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Harry Holtzman

Harry Holtzman (1912-1987) was an American artist and founding member of the American Abstract Artists group.

Early life

At the age of fourteen, Holtzman visited the Societe Anonyme’s 1926 “International Exhibition of Modern Art” at the Brooklyn Museum and developed an early interest in advanced art with the guidance and encouragement of a high school teacher.

At sixteen, in 1928, he began attending the Art Students League of New York and became an active participant in League activities, serving as a monitor and contributing to the quarterly magazine. At a membership meeting in early 1932, Holtzman’s remarks against the xenophobia of the League’s director were instrumental in carrying a membership vote that brought George Grosz and Hans Hofmann to teach at the League. At the close of this meeting, Burgoyne Diller, a Hofmann protege, taken by Holtzman’s independence of mind, introduced himself, beginning an important lasting relationship.

By January 1934, Holtzman recalls,

“...in my completely independent development I’d struck in a direction, which without knowing it, was taking me in a direction similar to Mondrian. One day Diller was seeing some works in my studio... He asked me if I had seen the recently opened Museum of Living Art (A.E. Gallatin’s collection at the New York University library on Washington Square. I hadn’t. I went. This was the first clue I had to Mondrian’s perception, the two paintings that Gallatin had acquired...”

In the ensuing months, Holtzman

“became obsessed with not only the paintings of Mondrian, but with the idea that the man had to think certain things about historical transformation, the values and functions of art. I really had to go to Europe to speak with him.”

By the end of November, Holtzman had raised enough money to pay for passage to France. In mid-December he introduced himself to Mondrian in the Dutch artist’s Paris studio. Despite a language barrier and an age difference of forty years, the two men became good friends during the four months of Holtzman’s stay in Paris.

When Holtzman returned to New York City in 1935, he joined the WPA Federal Art project, but was first assigned to write for the public relations department, since his art was considered too extreme for public placement. When Diller was promoted as managing supervisor of the Mural Division in New York, he appointed Holtzman as his assistant supervisor in charge of the abstract mural painters. In 1936 Holtzman was instrumental in bringing together the nucleus of painters and sculptors who established the American Abstract Artists in 1937. Although he opposed the group’s emphasis on exhibitions, and the attempts of certain influential members to exclude all but “pure-abstractionists”, Holtzman maintained as active role for several years, serving as secretary in 1938 and again in 1940 and arranged for the three-week AAA exhibition and its educational component at the American Art Today Building of the New York World’s Fair in 1940, directed by Holger Cahill.

New York during WWII

During the German Blitz of London in 1940, Holtzman arranged for Mondrian to come to New York, where he arrived that October. Holtzman rented an apartment-studio for him, and during the next three and a half years he was one of Mondrian’s most intimate associates. Of a work by Harry Holtzman now in the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery, Mondrian commented,
“In the present three dimensional works of H.H. (Harry Holtzman) the picture moves still more from the wall into our surrounding space. In this way the painting more literally annihilates the three dimensional volume.”

As executor of Mondrian’s estate, Holtzman continued his involvement with Mondrian’s art and in 1983 he co-edited a volume of Mondrian’s complete essays.

Post-war

In 1947, Holtzman became a faculty member of the Institute for General Semantics, where he taught with Alfred Korzybski until 1954. Later he edited the journal Trans/Formation: Arts, Communications, Environment. For many years he participated in the conferences of the National Committee on Art Education of The Museum of Modern Art, and from 1950 to 1975 he was a faculty member of the art department at Brooklyn College, City University of New York. Holtzman lived and worked in Lyme, Connecticut. He is survived by his three triplet children, Madalena, Jackie, and Jason Holtzman.

From-MOMA show-’95-’96-catalogue

* 1939: After England declares war on Sept 3, 1939, Mondrian flees his studio in Hempstead and stays with Ben Nicilson and Barbara Hepworth in Cornwall, where they have just fled. Holtzman writes from New York insisting that he come, sending money and promising to find lodgings. * 1940: June 26, Dutch passport stamped with exemption from military service and permission to leave the country.

  • August: with Holtzman’s help, he receives an American visa. As soon as Mondrian gets a place in the Dutch immigration quota,

he packs his paintings and sends them to America.

  • Sept 9: two days after the blitz begins, a bomb hits the other side of Parkhill Road several houses away, breaking his windows and thus forcing him to leave. For the rest of the time he lives at the Ormonde Hotel in London.
  • Sept 13: writes farewell letters to Nicholson, Hepworth, and Winfred Nicholson.
  • Sept 21: boards ship in Liverpool, but does not leave until two days later because of the blitz.
  • October 3, 1940: Mondrian arrives in New York: Holtzman is waiting on the pier and takes him to the Beekman tower on east 49th St., where Mondrian spends his first few days. Knowing his passion for jazz, Holtzman almost immediately plays some recordings of boogie-woogie music, a rhythmically propulsive form of piano blues then enjoying a popular revival, which Mondrian, Holtzman will recall, finds “Enormous, enormous”.

Holtzman takes Mondrian to his summer home in the Berkshires to recuperate from the journey, then finds him an apartment on the third floor of 353 east 56th st., on the corner of first ave. Holtzman will pay the rent and buy him a bed and after Mondrian resists for several months, a record player.

p.2-hh-new art-new-life:

p.5-6-hh-new-art-new-life:bottom… In New York, unless I was away from the city, we saw each other almost every day to discuss our work and ideas. It was also my privilege to help Mondrian put his writing into “correct” English.

Although I have no direct knowledge, early photos and self-portraits of Holtzman show him as somewhat romantic in appearance, then dapper, energetic, proud and lively. Mondrian was among the first in Europe to write about the importance to modern culture of black American jazz and its dances, which he thoroughly enjoyed until the end of his life. In Paris he had a large collection of jazz discs. On the night Mondrian arrived in New York, I introduced him to the boogie-woogie piano music of Ammons, Johnson, and Lewis. His response was immediate, he clasped his hands together with obvious pleasure, “Enormous! Enormous!” he repeated! He often went with me and others to enjoy what he called a “dancing party.” Nobody has ever written more brilliantly about the symbolic ambiance of the night club. (“Jazz and Neoplastic”,1927).

1944:

Dines with Holtzman on 19 January. The two have lately been discussing plans for an ideal nightclub."

References

  • Abstract painting and sculpture in America 1927-1944 / Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute Pittsburgh in Association with Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publishers, New York, 1983, pp.175-177 ISBN 0-8109-1805-6
  • Mondrian, Piet, Harry Holtzman, ed., and Martin S. James, ed. The New Art – The New Life: The Collected Writings of Piet Mondrian. New York: Da Capo Press; Reprint edition (April 1993) ISBN 0-306-80508-1

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