The Order of Things - The Heliker

John Heliker
The Order of Things
60 years of paintings & drawings
This catalogue was published
in conjunction with:
John Heliker
The Order of Things:
60 Years of Paintings and Drawings
January 31- May 2, 2015
Asheville Art Museum
2 South Pack Square
Asheville, NC 28802
Our thanks to Frank Thomson
for photography of artwork
(p. 12, 14, 19), and to John
Goodrich for artwork photography
and catalogue design.
Special thanks to Rosanna Warren
for permitting the reprinting of her essay.
All works in this catalogue are from the
artist’s estate, and are available directly
from the Heliker-LaHotan Foundation,, unless
otherwise cited.
Self Portrait
1932 pen and ink 11 x 8½ in.
Front cover:
From the Island (detail)
1984 oil on linen 50 x 60 in.
John Heliker
The Order of Things:
60 Years of Paintings and Drawings
January 31- May 2, 2015
2 South Pack Square,
Asheville, North Carolina 28801
Photo: Charlotte Brooks, ca. 1948
The Asheville Art Museum’s mission is to engage, enlighten
and inspire individuals and enrich community through dynamic
experiences in American Art of the 20th and 21st centuries. Presenting the exhibition John Heliker: The Order of Things, 60
Years of Paintings and Drawings to audiences from the beautiful Western North Carolina mountain region and to visitors from
around the world creates just such an opportunity.
Heliker’s drawing from the 1930’s and 1940’s give us a glimpse
of his particular view of Depression Era America with its turmoil, conflicts and hardships. His paintings show an exploration
of new aesthetic directions that emerged in the post war years
as well as his acute understanding of light and composition and
his ultimate focus on friends, landscapes and the interiors that
he surrounded himself with. As Rosanna Warren so beautifully
describes in her recollection of Heliker, included here, his work
distills his vision of an “intimate world” and “life’s subtlety”.
This exhibition has been made possible through the generosity
of the Heliker-LaHotan Foundation which is dedicated to making Heliker’s work available and to supporting artists through
residencies on Cranberry Island, Maine, where John and his
life partner Robert LaHotan painted in the summers from
the 1950’s on. Patricia Bailey has worked diligently and freely
shared her expertise, passion and knowledge of Heliker the man
and of his work over six decades. Without her this project would
not have been realized. Julio Torres provided essential assistance at the Heliker-LaHotan archives. Assistant Curator Cole
Hendrix curated the exhibition and coordinated the many details of the project. The entire Museum staff including Candace
Reilly, Jen Swanson, Jay Milner and Ali Whitman brought it to
fruition. John Heliker’s work rewards close examination and
focused viewing and we are delighted to invite you to be inspired
by his life and vision.
Pamela L. Myers
Executive Director, Asheville Art Museum
Self Portrait in White Shirt
1975 oil on linen 25 x 21 in.
John Heliker
“There is a very real sense of despair in the world,” John Heliker has said, but
“a painter does not always reflect his times in an obvious manner.”1
When I met Jack Heliker in the early 1960’s, I was about twelve years old,
and he was certainly not reflecting the public life of that tumultuous time in
any obvious way in his paintings. We met on Great Cranberry Island, Maine,
in the dignified old sea captain’s house he had bought in 1958. My parents
had brought me and my younger brother along on their visit to their old
friends, the writer John McDonald and his wife the painter Dorothy Eisner,
who spirited us on a walk further down the island to visit Jack and Bob: the
painters John Heliker and Robert LaHotan.
Jack had his studio on the second floor of one of the captain’s boatsheds, a
high, vaulted, airy space filled with light. What was that light? Partly sunlight,
let in by the generous windows. But more truthfully, it was the light emanating from Jack’s paintings. Seascapes, scenes of the tidal inlet by the house,
Still Life
with Mushrooms
1979 oil on linen 20 x 24 in.
still lifes, large compositions of the studio with human figures in it—they all
seemed to vibrate, to glow, to be made of air. Jack was already using a good
deal of his beloved turquoise blue at that time. I had been drawing with pencil
and ink pen, and painting in watercolors, for as long as I could remember—
since before I could read. I was mesmerized by Jack’s paintings, by the way the
lines and sensuous patches of color played off against each other: objects and
figures in these paintings seemed half called into being by spectral drawing,
half substantiated by the fleshy density of pigment. Rather than outlining
objects, the drawing seemed to record lines of force, a web of connections, a set
of dynamic relations. Atomic particles zinged around the canvas. I examined
the surfaces, the glossy dabs and strokes, the liquid phrasings; I sniffed the large
glass palette with its festival of smeared hues; I stared at the jars of medium.
Kitchen Still Life
with a Salad
n.d. charcoal 19 x 23 ½ in.
Seeing that I was spellbound, Jack began telling me how he worked. His
medium: one third turpentine, one third linseed oil, one third Damar var-
The Salad Maker
1972 oil on linen 17 x 14 in.
Conversation in the Boatshed
1972 oil on linen 60 x 50 in.
nish—so that was how he kept the paint workable and lush, drying neither
too fast nor too slowly. His brushes, all different sizes, battle-worn with
spattered handles, stood at attention from cans where he’d left them to dry,
their bristles clean. Jack’s manner was gentle, open, natural, serious, utterly
unpatronizing. I was in love. With Jack? No, with painting. Jack was the way
to painting. Maybe he was painting.
Over the years, I would return often to Cranberry Island, and to Jack and
Bob, as a college student, then as a young, aspiring writer and painter,
renting houses off and on for months at a time with my artist friends, setting up our hopeful, giddy, provisional art communes. Still later I returned
with my husband and young children. I was drawn by the strict beauty of
the island, its pink granite and black basalt shore line, its pine forests and
meadows, but also by the presence there of inspiring painters: not only Jack
and Bob, but my mother’s old friend Dorothy Eisner, and Bill Kienbusch,
Untitled (Merce Cunningham, Posing in Dance Costume)
1944 pen and ink 17 x 13⅞ in.
Portrait of Merce Cunningham
1946 oil on Masonite 24 x 18 in.
and my painting teacher from Yale, Gretna Campbell. All off these people
influenced me, but Jack played an almost mystical rôle. When I was about
sixteen, far from Cranberry Island, I had a dream I remember today as
intensely as if I’d dreamed it last night. Jack and I were standing in the
Roman Forum on a sunlit day. He led me up a Piranesi-like ruined stone
staircase that emerged onto a marble architrave above columns, all that
remained of an ancient temple. Jack gestured with a sweep of the arm:
before us stretched the Forum, with its intricate shapes and busted stones,
it mounds and hollows, its play of light and shade. This is what it is to see,
Jack seemed to be saying. This is the world: ancient, modern, timeless,
ruined, corrupt, beautiful.
The paintings of Jack’s I know from the 1960’s and on until his death in
2000 distill his vision of an intimate world: the Maine coast he adopted,
studio interiors with figures, still lifes and domestic scenes steeped in the
1942 oil on linen 25 x 30 in.
Slave Market Simpson Street
1937 pen and ink 9 ⅞ x 7 in.
Vuillard-like patterns and flower arrangements one recognized from the rooms
he lived in. His early drawings from the late 1930’s and the ‘40’s represent a very
different world. In them, the young Heliker reflects his sense of what it was like
to live during the Depression, what it was like to have very little money and to
live among people who had desperately less while others had cruelly more. His
cartoons in The New Masses and other drawings from the period respond “in an
obvious manner” to their times, but never unintelligently. I’m struck by the several forces at work in these drawings: the great variety in the kinds of lines, some
nervous and delicate, others harsh and emphatic, often combined with marvelous
liveliness in the same piece, as in the Seated Man (pg. 692 in the sketch book). I’m
struck, too, in sketch after sketch, by
Heliker’s search for the underlying planar
structure of faces; you can see him hitting on the essential simplification that
will be key to the caricature, but the
stylization never loses touch with the
idiosyncratic humanity of the subject.
What emerges is a stylized realism, often
grotesque and polemical, but always alert
to life’s subtlety.
The drawings from the New Deal recall
a political era Jack had shared with
Dorothy Eisner, John McDonald, and
Walker Evans, a world I glimpsed in my
youth from the conversations of these old radicals. John, Dorothy,
and my mother Eleanor Clark were Trotskyites, and had gone down
to Coyoacán, Mexico, on 1937 to assist in the Commission of Inquiry
John Dewey was chairing to clear Trotsky of Stalin’s charge of treason. My mother worked as a translator for Trotsky in that busy
household where “the Old Man,” as Trotsky was called, produced
(Study for The Literary)
ca. 1938 pen and ink 5½ x 5¾ in.
The Laborers
1941 pen and ink
Male Portrait
1945 oil on Masonite 20 x 16 in.
essay after essay that needed to be translated and disseminated in
various languages (my mother didn’t know Russian: she translated
texts from Spanish and Italian into English). John McDonald worked
with Trotsky preparing materials for the trial, and Dorothy painted
memorable portraits of the exiled revolutionary and of the Commission itself.2
Jack Heliker was not a Trotskyite and didn’t participate in the Coyoacán adventure, but back in New York he was drawing for The New
Masses and recording injustice in his own way. With his deft pen he
created a whole cast of characters: bullnecked, battering ram-headed
capitalists; witches in evening gowns; hobos; unemployed men and
women hanging about street corners; a melancholy Trotskyite intellectual at his desk. Until its dissolution in 1937, Heliker was friends
Man Sawing Wood
1941 oil on linen 16 x 20 in.
The Funeral
1941 oil on linen 30 x 25 in.
with members of the Yonkers Art Group, a partly liberal, partly radical group “Dedicated to the Struggle Against War and Fascism by the
Art of the Theatre.”3 In 1938 and 1939, Heliker was employed by the
WPA doing drawings and watercolors. But even in this period of overt
political engagement, Heliker maintained his intellectual and spiritual
independence. He depicted suffering, cruelty, and desperation, but on
his own terms. He makes this clear in a letter to his friend Ted Andrus
in 1937 when he was still involved with the Yonkers Art Group and had
been under pressure to join, not the Trotskyites, but their arch-enemies,
the Stalinist Communist Party. He wrote:
I fear you have been sadly misled by our mutual friend into thinking I have any great
interest in Militant Communism, I fear I have been sadly misrepresented to you…
Untitled (Peter Pan Sleeper
—Study for The Isolationist)
I have read and at first with avidity, the Manifesto of Marx and Engels.
You have probably been sadly disillusioned—having lost so much—spending years
in academic preparation for work, and then not being fortunate enough to obtain it.
You see I have lost nothing, for I had nothing to lose. I have had no academic education, I never sat at the “receipts of custom,” nor fortune, no stocks, no bonds, nothing
but a talent I have misused, and I do not lay blame, if I am unhappy, at Capitalism’s
door but to my own stupidity and slothfulness…
Those communists with whom I had contact repelled me by their gross materialism
and stupidity—
I am not an orthodox believer, but have nevertheless a profound believe [sic] in what
Kant terms “the incorporeal world.” I am fully con[s]cious of this—and in my opinion he who denies the existence of the supernatural world is naieve [sic].4
1937 pen/brush and ink 6 x 9 ⅞ in.
The Artist’s Studio
1940 oil on linen 20 x 16 in.
An autodidact, Heliker had taught himself well, and was well defended
against group-think of Right or Left. As David Lewis shows in his catalogue essay in John Heliker: Drawing on the New Deal, Heliker had vigorous
intellectual curiosity and read widely, taking as one of his guides
the English novelist John Cowper Powys’ speculative and philosophical works In Defense of Sensuality, A Philosophy of Solitude,
and The Meaning of Culture. From Powys, Heliker learned to value
the contemplative life to which his own nature inclined him. As
a young artist, Heliker already had that power of intense insight,
that quasi-mystical concentration that allowed him to internalize a scene in all of its particularity and recreate it on paper.
When I knew Jack, much later, he seemed to live in a state of
glowing receptivity with a core of quiet at the heart of it. He
was the least self-destructive person I’d ever met: he had no
need to charge his turbines with drugs, booze, or turbulence
in his personal life. His turbines were already charged. And
the paintings seemed an extension of that rich inner life. The
jaunty cosmos, pansies, poppies, and hollyhocks with their
carnival color from the garden on Cranberry; the lavender and
maroon 19th century floral wallpapers in the different rooms
Blue Sea & House
1945 oil on Masonite 30 x 24 in.
Buildings (Vermont)
ca. 1937-39 pen and ink 7 x 11¾ in.
of the Cranberry house; the mudflats winking at low tide—they all found
themselves transfigured in the enchanted rectangles of his canvases.
I remember Jack’s delight at listening to Bach on the newly-invented
Walkman whose earphones sent the music straight to his brain, he thought.
I remember his rapture at Rilke’s poems, and his account of the trip he and
Bob had taken to Ronda, in Spain, where Rilke stayed in 1913 and wrote
“The Spanish Trilogy.” Jack showed me his drawings of the clustered, block
houses and cliffs of Ronda; a copy of Rilke’s poems lay, carefully placed, on
the bedside table in the upstairs guest room at Jack and Bob’s house on
Cranberry. Everything in that harmonious life they shared was carefully
placed, but nothing was fussy.
Reflecting on the arc of Jack’s development as a draftsman and painter, it
seems to me that in one sense he shifted allegiance from George Grosz to
Vuillard and Rilke. But that oversimplifies the matter. Vuillard and Rilke
were already at work in Jack’s sensibility in 1936, and in the 1970’s and ‘80’s
he hadn’t forgotten Grosz’s keen sense of human injury. He had translated
the perception into a different idiom, and he painted the possibility of a
liberating joy as a gift to anyone who could open his eyes.
Rosanna Warren
Karen Wilkin, John Heliker: A Celebration of Fifty Years (New York: Kraushaar Galleries, 1995).
Christie McDonald, Painting My World: The Art of Dorothy Eisner (Woodbridge,
Suffolk: AAC Editions, 2009) 20-25.
David Lewis, John Heliker: Drawing on the New Deal (Stephen F. Austin
University Press, 2011) 18.
Lewis 18.
1945 pastel on paper 34½ x 23½ in.
“I find strong abstract elements and formal relationships in my earliest attempts
in painting, no matter how representational they may appear. For even here a certain
sense of order, by which I mean a unity, a microcosmos, in which each element of
painting, including the subject, plays an equal and significant role, so that the painting
contains a message of order beyond literal interpretation of objects.”
From Heliker’s notes for artist statements, ca. 1946-55
(Biomorphic Abstract Landscape)
ca. 1947-48 pastel, pen and ink 8¼ x 12 in.
Grotto of the Sibyl, Cumae
1952 oil on Masonite 20 x 12 in.
Clockwise from left:
Landscape of the Bronx
1954 oil on Masonite 11 x 9 in.
Upper Manhattan Landscape
1966 oil on Masonite 12 x 21 in.
Study of the East River
1961 oil on Masonite 17½ x 30 in.
Upper Manhattan Landscape
1966 oil on Masonite 12 x 21 in.
“In more recent years I have been concerned
in my painting with the quality of serenity…
I choose to give expression to those aspects
of nature which contain an inner sense
of harmony.”
From notes for artist statements, ca. 1946-55
From the Island
1984 oil on linen 50 x 60 in.
Top left:
Mountains of Acadia from Cranberry
n.d. watercolor, pencil 12 x 9½ in.
Courtesy Heliker-LaHotan Foundation and Kraushaar Galleries, New York
Central Park
1982 oil on linen 25 x 30 in.
House on a Cliff, Maine
1987 oil on linen 60 x 40¾ in.
View of the Shore of the Pool,
Toward Acadia
n.d. watercolor, pencil 11½ x 15½ in.
View from the Bronx
1972 oil on linen 25 x 32 in.
Boy in Boathouse
1988 oil on linen 50¼ x 60¼ in.
Still Life with a Pomegranate
1960 oil on linen 40 x 34 in.
Drawing in Bed
1988 oil on linen 28 x 37 in.
Reading in Bed
n.d. charcoal 19 x 25 in.
“There can be nothing exclusive about a substantial art. It comes
directly out of the heart of experience, of life, and thinking about life
and living life.”
From Heliker’s undated notes, ca. 1950’s
Interior with Three Figures
1987 oil on linen 50 x 60 in.
Interior with Figure & Green Shutter
1985 oil on linen 50 x 40 in.
“I can’t account for the fact that often the final result seems to be far removed
in spirit from the original impulse. The materials enter, as an influence, and create all
kinds of things, unpredictable situations, as the picture progresses accidentals
occur and are controlled. The relationship of form to form and the space created by their
relationships react and are reacted upon by each other element.”
From draft of Heliker’s letter to a student, Nancy Robbins Naramore, April 21, 1946
Still Life with Bottle & a Plant
n.d. charcoal 19 x 25 in.
Still Life with Jug
1985 oil on linen 50 x 40 in.
Studio Interior with Stove
n.d. charcoal 19 x 25 in.
In the Potting Shed
1991 oil on linen 62½ x 60¼ in.
Photo: Charlotte Brooks, late 1960’s
John Heliker (1909 –2000)
Born in Yonkers, New York in 1909, John Heliker, known as Jack to his friends, was
descended from early Dutch settlers of Manhattan Island. His grandfather was a builder
and stonemason in Yonkers, NY. He dropped out of high school to pursue his art at the
age of 15. His brief formal training was at the Art Students League from 1927-29, where
he studied with Boardman Robinson and Kimon Nicolaides. He had his first solo exhibition at the Maynard Walker Gallery in 1936 and showed at the Kraushaar Galleries for
more than 50 years. During the New Deal era, he served on the easel division of the
WPA Federal Art Project and contributed drawings for the leftist publication The New
Masses. He was a Professor of Art at Columbia University for twenty-seven years. He
also taught at the Art Students League, the New York Studio School (he was a founding
faculty member), and in the MFA Painting Program at Parsons School of Design.
His work was exhibited nationally in the major survey exhibitions of the Carnegie Institute, the Brooklyn Museum, the Cleveland Museum, the Corcoran Gallery, the Museum
of Modern Art’s ABSTRACT PAINTING IN AMERICA, and many others. The Whitney
Museum of American Art honored Jack with a mid-career retrospective in 1968, and he
has been included in numerous Whitney Museum annuals and biennials. He was represented at the Bicentennial Exhibition AMERICA: 1976 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in
Washington, DC that traveled through the country, and his work toured Europe through
USIA in the 1950’s and was featured at the World’s Fair in Brussels in 1958 and in Osaka
in 1969. Among the artist’s many awards are the Prix de Rome (1948), a Guggenheim
Fellowship (1951), three Ford Foundation Purchase awards, and numerous awards from
the National Academy of Design.
The artist was awarded Honorary Doctorates of Fine Arts from Colby College, Maine
and from Bard College, New York. His works are included in numerous public and
private collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern
Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Walker Art Center, the Philadelphia Museum and the
Whitney Museum of American Art, among many others.
Heliker made his first trip to Maine in the 1920’s. In the late 1950’s, he purchased the
nineteenth century sea captain’s house and boat yard on Great Cranberry Island where
for the balance of the 20th century, he and his life partner, the painter Robert LaHotan
established summer painting headquarters. The two artists were an important part of
a community of artists and writers on Great Cranberry during the second half of the
twentieth century. The Foundation that bears their names now continues this tradition
by sponsoring residencies for visual artists in the former home and studios of Heliker
and LaHotan in Maine.
Portrait of Edwin Dickinson
1967 oil on linen 38 x 32 in.
All works in this
catalogue are from the
artist’s estate, and
are available directly from the
Heliker-LaHotan Foundation,,
unless otherwise cited.
Back cover:
The Boat Ride
1979 oil on linen 25 x 30 in
Courtesy Heliker-LaHotan Foundation
Courthouse Galleries Fine Art, Ellsworth, Maine