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Halsey Hathaway, "Untitled" (2020), acrylic on canvas, 45 x 30 inches (courtesy the artist and Kristen Lorello, NY. Photo: Lance Brewer)

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A few years ago, when I reviewed a two-person exhibition of Sanford Wurmfeld and Gabriele Evertz, who taught and teach in Hunter College’s art department, respectively, I proposed that an institution should mount an exhibit titled The Hunter Color School, which would include Vincent Longo (1923-2017), Doug Ohlson (1936–2010), Robert Swain, Joanna Pousette-Dart, and others who have taught there. 

At the time, I wasn’t thinking of young artists who studied at Hunter, then went on to attain their own modes of chromatic abstraction within a field of exploration where research, color theory, and painting overlap. And yet, exhibitions such as Color Function Painting: The Art of Josef Albers, Julian Stanczak and Richard Anuskiewicz (1996), which includes a catalogue essay by Wurmfeld, are devoted to teachers and their students. 

Why hasn’t something comparable been done for Wurmfeld, who was the chair of Hunter’s MFA art department for many years? Why hasn’t there been an examination of the artists who came out of Hunter and went on to explore color? 

This thought really hit home when I went to see the exhibition Halsey Hathaway: Interstice, the artist’s debut solo show at Kristen Lorello (February 23 – March 27, 2021), whose press release notes that he had received his MFA from Hunter in 2006.

Now that I have made a connection between Halsey and Wurmfeld, with whom he studied, I want to open up as well as reframe the relationship. Just as Stanczak’s paintings would not be confused with those of his teacher, Albers, Hathaway’s muted, curvilinear abstractions are distinct from his professor’s tightly calibrated chromatic grids. While informed by his study with Wurmfeld, Hathaway has gone to make clearly independent visual statements.

Installation view, Halsey Hathaway: Interstice at Kristen Lorello, New York (courtesy the artist and Kristen Lorello, NY. Photo: Charles Benton)

One of the underlying connections among the different generations of chromatic abstractionists teaching at Hunter has been the use of a grid. Hathaway eschews the grid and right-angle geometric structures, instead using hand-cut stencils to define intersecting, curvilinear shapes, which he fills with muted colors that are neither primary nor prismatic (browns, robin’s-egg blues, earth tones, grays, umbers, violets, and pinks). 

There are six acrylic paintings in the exhibition, all vertically oriented rectangles whose proportions suggest the human figure. Each incorporates two radically different painting methods. The first involves staining the raw canvas, and containing the color within a strictly defined area. The viscosity of the stain is ink-like, and it seems almost as if the color was carefully rubbed into the woven surface. The second is an application of dense acrylic with a brush, making a tactile skin of color. 

On one hand, color is evenly soaked into the woven surface. On the other hand, a skin — sometimes with traces of brush marks — is built up on the painting’s surface. 

The variations in the surface pull viewers closer, making us aware that color and materiality (or immateriality) cannot be separated. No matter how optical a color may become, our experience of it is — to state the obvious — visceral. The skin of acrylic paint presents a different kind of visceral experience from that of the stains because it privileges the tactile. 

Halsey Hathaway, “Untitled” (2020), detail, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 30 inches (courtesy the artist and Kristen Lorello, NY. Photo: Lance Brewer)

Hathaway’s combination of the two experiences introduces a wrinkle into our engagement with the work, as we cannot regard the paintings as purely optical.

The staining is tight and flawless; the canvas’s woven surface becomes the color applied to it. In some of the stained areas, the faintly mottled ground suggest two colors were used. The colors can shift gradually or suddenly. At times, I felt like I was seeing solid and semi-transparent planes, though these categories did not remained fixed while I was looking. 

Compositionally, the paintings are simultaneously symmetrical and asymmetrical. In “Untitled” (acrylic on canvas, 70 by 50 inches, 2020) — one of the exhibition’s largest paintings — four white, tapering shapes are visible on a mustard ground, one in each of the corners. In the top of the painting, the two white shapes intersect pink and orange sections, while the two white areas at the bottom of the painting intersect solid turquoise and stained green zones. Why do some stretch the length of the paintings, while others don’t?

Working with eight tones and a variety of curvilinear shapes, Hathaway composes a painting in which repetition and change overlap: though the intersecting shapes are all curvilinear, none of them seem to repeat, which encourages the viewer to keep surveying the surface. 

Halsey Hathaway, “A Crystal World II” (2020), acrylic on canvas, 60 x 30 inches (courtesy the artist and Kristen Lorello, NY. Photo: Lance Brewer)

In addition to the mustard and white, the artist uses pink, orange, turquoise, and green, along with industrial gray and mottled brown. This is one of the strong visual pleasures of the artworks: Hathaway’s conscious limiting of his forms and palette seems to allow him an immense amount of creative freedom. 

In “Ceremony (Chiasmus III)” (acrylic on canvas, 80 by 40 inches, 2020), I could not discern any underlying reason why one color was adjacent to another, but Hathaway’s choices never seemed random either. 

Did one color slide beneath another and reappear elsewhere? Are the juxtapositions of color determined by light and dark? The more questions I asked, the closer I looked.  

What about the palette? It seems that Hathaway has never met a primary color he wants to use. There are no pure colors in these paintings. How did he arrive at his choices, which seem idiosyncratic?

I think the invitation to ask questions is central to the experience these paintings embody.

Unless it is in relation to Josef Albers or Piet Mondrian, tight, formal, non-ironic abstraction by an American artist under 50 is seldom thought or written about these days, as if nothing is being made in this domain. In his synthesis of rigor and the imagination, Halsey Hathaway’s smart, engaging paintings prove otherwise.  

Halsey Hathaway: Interstice continues at Kristen Lorello (23 East 73rd Street, 5th floor, Manhattan) through March 27.

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John Yau

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook, Egyptian Sonnets (Rain...