In the early 1960s, a group of New York artists turned down the heat of the contemporary art world. Charles Hinman was central to this movement away from the passion, spontaneity and individualism of abstract expressionism, and toward a cooler, more calculated approach to form and content. Yet today he’s less well known than his cohorts, who include pop artists (and onetime Hinman studio mates) James Rosenquist and Robert Indiana.
The Kreeger Museum’s “Charles Hinman: Structures, 1965-2014” is the artist’s first retrospective mounted in Washington.
Hinman, who remains active at 86, arrayed blocks of bright, simple hues in crisp-edged compositions. He wasn’t the only one to do so; Ellsworth Kelly and many other painters of the hard-edge and color-field schools did the same thing. But Hinman was one of the first to build shaped canvases, abandoning the traditional rectangle in favor of irregular contours. The eccentric outlines of Hinman’s works are complemented by underlying armatures that give the pictures literal peaks and valleys. Hinman’s description of his approach? “Skin over bones.”
At his first solo show in New York in 1965, Hinman sold one of his paintings, “Sails,” to Washington arts patrons David and Carmen Kreeger. (The museum that shares their name, which opened in 1994 on Foxhall Road, is their former home.) Another collector with a Washington connection, Joseph Hirshhorn, bought three pictures at the same show. That trio of works — “Interlocking,” “Red Wing” and “Cloud,” now the property of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden — are reunited with “Sails” at the Kreeger.
Those four paintings hang near one another in the main gallery, which contains the show’s earliest works. A second large room features pieces made from the 1980s to as recently as 2013. Connecting the two spaces is a narrow gallery with models, sketches and prints, as well as a short 2014 video interview with the artist.
As Hinman explains in the video, his aim is to explore both 3-D and 2-D representation: “the real space of sculpture,” as he puts it, and “the illusory space of painting” — as well as how they interact with each other.
The most intriguing of the works on paper are a set of silk-screens from 1970. Printed in bright colors, their curving forms either follow or deviate from subtle patterns that have been embossed onto the paper, a distinction that’s visible only on close inspection. These prints are not quite sculpture, but they are closely related to Hinman’s essential concern.
After making his first shaped canvases, Hinman turned to more complex hybrids of painting and sculpture in which several individual forms nestle together. These pieces have an architectural quality; like modernist buildings, they’re engineered to produce dramatic play of light and shadow.
This play is most evident in four constructions from the mid-1970s in which the interlocking parts are painted all-white. The artworks are both simple and complicated, like the broader theme they suggest: a tension between wholeness and segmentation.
Stylistically, Hinman is a descendant of such European formalists as Kazimir Malevich and Josef Albers, and a forerunner of American minimalists such as Sol LeWitt. The artist’s affection for simplicity can be felt in those all-ivory creations of the 1970s but also in Hinman’s newest offerings, “Onyx” (2012) and “Indochinite” (2013). Both works are single shaped canvases — as opposed to the more complex, nestled forms — in which the principal surface is painted black, and the subsidiary facets are a very dark blue, green or purple. These colors are reflected on the white walls, yielding a gentle glow.
The soft hues evoke the illuminated signs of nighttime New York, hinting at the Lower Manhattan, where Hinman has worked for some 60 years. The influence of the artist’s environment is palpable, if subtle.
The nautical title of the painting the Kreegers bought in 1965, for example, seems to refer to its shape. But “Sails” also alludes to the artist’s early-1960s studio, a former sail-making loft on the East River. Hinman’s paintings — ostensibly content-free — turn out to contain a trace of autobiography after all.
Kreeger Museum, 2401 Foxhall Rd. NW. kreegermuseum.org .
Dates: Through July 31.
Prices: Admission is by suggested donation of $10; $8 for seniors, students and members of the military; members free.