Jean Hélion

Jean Hélion
Also Known as
Jean Helion
Couterne, France 1904
Paris, France 1987
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Artist Biography

Of the Europeans who exerted firsthand influence on American abstract artists of the 1930s, Hélion is among the most significant. A Frenchman who studied chemistry and architecture before taking up painting, Hélion's involvement in artists groups dates from the late 1920s. He was a founding member of Art Concret and played a prominent role in Abstraction-Création. Moreover, he helped (with his fluent command of English) to bring Americans working in Paris during the early 1930s together with the continental artists who were influential in shaping European modernism.

Hélion and Jean Xceron becamefriends as early as 1929. The association began after Xceron wrote an article about Hélion for the Paris edition of theChicago Tribune. Xceron summarized Hélion's view that art should correspond with the mechanical and industrial age.

In 1932, on the occasion of his marriage to an American, Hélion first visited the United States. Although the couple settled near his wife's family in Virginia, Hélion paid frequent visits to New York. As a leading, if still youthful, member of the Parisian vanguard, Hélion exhibited in New York with increasing regularity over the next ten years. Between visits to Europe, Hélion encouraged Carl Holty, Harry Holtzman, and George L.K. Morris to form an artists' group, and his third extended trip to New York during the winter of 1936–37 coincided with the formal organization of the American Abstract Artists.

Hélion became especially well known for his close knowledge of European art and his articulate views on abstraction. He wrote regularly for advanced art magazines, served as editor of the first five issues of the Abstraction-Création journal, played a significant role in the British publication Axis, and wrote, or edited, major portions of the 1933 catalogue for Gallatin's Gallery of Living Art. More than most artists, Hélion's attachments were broad. He was friendly with School of Paris artists, yet maintained close contacts with Dutch, Russian, and British movements as well. But it was New York that held the greatest fascination for him. For Hélion, it was the only city that had a true modern spirit, and when he came in 1936, he intended to remain. Yet in January 1940, four months before the Nazis conquered France, he left to join the French army. Six months later Hélion was taken prisoner and interned in a camp near the Polish border. After a dramatic escape, the artist made his way to Paris, and eventually met up with Marcel Duchamp, Tristan Tzara, and others in Marseilles. In October 1942, he finally arrived in the United States where, to aid the Free French, he lectured widely on his war experiences and wrote a bestseller entitled They Shall Not Have Me.

Hélion had originally encountered Cubism through Joaquin Torres-Garcia around 1927. Afterwards, his art went through several transformations of style. For instance, his work from about 1929 to 1932 (the Orthogonale series) shows his appreciation for the planar severity of Theo van Doesburg and Russian Constructivism. By 1935, flattened space in his work gave way to hard-edged, fully modeled machinelike forms, suspended in colored fields. Increasingly, intuition became important to Hélion, and a number of works, such as the Untitled watercolor of 1939, present organic forms with surrealist overtones. Before embarking for France in 1940, however, Hélion not only did outline drawings for several large abstractions, he also planned numerous projects for figurative paintings as well. After the grueling experience of war, he concentrated on the figurative work. Hélion returned to New York in 1944, but the following year he settled permanently in Paris, and his period of close contact with the New York art world came to an end.

From advice when Gallatin came to Paris on buying trips, to his relative success in exhibiting, Hélion's influence on the New York scene took many forms. David Hare said that Hélion represented "something … lacking in this country. The artist as intellectual—as accepted intellectual with a role in society. … He was very secure in what the artist's role was. … Hélion represented what the avant-garde artist could be, perhaps should be, in relation to his society. … He took his individuality extremely seriously. … It gave the Americans … a lot of confidence, to see somebody who has lived this way all his life and taking it as a matter of course … ."(1)

1. Quoted in Merle Solway Schipper, "Jean Hélion: The Abstract Decade," Art in America 64 (September–October 1976): 92.

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)