In comparison with other members of the American Abstract Artists, John Sennhauser came late to abstraction. During the 1930s, he painted scenes of urban street life, prompting one reviewer to describe him as “a realist with a nice facility in drawing and painting.”(1) Not until the early 1940s did Sennhauser first exhibit the nonobjective paintings for which he became known.
Sennhauser was born in Switzerland and grew up in Italy. He studied for two years at the Royal Academy in Venice, and in 1928 immigrated to the United States, where he worked as an architectural draftsman. From 1930 to 1933, he studied at the Cooper Union. Between 1936 and 1942 he taught, first at the Leonardo da Vinci Art School, and later at the Contemporary School of Art in New York. During this time he also did privately commissioned murals.(2)
In 1943, Sennhauser began working for Hilla Rebay at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. At that time, he explained the impulse behind his new style as “rather universal, or subjective,” terms that were consonant with Rebay’s ideas on mysticism. He continued,
” Lines, planes, forms, colors, rhythmically moving intuitively conceived intuitively born of life eternal. Plastic integration of form and space of body and spirit .
The everlasting negative in all its positive manifestations, pure as immortality, free as the infinite The essence of all that is and is not ”
In Black Lines No. 13 (1944), Organization No. 16 (1942), and other paintings from the late 1930s and 1940s, Sennhauser sought to express universal order. Although he described his working method as intuitive, “the flowing of feeling through my body into my arm to my hand into my brush ‚” he also consciously composed in terms of dualities of line, color, form, and space.(4) Sennhauser was not doctrinaire in promoting these ideas, however. He believed that all art, the socially conscious as well as the “esthetically directed,” should seek truth and order and meet exacting standards of whatever grammar and syntax the artist chooses to use.(5)
Sennhauser, like Dwinell Grant and others who were closely associated with Rebay at the Guggenheim, became disaffected with Rebay’s philosophical and personal inflexibility. He resigned in 1945. In the 1950s and 1960s, he worked as a restorer. During these years he became increasingly active in several artists’ organizations, including the American Abstract Artists and the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors. In 1961 he again exhibited figurative work, freely painted canvases with sensual surfaces that were dramatically opposed to the more formal geometries of his earlier work. Sennhauser’s switch to figuration did not come overnight, however; in his watercolor and casein works from the early 1950s on, he often adopted a free Abstract Expressionism distinct from the structural approach of his canvases.
1. New York Herald Tribune, 26 April 1936 (review of an exhibition of Sennhauser’s work at the Leonardo da Vinci Art school).
2. In sketches for unidentified mural commissions that show scenes of workers building skyscrapers, Sennhauser has worked out careful compositional structures. See John Sennhauser Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., roll N70–33.
3. John Sennhauser, letter to Sidney Janis, 25 July 1943, Sennhauser Papers, Archives of American Art, roll N70–33: 12.
4. See “Notes Requested by the Whitney Museum of American Art After Their Purchase of Emotive 15 in 1951,” Sennhauser Papers, Archives of American Art, roll N70–33: 58. He also writes, ” no particular color, idea or subject is in my mind at the time of execution. My brush moves intuitively slowly attuning itself to the rhythm of the feeling that permeates my whole being. Of course, this feeling does come from somewhere. It may be some music that I have heard or I am listening to a charming remark from my little girl a description of the constellations as related by my young son after a visit to the Planetarium. It might even be the emaciated faces of Korean refugees the dreadful thought of the atomic bomb. It may be anything. What is important is its crystallization in color-form vibrations.”
5. See Excerpt from Letter to Verna from John Sennhauser, 24 August 1968, in Sennhauser Papers, Archives of American Art, roll N70–33: 39.
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)