Art

The Inner World of a Man Who Taught Himself How to Draw

The show at Kerry Schuss Gallery focuses on the later years of Ray Hamilton’s 14-year art career, the time period that he worked after suffering a serious stroke in 1990.

Ray Hamilton, “Untitled” (1990), ballpoint pen, marker on paper, 14 x 17 in, RH044 (all images courtesy Kerry Schuss Gallery unless otherwise noted)

Kerry Schuss Gallery is currently showing a retrospective of the short career of a self-taught artist named Ray Hamilton (1919–1996), and it’s a beautiful, delicate exhibition of one man’s inner world. The show focuses on the later years of Hamilton’s 14-year art career, the time period that he worked after suffering a serious stroke in 1990.

Ray Hamilton, “Untitled” (1992), watercolor, pencil on paper, 17 x 14 in, RH133

Although the facts of Hamilton’s life are sketchy, we do know that he was born in Columbia, South Carolina, had a career in the Navy, and ended up living in Brooklyn. After his stroke, he started attending adult classes at a not-for-profit organization called H.A.I. (Healing Arts Initiative) that works with adults with developmental issues. Given rudimentary drawing tools — ballpoint pens, graphite, and colored pencil on plain paper — he communicated his observations of the worlds both inside and outside his body.

There is something about the thin, hard line of a ballpoint pen that must have appealed to Hamilton. Many of his drawings consist of pen lines so dense that they have embossed the paper, creating a dimensionality that is palpable. The push and pull between blue ballpoint pen lines and the softer marks of graphite and colored pencil help to create a figure-and-ground relationship atypical of self-taught art.

Ray Hamilton, “Untitled” (1992), watercolor, pencil on paper, 17 x 14 in, RH134

Many of Hamilton’s drawings bear a striking kinship to contemporary art. All of the pieces in the show are untitled, identified only with a gallery index number. “RH128” reminded me instantly of a Jasper Johns drawing. Hamilton had a singular way of making shapes that were both something and not something. They refer to an object, in this case a pair of men’s shoes, but are simultaneously a pair of elegant abstract shapes. They are slightly staggered, as if the walker were a tad unsteady on his feet, perhaps the feet of the artist. Drawn in dense, soft graphite, they are surrounded by a sea of lightly drawn words, the logic of which was known only to Hamilton. Most of his drawings have this gentle background of abstracted language, some discernible, some words too faint to read. Perhaps this helped to organize his daily reality and thoughts. It’s hard to know what damage he suffered as a result of the stroke, but the incessant categorizing that occurs in all of his drawings feels to be almost mantra-like. He writes his name over and over again, as if to say, “I am still Ray Hamilton; this is who I am.”

Installation view of Ray Hamilton: Drawings at Kerry Schuss Gallery (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Ray Hamilton, “Untitled” (1989), pencil and ball point pen on paper, 15 x 22 in, RH128

I find these drawings of hands and feet to be some of the most compelling in the show. It is noteworthy that in both “RH133” and “RH 134,” the left appendages appear normal, but the right-sided ones are twisted and unnatural. I can’t help but read this as a self-portrait of Hamilton, presumably affected by stroke on one side of his body.

Hamilton had the remarkable ability to tread the line between abstraction and figuration, as evidenced in his works where he traced objects. He would often, as in “RH005,” make multiple tracings of an object, each a little different from the previous one, each imbued with individual energy, pulsing next to the others. There is an innate sense of design and composition that is consistent throughout Hamilton’s work. In this piece, as in others, the objects are stripped down to their essentials with just the right amount of space between them so that they relate to one another on the page in a most potent way.

Ray Hamilton, “Untitled” (1990), pencil, colored pencil, ball point on paper, 22 x 30 in, RH005

Hamilton portrays bits and pieces of his life, seemingly random shapes, that may have had deeper significance for him. He captures the visual tidbits that one sees in an ordinary day — animals, a lamp, a window, a pear. While each drawing stands beautifully on its own, together, these fragmented observations make a portrait of an artist recording his daily life and invite us into his inner world.

Ray Hamilton: Drawings continues at Kerry Schuss Gallery (34 Orchard Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through March 12.  

Correction: A previous version of this article and its headline stated that the artist Ray Hamilton taught himself how to draw after he had a stroke. This is incorrect, as he was already drawing before he had the stroke. We regret the error. It has been fixed.

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