The Linear Imagination of Howard Hack
The great French writer Emile Zola once said that art was a corner of nature seen through a temperament. It is no exaggeration to say that one of the most provocative and creative temperaments of any California artist belongs to Howard Hack. Despite the fact that Hack's work hangs in some of the most distinguished museums and private collections in America, his unique vision is more unfamiliar than it should be. Some of the mystery surrounding his art, however, can be explained.
Howard Hack has always controlled his career and has not allowed others to control it even in the face of adversity. Secondly, he has needed time, space and solitude to create his art. Edgar Degas spoke of this type of need when he said in 1856, "It seems to me today, if the artist wishes to be serious - to cut out a little niche for himself, or at least preserve his own innocence of personality - he must once more sink himself in solitude." In solitude Howard Hack has produced these magnificent drawings. The Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts is proud to exhibit them in a museum for the first time.
A Distinguished Record of Artistic Achievement
Howard Hack was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming, in 1932 but has been a San Franciscan since the age of eighteen. He has a distinguished record of artistic achievement including participation in many one-person and group exhibitions. In 1967, the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum honored Hack with an exhibition of his Window Series of Paintings. Hack's work is in the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Fogg Art Museum, the National Museum of American Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and The Oakland Museum, among others.
In the Traditon of the Old Masters
Since 1967, Hack has devoted himself to creatiing a series of intricately composed silverpoint drawings using fine silver wire to draw on a surface ground prepared with gesso, a fine white plaster. Artists' use of silverpoint goes back hundreds of years. It was a favorite medium of Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticeli, Albrecht Durer, Lucas Cranach and other Renaissance masters. In more limited use since the sixteenth century, it has always been of interest to artists who were willing to contend with its limitations in hopes of achieving luminous effects. In the twentieth century, outstanding silverpoint drawings have been created by such diverse artists as Pablo Picasso, Joseph Stella, Otto Dix, Pavel Tchelitchew and Paul Cadmus. In addition to Howard Hack, other temporary American artists who have successfully worked in this medium are Theo Wujcik and Leo Dee.
Constructed With Order and Grace
Unlike a drawing with graphite, which it most closely resembles, a silverpoint line once drawn, cannot be erased. The thousands of lines that make up each of the silverpoints in this exhibition are a testament to Howard Hack's premeditation and sureness of hand. They are constructed with order and grace. Order comes from Hack's confident ability to execute his ideas with seemingly effortless precision. Grace comes from his knack of turning the silverpoint, which in other hands is often an unyielding medium, into softly tonal images more suggestive of grisaille painting than stark draughtsmanship.
The virtuosity of Howard Hack's drawings is tangential to his style and choice of subject matter, the two elements that make his work significant. Hack's subject matter is personal and intriguing, yet accessible. Seemingly commonplace items such as dried roses, a feather duster and a set of toy soldiers are seen as if for the time. Hack's ability to elevate the common to the artistic plane links him to a distinguished tradition in American art. His conceptions of flowers and plants relate to similar obsessive observations by Charles Demuth, Georgia O'Keeffe, Edward Weston and Joseph Stella.
Howard Hack renders everyday objects such as a key, matchbook or thimble in a straightforward strangely symbolic manner. This artistic focusing upon the overlooked formal beauty in objects we constantly come in contact with is a device that goes as far back as man's first recorded fascination with the curve of an egg and the linearity of an arrow. His art is related to such symbols in recent artistic tradition as the numbers and letters in the art of Jasper Johns and the biomorphic personalities of work tools as rendered by Jim Dine.
Dreams Formed in an American Consciousness
Combined with this approach is the artist Howard Hack's penchant for the unusual. His unexpected ideas are dreams that could only have been formed in an American consciousness. His coin drawings of the 1939 World's Fair and Yosemite National Park evoke a sly humor, inspired as they are by the commercial souvenir quality of the original coins. His interpretation ofthe interior of a 1939 Ford brings back memories of old National Geographic magazine advertisements and long childhood automobile trips. His grotesquely faithful rendering of a "modernistic" floor ashtray resurrects nearly forgotten hotel lobbies and waiting rooms. In his drawing of an F1-11 pilot Hack rejoices in the complexity and elan of American technology. There is a spiritual link to the American visions of Edward Hopper, Stuart Davis and Walker Evans, yet Hack's art remains distinct from categorization. Exotic and straightforward, minute and monumental, profound and plain, Howard Hack's selection and focus of the world around him is visually irresistible.
The style of the drawings is one of elegant detachment. Softly constructed delicate markings of silverpoint radiate a brownish-grey hue that creates the illusion of color. Scale is an important yet unpredictable component of Hack's art. A drawing of dried roses is perceived to be actual size, but a drawing of a thimble appears to take on the monumental qualities of an Egyptian mastaba.
What Will People Think of the Artist Howard Hack's Art One Hundred Years From Now?
What will they think of the time, patience and concentration necessary to create these works? What will they think of his seductive style and idiosyncratic subject matter? I believe that Howard Hack's art will age far more gracefully than the strained and chic artistic fashions that currently strut upon the stage of art history. Time will tell.
- Robert Flynn Johnson, Curator in Charge, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, San Francisco
Copyright 2012 Howard Hack. All rights reserved.
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