“Art to me is an adventure in which I attempt to unearth the darker realm of consciousness with irony and the absurd.” – Allen M. Hart (1925-2014)
Allen M. Hart explored the physical and metaphysical world for nearly nine decades and has an incredible art historical account to show for it. Born in 1925 in New York City, Hart studied at the prestigious Art Students League from 1940 to 1948 studying with influential and renowned artist-teachers Frank Vincent DuMond, Anne Goldthwaite, and Jean Liberte. In 1944, Hart was included in a group show at Gallery Neuf on East 79th street and met Peggy Guggenheim, who became interested in his paintings. In 1948 Hart made his first sojourn to Mexico where he connected with the artists Ignacio Aguerre, Pablo O’Higgins, Frida Kahlo, Mendez, and Siqueros; became member of the Talle Graphicos in Mexico City; and had a solo show in 1950 at the Museum of Michoacan in Morelia. Reflecting on his experiences submersed in Mexican Modernist culture, Allen said he felt at home there and had a deep respect and admiration for indigenous people. Additionally, the politically left leaning artistic community of Mexico City had a long lasting influence on Hart’s work, which is in part, fueled by socially engaged themes and poignant Humanist metaphors.
After meeting his wife Mildred in 1952 at his solo show at the Roosevelt House on East 65th Street, the couple traveled extensively. They settled in Spain and traveled throughout Europe and North Africa. When they moved back to New York, Hart became the director of the Visual Arts Center (Greenwich Village), where he administered the Children’s Aid Society program for 30 years (1969 to 1999).
Allen has had solo exhibitions in Europe, Mexico and North America. On September 10th, 2015, Hart will have a retrospective at Upstream Gallery on Hastings on the Hudson in Westchester County, NY. The gallery is just two miles down the road from where Hart had his studio inside of a former historic brewery at 145 Palisades Street in Dobbs Ferry, NY. This building is one of the most pulsating locations during the RiverArts Open Studios weekend, and Allen’s studio was constantly filled with fresh oil paintings, artist books (he made numerous books on handmade paper), and wide-eyed patrons of the arts, both young and old whose engagement with these works was thrilling to see.
Each year, the artist filled his studio with familiar and invigorating imagery of animals, musicians, mythical demons and beasts. Each of these animal, human, and humanoid subjects have different intent and meaning within the painting. Crows and ravens take on a mystical role forewarning us of something dramatic to come. They are like deities both benevolent and cruel. Like many of his bestiaries they reflect the human condition.
One of the most prominent series of works by the artist is the “Orchestra of the Damned.” The expressionistic paintings take on an anti-war theme with a powerful metaphor of the brutality of war juxtaposed with the beauty of music. Each painting features a soloist, a veteran from a foreign war, playing an instrument typical of an orchestra.
Often times in both his paintings and artist books, Hart would combine poetry and prose with imagery. In the painting Pretending to Pretend (2007) we see literary brilliance meet artistic greatness. The painting contains the raven with a crimson red eye that stares deeply at us. Then he adds lines from a short poem: “We spread our arms like winged birds and we flew around the garden.”
Throughout his black drawing books are very personal works. These introspective mixed media drawings were the basis for larger paintings. He combined emotional and expressive imagery with collage, quotes, and poetry. On a page taken from his journal and posted onto canvas titled “Graffiti Wall” the artist jotted thoughts that flow unreservedly from his mind. He quoted Beckett, just one of his poetic influences, and relays opinions on the end of the world, childhood, and the state of the Contemporary art scene. Hart’s most poignant statement on the latter is that “nowadays everyone seems to be an artist.”
That statement today feels true, and one just has to look at the current stagnant wave of “Zombie Formalism,” and derivative art that has overshadowed the work of maverick painters with truly personal styles. Allen M. Hart is one of the latter artists, an original painter who stayed true to his artistic mandate and never let the trends of the art market shape his progression.
What makes Hart’s work most powerful is how naturally it flows from his subconscious. These images are honest, albeit in many cases, brutally honest. They strike us at our core. Looking at images such as the two above from a page in one of Hart’s black books, you can see sociopolitical statements that resonate today with the upcoming elections, and fears of foreign conflicts.