A native of Boston, Fannie Hillsmith began sketching as a teenager. In 1930, she enrolled in the Boston Museum School, which her grandfather, Frank Hill Smith, had helped found.(1) At the time, first-year students had to draw daily from casts of antique sculpture before being eligible to enroll in painting and drawing classes. However, the following year, Rodney J. Burn and Robin Guthrie from the Slade School in London took charge of the curriculum. Under their progressive leadership, students could begin to draw from life after spending a month or two drawing from antique sculpture. Despite this freer academic régime, Hillsmith encountered European modernism onlyafter she completed the four-year course in Boston and spent a year in New York at the Art Students League. Her teachers at the league, Alexander Brook, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, John Sloan, and William Zorach, augmented her earlier academic training. But it was from contact with Vaclav Vytlacil, other progressive New York artists, and especially her study of Albert Gallatin’s collection at the Gallery of Living Art, that Hillsmith was drawn to vanguard ideas. Paul Klee’s paintings made a special impression on her, and by the late 1930s, Hillsmith began incorporating lyrical line and simplified, childlike forms into her own work.
The mid 1940s marked Hillsmith’s emergence as an exhibiting artist. In 1943, she had her first solo exhibition at Jimmy Ernst’s Norlyst Gallery. Peggy Guggenheim featured her work in three exhibitions at Art of This Century shortly thereafter. In 1944, Clement Greenberg singled out her painting Imprisoned [SAAM, 1986.92.57] as “perhaps the best thing” in Guggenheim’s Spring Salon for Young Artists, a show that also presented work by William Baziotes, Irene Rice Pereira, Robert Motherwell, JacksonPollock, and Richard Pousette-Dart. In the summer of 1945, Josef Albers invited Hillsmith to teach at Black Mountain College. Finally, her inclusion in Sidney Janis’s 1944 book, Abstract and Surrealist Art in America, heralded Hillsmith’s arrival as a mature painter. In a statement for Janis’s book, Hillsmith explained her artistic intentions: “I endeavor to find a personal way to express in painting the basic qualities of nature. I try to combine the structural with the intimate and to secure simplicity by using few colors and shapes, to acquire variation by using these in diverse ways throughout the canvas.”(2)
In 1946, Hillsmith began a four-year association with Stanley William Hayter’s Atelier 17. She worked beside Joan Miró, Yves Tanguy, Jacques Lipchitz, and other émigrés from war-torn Europe at the studio. Along with developing expertise in the techniques of printing, Hillsmith turned increasingly to the fractured space of Cubism, drawing particularly from the work of Juan Gris. Increasingly, Hillsmith used Cubist elements to create emotional effects, and after 1950, nostalgia, dreams, and interior realities became her primary concerns. “I am interested in abstract art, but I am also interested in the message—the problem is to convey feeling with the impact of the abstract.”(3)
During the 1960s, Hillsmith began making constructions, an interest that grew out of the toys and jewelry she made during World War II to supplement her income. In the constructions and assemblages she first undertook in the 1970s, the dream world of her paintings takes three-dimensional form. Reminiscent of doll houses, the boxes contain tiny ceramic furniture; walls are sometimes transparent, and Hillsmith uses mirrors to disorient the viewer. The surreal overtones of these recent works, coupled with the disjunctive approach to space, are culminations of Hillsmith’s longstanding ability to use Cubist formal elements to psychologically provocative ends.
1. The information here is drawn primarily from Doris A. Birmingham, “The Art of Fannie Hillsmith,” in Fannie Hillsmith (Manchester, N.H.: Currier Gallery of Art, 1987).
2. Fannie Hillsmith, statement in Sidney Janis, Abstract and Surrealist Art in America (New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1944), p.100.
3. Quoted in Doris A. Birmingham, “The Art of Fannie Hillsmith,” in Fannie Hillsmith (Manchester, N.H.: Currier Gallery of Art, 1987), n.p.
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)