New York

Carl Holty

Graduate Center, City University Of New York

Carl Holty, born in 1900, has seen a lot of art come and go. A German-American who grew up in Wisconsin, learned academic painting in the Middle West, studied under Hans Hofmann at Munich in 1926, joined Abstraction-Création in 1932, and became the second chairman of the American Abstract Artists, Holty is in himself a formidable phenomenon. Forty-one of his works, from 1925 to 1971, were on view at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York through most of October.

The case for Holty is in a way the opposite of that for Arthur B. Davies. Holty is not overwhelming in his art, but nobody could have been more dedicated to the cause of modern painting in the New World. His main artistic problem was that although he believed religiously in the cause of abstract painting, and wanted to cultivate and nurture it, in his own work he was a little afraid of jumping on a bandwagon and consequently tended to miss the boat. Styles change for Holty in regular sequence, but seemingly a bit out of sync, sometimes even looking forced.

No doubt the problem is common to all nonmetropolitan schools which take part in advanced developments. Perhaps the reason why when movements spread widely they tend to get watered down is not a culture lag and not a matter of successive relays garbling the message; maybe away from the capital there is a natural inertia that seeks to avoid whims and fashions and what might look like a lack of common sense. Cubism was hard to swallow, not only for Holty—who was seven years old when Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was painted—but for a lot of other Americans and Europeans as well. In view of the difficulty, and in the context of the aggressive opposition that all forms of modernism encountered, having had one’s heart in the right place commands a certain amount of respect.

Probably this situation has a lot to do with the fact that Holty’s work as a whole seems to have such a decidedly evolutionary cast to it. It is also why artists like Holty tended to waste time on what some call “semi-abstraction,” which is an unconfident, unstable, non definitive mode, if not an evasion or ruse. In fairness, Carl Holty is no more guilty on this score than are some much better known advocates of modernism in America. And if we surveyed, for instance, English or Italian art over the same time, we would discover standard anthologized figures who could make Holty look brazenly radical.

In any event, there are pictures by Holty which are satisfying in themselves. There is an engaging large charcoal nude, Drawing 2 (1925). During the 1930s there are interesting works, some Cubist and some Surrealist in style, which have in common the development of a handling of the plane as a hard, flat surface patterned with hard-edge, masking-taped forms. Sometimes these works have a matte finish and a kind of pastel-plus-gray tonality that suggest the paintings of Le Corbusier, and sometimes they are glossy and luridly colored. This approach to the firm plane became useful to Holty later on. It is as though he were doing two things at once—playing with the stylistic “look” of his paintings with one hand and working out a private artistic issue with the other. Thus a picture as imperfect and inelegant as Japanese Warrior (1940), if ignored as a “semi-abstract” image—or even as a composition—shows a striking hardness of surface that not only came into its own in such later pieces as Sentinels (1957), but, if it could have been pursued for itself, might have attained plastic significance much earlier. Actually, some of the later works are the best of all. Before a painting as good as Guards (1968) we have the feeling that Holty didn’t miss that boat after all.

Joseph Masheck