vevers, Whale on the Beach, 1960, Oil on canvas, 36 x 44 inches

Tony Vevers, Whale on the Beach, 1960, Oil on canvas, 36 x 44 inches

An engagement with the lyrical expressionist paintings of Tony Vevers is essential to understanding the history and the spirit of the Provincetown School of the 1950s. Born in England in 1926, Vevers arrived in the United States in 1940, while the Blitzkrieg was in effect in England. Vevers came to Provincetown in 1955 with his wife, the artist Elspeth Halverson. The scenery and lively spirit of the summertime colony was so inspirational that in 1959 Tony and Elspeth made Provincetown their permanent home, settling into a house that was the summertime residence of Mark Rothko.[5] Many of Vevers’ paintings—like Winter Landscape (1955) and Winter Dunes (1960)—reflect the seasonal changes of living year-round on the Cape. Another painting, Whale on the Beach (1960), is set on Cape Cod’s picturesque seashore during a rather drab day (it is unclear what season the painting takes place in, although the figures in jackets as well as the grays in the background suggest a cold day). Inspired by a real incident in Provincetown, the painting shows a beached whale, washed up by the tide, surrounded by a group of enthralled spectators. Vevers reinterpreted the event to feature his two daughters in colorful jackets, the only bright spots in an otherwise dreary scene. Vevers’ landscapes are emotional and imaginative expressions of his relationship with the setting around him. Like many of the other young painters, Vevers acknowledged the influence that Müller had on the Provincetown community in terms of the movement toward the figurative mode. After painting forceful landscapes that often were involved with nature, Vevers became very involved with the figure, which he often incorporated into his landscapes.[6]

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L: Vevers’ “Burial in The Snow” (1958) R: Thompson’s “The Funeral of Jan Müller” (1958)

Vevers and Thompson both painted scenes from Müller’s funeral, which took place at North Truro Cemetery in the winter of 1958.[7] Vevers’ Burial in The Snow (1958) is the largest of several such scenes painted by that artist, and is presently in the collection of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Painted entirely from memory,[8] the work shows a pair of geometric figures in front of the gravesite, huddling together for comfort against a black, gray, and white snow filled background. By contrast, Thompson’s The Funeral of Jan Müller (1958) depicts a scene that he could have only heard about through other Provincetown artists, perhaps from Vevers himself.[9] Like Vevers’ version of the funeral, however, Thompson’s image is bleak and emotionally impactful. The handling of the paint is gestural and loose, and the artist allows the forms to emerge through chaotic dripping and quick, loose brushwork.

13.Lester Johnson Man in the Country 1958, Oil on canvas, 68x90 inches (Permanent collection at PAAM)

Lester Johnson Man in the Country 1958, Oil on canvas, 68×90 inches (Permanent collection at PAAM)

Lester Johnson and Gandy Brodie were also influential mentors for many of the Provincetown Figurative Expressionists. Johnson first came to Provincetown in 1950 and connected with Müller, John Grillo, and Wolf Kahn, as well as with artists who were studying at Hofmann’s school—a group later known as the Hansa Group.[10] Like many of the artists in Provincetown, Lester and his wife, Jo, lived in various locations—first at Edie Euler’s studio on Bradford Street, later in a cabin at the bottom of Race Road, and then in various places on Commercial Street. Around 1951, Johnson experienced a revelation regarding his shift towards Figurative Expressionism: “I had these colors on my palette and I started making diamonds—two on top, two on the sides, two on the bottom and one in the middle. I thought that the painting really worked. It goes across the canvas. It goes up and down. It’s natural. But then I said, ‘no, it’s not done.’ I took a tube of paint and squeezed the paint right onto the canvas, painting faces in each of the seven diamonds. I was real happy but I had no idea what it was all about.”[11] Later, in the mid-1950s, Johnson’s style transformed from pure form to action painting. Overall, he incorporated the psychological aspects of gestural painting with figural imagery and scenes from urban life. This nexus shaped the path for the astutely observed dialogue concerning the human condition that comes across through his work.

Brodie, Gandy, untitled (rose on can), 556Pa80 copy

Gandy Brodie, untitled (rose on can), Oil on canvas, 24 x 18 inches (Permanent collection at PAAM)

Although he attended Hofmann’s New York school briefly in 1950, Gandy Brodie had already begun exhibiting the year before and, in terms of formal training, was largely self-taught. Brodie was particularly helpful to young artists like Bob Thompson and Emilio Cruz, who he introduced to other contemporaries like Red Grooms. While Müller’s influence on Thompson is commonly noted, Brodie’s style was also crucial to Thompson’s artistic development. When the two painters first met in Provincetown in the summer 1958, the senior Brodie was a veteran of the Tenth Street downtown scene in New York City, and Thompson was a young art student from Louisville, Kentucky. However, when Thompson and Brodie shared a studio together in Provincetown during the summer of 1965, it was Thompson who was at the peak of his career, while Brodie had begun to lose favor within the whimsical art world.[12]

Emilio Cruz Untitled 1963, Oil on canvas, 16x20 inches

Emilio Cruz Untitled 1963, Oil on canvas, 16×20 inches

Emilio Cruz, came to Provicnetown to study with Seong Moy, a Chinese-American artist who founded the Seong Moy School of Painting and Graphic Arts. Cruz was also mentored by Brodie, and was quickly inspired by numerous “magical individuals” whom he met in Provincetown.[13] The list of inspirational figures includes Robert Beauchamp, Franz Kline (1910-1962), Mary (b.1933) and Robert Frank (b.1924), Lester Johnson, Milton Avery (1885-1965), and Robert Motherwell. Bob Thompson would be Emilio’s closest friend amongst the artists he met. Cruz also knew of Müller, both through Thompson as well as through Müller’s widow, Dody. Cruz’s enthusiasm being around these important artists provided inspiration for some of his earliest Figurative Expressionist canvases, which featured vibrant colorful dancing figures dripped and spread gracefully across the canvas. After Vevers saw his paintings, he invited Cruz to show at the Sun Gallery (he exhibited there in 1959, 1960, 1961, and 1963). Later on Cruz would show in Provincetown with Nat Halper’s HCE Gallery, and the renowned Zabriskie Gallery.

9.Wolf Kahn, Our Studio in Provincetown, 1956, oil on canvas, 18 x 24 inches

Wolf Kahn, Our Studio in Provincetown, 1956, oil on canvas, 18 x 24 inches

German born Wolf Kahn was a close friend of Müller, Brodie, and Johnson, and was Hofmann’s studio assistant in Provincetown, where he often also served as interpreter for Hofmann’s German. In Provincetown he exhibited with John Grillo (b.1917) at the Pilgrim Gallery, a tiny 25 x 16 foot space on Commercial Street (run by artist and jeweler Earle Montrose Pilgrim) that would later become the innovative Sun Gallery (see below). Kahn’s unique pairing of figuration and abstract Color Field painting set him apart from many of his contemporaries of the New York and Provincetown schools. His paintings juxtapose Hofmann’s “Push and Pull” modernist approach to abstraction with the lightness and mood of Impressionism. There is similarity in his work to the sweeping bands of color in Rothko’s paintings; however, Kahn was steadfast in his determination to portray landscapes through painterly abstraction.

19.Robert Beauchamp Seated Nude with Blue Bulls, 1961, Acrylic on paper, 19.5x29.7 inches (Permanent collection at PAAM)

Robert Beauchamp Seated Nude with Blue Bulls, 1961, Acrylic on paper, 19.5×29.7 inches (Permanent collection at PAAM)

Robert Beauchamp’s painting was also strongly connected with the New York School and American painting. Beauchamp’s work after studying with Hofmann in both New York and Provincetown during the early 1950s constitutes a dreamlike world filled with images of animals, humans, and objects cast in a variety of scales and styles. In works like Seated Nude with Blue Bulls (1961), Beauchamp’s patchwork application of color reflects Hofmann’s push/pull method of separating the figure from the ground without using traditional perspective. Thus, Beauchamp’s figurations seem to appear and disappear from the ground on the plane of the canvas, creating whimsical visual environments. Beauchamp had returned to Provincetown in 1961 on a Walter Gutman Foundation Grant. He lived the whole year at Walter Gutman’s house and met his wife Nadine Valenti during this time.

Red Grooms, Walking Man, 1959, Oil on canvas, 25 ¼ x 25 ¼ in. Courtesy of Yvonne Anderson

Red Grooms, Walking Man, 1959, Oil on canvas, 25 ¼ x 25 ¼ in. Courtesy of Yvonne Anderson

Red Grooms was inspired by the energy and innovation of post-World War II America, especially the culturally rich scenes in New York City and Provincetown. In 1957, Grooms traveled to Provincetown to study at Hofmann’s school. During this time, Grooms worked as a dishwasher at a restaurant called Moors, where he became close friends with another employee, Dominic Falcone (1928-2009), who was one of the founders of the Sun Gallery. When Falcone found out that Grooms was an artist, he introduced Grooms to his partner, Yvonne Anderson, who then invited Grooms to show at the Sun. It was during his first exhibition at the Sun Gallery, when Grooms was signing his name on the gallery’s storefront window, that Falcone gave him the nickname “Red.”[14] Although he is more often noted for his Pop-Art paintings and vibrant mixed media installations, Grooms’ early canvases combined lively figurative imagery with gestural and push/pull painting technique. Hofmann discouraged this figurative style, criticizing the subjects as representing “little dolls.”[15] Grooms’ intent was to isolate his figures in deep space,[16] a trait clearly seen in one of his first Figurative Expressionist paintings, Walking Man (1957). Grooms also became interested in incorporating painting and sculpture into performance. His first “happening,” also called “Walking Man”, was staged at the Sun Gallery in 1959 and used live actors, including Anderson, Falcone, Mimi Gross, and Bill Barrell.

Pioneers installation George Segal paintings S wall copy

Installation shot of George Segal’s paintings in the exhibition “Pioneers from Provincetown: The Roots of Figurative Expressionism” curated by Adam Zucker at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum during the summer of 2013.

Like Grooms, George Segal is more famous for his Pop-Art work than for his forays into expressionism. Segal, however, began his career as an expressionist painter. He was drawn to Provincetown by his desire to meet Hofmann, and he spent four summers (1956-1959) on the Cape. Upon returning to New York, Segal created large-scale figurative paintings, such as Still Life (1962) and Spring (1960), which “powerfully situate the figure in space”[17] through gestural bands of Matisse-like color. Hofmann’s school was the catalyst for Robert Henry and Selina Trieff to come to Provincetown together in 1954. Trieff had studied art history (contemporary art) and color with Mark Rothko at Brooklyn College, where she met her husband, Robert Henry, while both were studying with Ad Reinhardt. Henry had previously been a Hofmann student, in both New York and Provincetown, and Selina went on to study with Hofmann in 1954 and 1955. Both Trieff and Henry were involved with the Sun Gallery in the 1960s, and they later showed with the Berta Walker Gallery (which still currently represents their work). They came to Provincetown to study at Hofmann’s school and to develop their careers, and they remain a major force in the Provincetown art colony today. Selina Trieff recently passed away at their home in Wellfleet, MA.

Robert Henry, Idyll, 1963, Oil on canvas, 30.5 x 23 inches

Robert Henry, Idyll, 1963, Oil on canvas, 30.5 x 23 inches

Henry’s painting unifies abstraction and figuration into surreal and idyllic scenes and vignettes, blended viscerally through sweeping bands of color as seen in his painting Figures. His canvas entitled Idyll is a surrealistic expressionist composition, in which the figure of a brown horse stands in the top left of the picture plane. Hofmann’s teachings are evident in this work, in which where perspective is built through crisp dark rectangles and abstract bands of color.

Selina Trieff, Female Head, N.D., Oil on canvas, 25 x 15 inches

Selina Trieff, Female Head, N.D., Oil on canvas, 25 x 15 inches

Trieff’s interests encompass both personal self-exploration and an empirical exploration of the transcendentalism of Renaissance art. In much of her work, somber, predominantly monochromatic figures blend almost completely into a green or black background, with an occasional glimmer of light from her use of gold. There is a deep emotional feeling in her early paintings Standing Figure with Gold Trim and Female Head. These titles, though descriptively apt, are deliberately understated, and the spiritual impact of these works is left for the beholder to experience first hand.

Robert De Niro Sr., Garbo as Anna Christie, 1965, Oil on canvas, 40 x 50 inches

Robert De Niro Sr., Garbo as Anna Christie, 1965, Oil on canvas, 40 x 50 inches

Robert De Niro, Sr., Peter Passuntino, Jay Milder, and Bill Barrell were inspired by Renaissance Humanism, European surrealism, fauvism, and cubism; however, they found their greatest affinity among their peers of the Hofmann school, and together they bridged the gap between European Modernism and Abstract Expressionism.

De Niro, Sr., a favorite student of Hofmann’s ( from 1941-42), produced colorful landscapes and portraits that make reference to the Fauves and Post-Impressionists of France while aligning structurally with the gestural painting technique and spatial construction methods of American Expressionism. Unlike many of his contemporaries, who used fantasy and mythology in their work, De Niro, Sr. was at ease with his unique interpretations and renderings of more traditional subjects, such as his portrait of Garbo as Anna Christie (1964). His loose, flowing brushstrokes shaped his signature treatment of thick outlines of reclining nudes, still lifes, rooftop scenes, and pastoral landscapes. While studying with Hofmann in Provincetown, De Niro Sr. met a painter named Virginia Admiral. The couple was married in 1942, however they separated soon  after the birth of their son, Robert De Niro, Jr. in 1943.

Peter Passuntino, Goliath Underground, 1964, Oil on canvas, 36 x 25 inches.

Peter Passuntino, Goliath Underground, 1964, Oil on canvas, 36 x 25 inches.

Peter Passuntino’s work explores the full range of human experience—from the beauty of dream worlds to the nightmare realities of war. In one set of paintings his subjects are at play with their surrealist environment, while in another malevolent monsters ride war machines among dreary human figures set in fantastical landscapes. Passuntino incorporates a lively palette into his work, not unlike those of the Fauvists or of the German Expressionists. He uses archetypal images that combine fantasy with history and dreams with reality to discover and comment upon the origin of humanity and to translate it into a visual language that reflects his unique perception of reality.

Jay Milder, Bird Cloud, c. 1959, Oil on canvas

Jay Milder, Bird Cloud, c. 1959, Oil on canvas

Jay Milder arrived in Provincetown in the summer of 1958, to study with Hofmann. As soon as he arrived he met two Jazz musicians who took him to the beach shack rented by Bob Thompson. Thompson and Milder quickly became very good friends. One day, while Milder was walking along the street to Bob Thompson’s place, a car stopped him in his tracks. The driver, Hans Hofmann, noticed Milder was carrying a recently finished painting and invited the young artist to his home and studio the very next day. Through Thompson’s introduction, Milder’s work also caught the eye of renowned collector Walter P. Chrysler who bought a number of Milder’s paintings. The Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia still has a few classic paintings in their collection. Jay Milder’s paintings have undergone various stylistic changes since the 1950s. However the most common and significantly consistent element has been his organic form of Expressionism. Biblical references have always played an important role in Milder’s work. For Milder, the Kabbalah underlies all aspects of reality, including not only the way in which a painting is conceived and executed, but also its impact on the visual environment around us. From early on, Milder experimented with radical techniques in painting, in which he combined volcanic ash with acrylic paint, spray paint, and other pigments to create rough organic surfaces onto which he scrawled symbols, figures, and numbers. His work might be best described as contemporary cave paintings in which personal ideology, mystical energy, empirical thinking, and Kabbalistic geometry are applied in thick impasto layers of colorful paint to depict symbols, colors, and figures expressing both enlightenment and ethics in urbanized compositions.

Bill Barrell, The Magician, 1963 Oil on canvas, 50 x 53 inches

Bill Barrell, The Magician, 1963 Oil on canvas, 50 x 53 inches

Bill Barrell drew inspiration from sources ranging from early European modernists like Picasso and Matisse to American contemporaries like Thompson and Grooms. He also developed a strong affinity for color and perspective through sitting in on Hofmann’s critiques in Provincetown. Barrell paints precisely what he feels, making his style evocative of an autobiography in which he engages in a dialogue with his own history as well as with the history of art. He draws upon specific events and memories in his life as the starting point for stream of consciousness and artistic intervention. Barrell has had a long history within the Provincetown community. Barrell and Irene Baker took over as directors of the Sun Gallery (see below for more on the Sun Gallery) from 1960-1961 and mounted a show of early Provinctown collages by Claes Oldenburg. Barrell had a retrospective called “Full Circle” at PAAM in the summer of 2011 and he currently shows in Provincetown with Gallery Ehva on Shank Painter Road.

George McNeil, 1962, Jocasta, Oil on paper mounted on board, 14 x 11 inches.

George McNeil, 1962, Jocasta, Oil on paper mounted on board, 14 x 11 inches.

During the late 1950s the figurative zeitgeist led some successful First Generation Abstract Expressionists, including George McNeil, to transition from Abstract Expressionism to Figurative Expressionism. McNeil spent summers at the art colony from 1948-62 had exhibitions at the Sun Gallery as well as HCE Gallery. While his output from the 1940s and early 1950s consisted of eminent works of gestural abstraction, he had been interested in the rendering of the figure since his student days, which included studying with Andre Lhote in France. His transition to Figurative Expressionism in the late 1950s and 60s made him an obvious pre-cursor for the Neo-Expressionist movement in the 1980s.

The late 1950s through the 1960s was an era of happenings, in which artists made the most of the environment and circumstances around them. It was fueled by camaraderie and the excitement of creating something entirely new. This atmosphere led to strong communities being formed, in which artists lived, worked, and collaborated with one another. In Provincetown, these artists showed their art in parking lots, fish shops, and alternative spaces. They also socialized at baseball games, cookouts, and beach parties and lived in cabins on the dunes or in small quarters within the town. Artists were very fortunate in Provincetown because even if they could not support themselves solely through their painting, there was plenty of work available due to the constant stream of summertime tourism. Many artists would work part-time at jobs such as waiting tables or washing dishes. In addition, the local fishermen donated a portion of their daily catch to any young artist who came to the docks.[18] Perhaps they thought that the artists wanted to paint the fish; in any case, a few sales, a few odd jobs, such contributions and the low rents for modest accommodations in Provincetown in those days[19] enabled many artists to get by.

Provincetown’s art scene of the 1950s was a spectrum of creative energy that reflected the critically acclaimed New York Downtown scene.[20] This included the Abstract and Figurative Expressionists; gestural realists such as Alex Katz, Paul Resika, Carmen Cicero, and Christopher Lane;  happenings and performance art by the likes of Red Grooms, Mimi Gross, Yvonne Anderson, and Allan Kaprow; and assemblage artists Elspeth Halvorsen, Varujan Boghosian, and Claes Oldenburg. There were also writers (Norman Mailer, Stanley Kunitz, Mary Oliver, and Irving Sandler) and performing artists who made up the vibrant creative community.

By the end of the 1950s, the Figurative Expressionist painters made up a large faction of the Provincetown art community, and they challenged the authority of abstraction with their new form of figurative art. In order to show their work and establish themselves, they needed a place where their determination, transformation, and artistic vision could manifest. The development and endorsement of Provincetown Figurative Expressionism gained its greatest momentum when, in 1955, Yvonne Anderson and Dominic Falcone opened the Sun Gallery at 393 Commercial Street. The Sun Gallery was located inside the former shop and residence of Earle and Lily Pilgrim. Earle Pilgrim (1923-1976), an artist and jewelry maker, also ran a gallery in the small space, which showed many young artists who would become staples of the Sun Gallery and the 1950s art scene.

Dominic Falcone performing a poetry reading at the Sun Gallery

Dominic Falcone performing a poetry reading at the Sun Gallery

Of all the galleries Provincetown, the Sun Gallery became the most innovative and critical. Falcone was a prolific poet and visionary whose poetry readings were a sight to behold. During his public performances pedestrians stopped to witness the animated poet read and act out his poems, which would electrify and paralyze viewers with amazement.[21] Anderson recalls that it was Falcone who often came up with ideas for the space, and she formulated them into reality. Anderson had been studying music at Louisiana State University, where she took an art class taught by Peter Kahn. Peter and his brother Wolf had studied with Hofmann in Provincetown during the late 1940s. Peter Kahn suggested that Anderson study with Hofmann in Provincetown during the summer vacation. Anderson and her roommate initially planned to go to Mexico for the second half of the summer; however, they soon found that what Peter Kahn told them was true: “no one leaves Provincetown in the middle of the season.”[22]

In Provincetown, Anderson continued to paint, but she also immersed herself in creating films using experimental techniques. Her work was the subject of the fourth solo show at the gallery. The goal of the Sun Gallery, as Yvonne Anderson has expressed, was to find new artists, primarily those who had attractive work but who had not shown before.[23] During the gallery’s five-year lifespan, one hundred artists would have the opportunity to present solo exhibitions.[24] Some of these artists had already begun to establish themselves—like Müller, who had the first solo show at the gallery. Lester Johnson had the second one-person show and was extremely active within the gallery throughout its five years. In fact, Johnson was the only artist to show there during every summer from 1955 through 1959.[25] For many young artists—like Red Grooms, Emilio Cruz, and Tony Vevers—it was their first experience showing in a gallery. In addition to being an exhibition space for paintings, the gallery hosted art classes, poetry readings, performance art, and film screenings.

Both Grooms and visiting artist Alan Kaprow used the Sun Gallery to host “happenings,” often collaborating with Anderson, Falcone, Thompson, Barrell, Milder, and others. Unlike mainstream art galleries and museums, the Sun Gallery featured lots of work by women and minority artists. Most of the artists were poor; they did not dress fashionably, and they lived in meager conditions. Also unlike mainstream art galleries, the Sun Gallery had no interest in becoming a commercial gallery. Both Anderson and Falcone worked other jobs so that they could support the operation.[26] The Sun Gallery developed the idea of creating a space in which something would strike you from the outside and draw you in. Anderson described the unique way in which the gallery operated as follows:

“Shows closed at midnight [on] Sunday. We drew our orange curtains until the opening of the next show—9 o’clock on Monday night. The artists would paint their names on the window before the opening—by then people would be crowding the street waiting for that moment when the curtains would open. In a way it was a theater—you could see right into the gallery.”[27]

What went on inside was magical, unforgettable, and even controversial. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, the police and artists had been known to clash on more then one occasion.[28] A solo show by Vevers in the summer of 1960 presented monotypes of nudes, and the police considered the exhibition content inappropriate.  While the police would force the gallery to shut down its operation for a few days, a petition and Hofmann’s influence would keep the police away and leave the Sun to operate free of censorship.[29] Barrell provides a great anecdote about the occasion here.

When the original Sun closed its doors in 1959 (it would be reincarnated twice. First, from 1960-61 by Irene Baker and Bill Barrell and then by Nat Halper from 1962-63), it left the Figurative Expressionists with the experience and awareness to create other successful and innovative environments to suit their spirit. The majority of the artists returned home to their lofts in New York City after the end of the season. Back in the city they continued to collaborate and exhibit within their circle. Alternative exhibition spaces were formed in SoHo and Lower East Side lofts and “happenings” were taking place with great fervor. In 1969 when Figurative Expressionism had all but dissolved from art world discourse,  Jay Milder, Peter Passuntino, and Bill Barrell formed the Rhino Horn Group with Benny Andrews (1930-2006), Nicholas Sperakis (b. 1943), Michael Fuaerbach (1942-2011), Ken Bowman (b. 1937), and Peter Dean (1934-1993). Rhino Horn consisted of an alliance of nonconformist figurative artists whose members refused to adhere to the art-as-business ideology that transformed fine art into an object of consumer culture in the United States during the 1960s. The members were optimistic that a form of art focused around themes such as social justice, civil rights, overcrowding and poverty in urban environments, the horrors of war, and imperialistic exploitation would raise awareness of these poignant contemporary socio-political issues.

Notes from Provincetown and the Growth of the American Avant Garde [1] Nyla Ahrens, Provincetown: The Art Colony: A Brief History and Guide (Provincetown, MA: Provincetown Art Association and Museum, 1997), 4. [2] A. J. Philpott, “Biggest Art Colony in the World at Provincetown,” Boston Globe, August 27, 1916. [3] Forum 49 was a summer-long series of art programs and events, beginning with the forum “What Is An Artist?” and ending with the controversial “French Art vs. American Art Today.” [4] Ahrens, 15. [5] Ibid., 5. [6] See The Hans Hofmann Papers in the Archives of American Art. Accessed Monday April 6, 2009. [7] Hofmann broke away from the linear perspective technique that had been popular for centuries by teaching and employing a compositional method that he called “push and pull.” Hofmann demonstrated that the illusion of space, depth, and even movement on a canvas could be created abstractly using color and shape rather than representational forms. See Irving Sandler, The Triumph of American Painting: A History of Abstract Expressionism (New York: Praeger, 1970).

Notes for Figurative Expressionism in Provincetown [1] Stein 41. [2] Quoted in “Airless Despair,” Time (2 February, 1962): 44. [3] Interview with Dody Müller by Judith Wilson, New York, March 19, 1984. [4] Interview with Christopher Lane by the Author, March 31, 2010. [5] Oral history interview with Tony Vevers, 1965 Sept. 1, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. [6] Ibid. [7] Dorothy Seckler, “History of the Provincetown Art Colony,” Provincetown Painters: 1890’s-1970’s (Exh. Cat. Syracuse, New York: Everson Museum of Art, 1977), 82 [8] Ann Wilson Lloyd, “Symptoms of Joy,” Tony Vevers: Retrospective (Exh. Cat. Provincetown, Massachusetts: The Provincetown Art Association and Museum, June 2-July 4, 2000), 7. [9] See Judith Wilson, “Garden of Music,” Bob Thompson (Exh. Cat. New York, NY: The Whitney Museum of American Art. 1998), 41. [10] The name derives from the Hansa Gallery in Downtown Manhattan. The Hansa was part of the Tenth Street Galleries, a group of artist collectives that operated between Manhattan’s 9th and 10th Streets. [11]Charles Giuliano, “Lester Johnson,” Lester Johnson: Selected Paintings, 1970-1986, (Exh. Cat. Greensburg, PA: Westmoreland Museum of American Art, 1986). 12 [12] Judith Wilson, “Gandy Brodie and Bob Thompson: The Ecstasy of Influence.” Essay from the PDF exhibition catalog Pairings: Gandy Brodie and Bob Thompson: The Ecstasy of Influence, curated by Martha Henry and Steven Harvey at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects, New York (February 1-28, 2011). [13] Emilio Cruz, Career Narrative (Unpublished, 1984). [14] Interview with Yvonne Anderson by the author, September 21, 2009. [15] Judith Stein, “Figuring Out the Fifties,” 40 [16] Interview with Red Grooms, January 6, 2000, from Hans Hofmann [documentary] available at [17] John Asbury, [review article], Art News 56, no. 10 (February 1958): 11. [18] Interview with Yvonne Anderson by the author, June 3, 2009. [19] Irving Sandler, “Provincetown in the Fifties: A Memoir,” The Sun Gallery (Exh. Cat. Provincetown, MA: Provincetown Art Association and Museum. July 24-August 30, 1981), 6. [20] See Irving Sandler, The New York School: The Painters and Sculptors of the Fifties (New York: Harper & Row, 1978). [21] Interview with Yvonne Anderson by the author. [22] Ibid. [23] The Sun Gallery (Exh. Cat. Provincetown, MA: Provincetown Art Association and Museum. July 24-August 30, 1981), 11. [24] Wendy Jackson, “Yvonne Anderson: Profile of A Pioneer,” Animation World Magazine, Issue 1.12, (March 1997). Accessed Monday April 6, 2009. [25] Judith Stein, “Lester Johnson: The Likeness of Things Unlike,” Accessed Sunday April 5, 2009. [26] Yvonne Anderson worked at the Lobster Pot on Commercial Street and Falcone worked as a dishwasher at Moors. It was working at Moors that Falcone met young Charles Grooms. Falcone soon invented the nickname Red, for Grooms, and it stuck ever since. [27] The Sun Gallery, 15. [28] Ibid., 18. [29] Dorothy Seckler, Provincetown Painters: 1890’s-1970’s (Exh. Cat. Syracuse, NY: Everson Museum of Art, 1977), 82.


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