Carl Holty was born in Freiburg, where his father was attending medical school, but before he was a year old, the family moved to Milwaukee. As a teenager Holty took art classes, and by age sixteen was submitting cartoons to a local antiwar paper. In 1919, hoping to become a poster artist, Holty studied briefly at the school of the Art Institute of Chicago. Shortly thereafter, he left for New York, where he enrolled at Parsons School of Design and subsequently at the National Academy of Design. In 1923, he returned to Milwaukee to pursue a career as a portraitist. Three years later he left with his new bride for Munich, planning to study at the Royal Academy. Instead, he ran into his friend Vaclav Vytlacil, who convinced Holty to join Hans Hofmann’s school. Holty’s ideas were immediately transformed: “No one had ever talked to me about conceptual drawing, about knowing what I’m looking at from the point of view of my tactile knowledge as well as my visual knowledge. Hofmann did. And the world opened up just like that.”(1)
In 1927, with his wife suffering from tuberculosis, the Holtys moved to Switzerland. Although his study with Hofmann had been short-lived, the two kept in touch, and Holty began to assimilate Hofmann’s teaching into his art. After the death of his wife in 1930, Holty moved to Paris, where Robert Delaunay sponsored his membership in Abstraction-Création two years later. Holty’s curvilinear abstractions were published in the group’s magazine in 1933. Nevertheless, his artistic aims weremore closely allied with Cubism than withNeo-plasticism, and he disengaged himself after a year. His canvases of the early 1930s, which reflect a close knowledge of Juan Gris’s paintings and Picasso’s Synthetic Cubism, were shown in several exhibitions in Paris to positive critical reviews. When Holty returned to New York in 1935, he soon found a New York dealer.
In New York, Holty became immersed in vanguard art circles and renewed his friendships with Hans Hofmann, Vaclav Vytlacil, and Stuart Davis, whom he had known in Paris. Vytlacil invited Holty to participate in the discussions that led to the formation of the American Abstract Artists. An articulate spokesman with extensive firsthand knowledge of European modernism, Holty was immediately drawn into the group, and subsequently became its chairman. He remained a member until 1944, when he felt the organization had fulfilled its purposes.
In his own art, Holty had begun to stray from the spatial and conceptual format of Cubism. Instead, biomorphic shapes that seem to move freely over the entire surface of the canvas indicate a fascination for the images, if not the ideas of Miró. Increasingly, however, his earlier concern for structure reemerged to harness the still active rhythms of his compositions. In his abstractions, Holty did not seek to eliminate references to the natural world. He used titlesOf War, Circus Forms, Gridironas reference points or to set a mood. The form of a kneeling figure holding a ball can be discerned, for example, in Gridiron. During the 1930s, Holty began using tape to give crisp edges to form, and in Gridiron, which he reworked and overpainted before arriving at his final statement, the sharpness and clarity of this approach is especially apparent.
By the mid 1940s, Holty had been creating abstract paintings for many years, yet he continually searched for new ways to render form within the two-dimensional picture plane. He described one discovery in words that echo Hofmann: “In breaking up the shapes or forms, it is imperative not to attempt to rejoin them because thatleads to transformation only. By breaking them and keeping them broken, the forms, large and small, are simply densities in the rhythmic movement of color and shapes.”(2)
By the 1960s, Holty had put aside his concern for tactile form within dimensional space. Contours disappeared, replaced by thinly washed, fluid areas of color swimming within subtly toned space.
1. Quoted in Patricia Kaplan, Carl Holty: Fifty Years, A Retrospective Exhibition (New York: The City University of New York, 1972).
2. Carl Holty, letter to Hilaire Hiler, 25 May 1944, in Carl Holty Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., roll 670: 347.
Virginia M. Mecklenburg The Patricia and Phillip Frost Collection: American Abstraction 1930–1945 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press for the National Museum of American Art, 1989)