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Indepth Arts News:

"Murray Hantman: From Image to Abstraction"
2005-10-23 until 2006-01-29
Portland Museum of Art
Portland, ME, USA

Abstract, colorful works, many inspired by Maine’s coast, will be on view in the exhibition Murray Hantman: From Image to Abstraction, October 22, 2005 through January 29, 2006 at the Portland Museum of Art. With a career that spanned much of the 20th century, Murray Hantman participated fully in the energy and innovation that characterized the American, and specifically, New York, art world during his lifetime. Hantman was also influenced by his time spent summering on Maine’s Monhegan Island. The exhibition will feature approximately 45 paintings and works on paper, drawn from the Museum’s permanent collection.

Like many of his contemporaries, Hantman’s work was shaped by the times in which he lived—by the exhilarating sense of the potential of art in the modern era coupled with the harsher realities of American life during the Great Depression and World War II. Those forces combined in Murray Hantman to create an artist profoundly committed to art as an agent of social good and spiritual renewal. As a painter for more than 60 years, and a teacher for 30 of those, he devoted himself to the nurture of creativity and the practice of art.

After a migratory childhood in Pennsylvania and the Midwest, Hantman’s formal training took place at New York’s progressive Arts Students League, where he had the opportunity to work on two major public mural projects—assisting on a cycle of murals depicting the history of commerce for the Kaufman Department Store in Pittsburgh and working with Thomas Hart Benton on the America Today murals created for the New School for Social Research in New York. Hantman carried those experiences west with him when, while living in southern California for a period in the early 1930s, he joined David Alfaro Siquieros’s “Bloc of Painters” and worked alongside that great Mexican muralist on several outspoken public paintings.               

Returning to New York in the mid-1930s, Hantman became a member of the Easel Division of the Works Progress Administration, rising to the role of supervisor. He also joined the activist Artist’s Union, which advocated for the labor rights of creative workers, where he met his future wife Jo Levy, a sculptor. Together they participated in the lively artistic culture of that time—creating art for the public good, agitating for artists rights, and debating, rallying, and socializing with their peers.

At the start of World War II, Hantman was deemed physically unfit for military service and instead contributed to the nation’s defense by working as a designer in a tool shop (an experience jazzily evoked in the painting Machine Shop Symphony). During the war years he began taking painting trips to coastal New England and Canada. In 1945, he visited Monhegan, a small island 17 miles off the coast of Maine, for the first time. Captivated by the island’s dramatic rocky coast and expanses of surrounding sky and sea, he returned to paint there for 30 summer seasons.

Like many of his generation, Hantman rejected explicit narrative in his paintings for a more primal expression of experience. Even as he moved away from representation into abstraction, nature remained the touchstone for his art. The unique quality of Maine’s summer light, the sense of endless space looking out over the ocean, and Monhegan’s distinctive geology all informed the development of Hantman’s mature painting style. Using what he described as a process of subtraction, Hantman worked within the limits of simple forms—rectangles, circles, dots and lines—found everywhere in nature and concentrated on the seemingly inexhaustible potential of color. Ultimately, his goal was to convey a sense of latent energy through the dynamic juxtaposition of colors.

While his paintings from this period were largely inspired by summers in Maine, they clearly show an awareness of developments in the larger world of art, from the rise of Abstract Expressionism to the development of styles concerned with optical perception. New York remained the Hantmans’ permanent home and Murray continued to be a presence in that art world, exhibiting in distinguished venues and teaching for 20 years at the Brooklyn Museum School. At the time of his death, Hantman bequeathed all of his artworks in his possession to the Portland Museum of Art. The exhibition will be accompanied by a 64-page color catalogue, which will include an essay providing an overview of Hantman’s life and work. Murray Hantman is the last exhibition to be curated by Chief Curator Jessica Nicoll at the Portland Museum of Art.    

Murray Hantman
Machine Shop Symphony, 1945
oil on canvas
23 7/8" x 32 1/8"

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