Harry Holtzman

An untitled 1984 work by Harry Holtzman. (Courtesy Florence Griswold Museum / November 6, 2013)

Harry Holtzman (1912-1987) was, for a brief window of time in the 1930s, practically the face of abstract art in America. The Brooklyn native, who lived in a converted barn in Lyme for the last 20 years of his life, helped inject the optimism, utopianism and clarity of abstraction into the artistic bloodstream of America. This all comes into revelatory focus in "Harry Holtzman and American Abstraction," an important and captivating exhibition at the Florence Griswold Museum created by Amy Kurtz Lansing and Benjamin Colman, two young curators who continue to impress with the freshness and erudition of their installations.

From a distance of 25 years, Holtzman appears to have been both blessed and cursed by his friendship with the Dutch modernist Piet Mondrian (1877-1944). Because of it, he's best known, perhaps only known, for his association with the father of "Neoplasticism." The bond started with Holtzman's urgent interest in abstract art as a teen at the Art Students League, chafing under the rusty teaching regimen. Partly due to his agitations, George Grosz and Hans Hofmann were hired, the latter becoming Holtzman's mentor and later his "boss" when he hired him as his assistant and an instructor at the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts in New York.

Prior to this, from the evidence of his early work on view here, you see Holtzman trying on different styles like an actor changing costumes. All were done proficiently and some are quite striking. But the "watershed moment," according to Colman, was a small exhibition of Mondrian's paintings at A.E. Gallatin's New York gallery in 1933. After seeing them, Holtzman became obsessed with Mondrian, traveling to Paris, moving into Mondrian's neighborhood and then, unannounced, knocking on the master's door in late 1934. Luckily, they forged a nearly instant bond, despite their age and language differences (Mondrian, 40 years his senior, spoke broken French and broken English). After four months of comradeship with his hero, Holtzman returned to New York. Then, when Mondrian moved to London just in time for the Blitz, Holtzman worked to get him legally immigrated in 1940 to New York, where Mondrian's art was reinvigorated — he created his most famous work, "Broadway Boogie Woogie," in tribute to the city. After Mondrian died in 1944, Holtzman inherited his entire estate and devoted the next several years to resuscitating and protecting the master's legacy — at the expense of years he could have been in his own studio.

Nonetheless, Holtzman was a great, and groundbreaking, abstract artist in his own right, and it would be a shame if the take-away from this exhibition was only the Mondrian connection. Lansing and Colman go the extra mile in widening the lens on Holtzman's career.

First of all, Holtzman seemed to know everybody, including the influential Katherine Dreier, whose "Variation 10, Volume I" (1934) is the first work in the Griswold exhibition. As part of the WPA's mural division, Holtzman worked with Stuart Davis, Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning. When he cofounded American Abstract Artists in 1936, his cohorts were a who's who of modernism: Gorky, Moholy-Nagy, Ad Reinhardt, Lee Krasner, Ray Eames. He was also, later, a member of "The Club," a group of artists who met to discuss philosophy that included Elaine and Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, and Franz Kline.

Secondly, he eschewed exhibiting his work, even wavering at creating permanent pieces. Many of the pieces in his archive, and in this show, were done on paper, as if he were constantly producing studies. Still, of the permanent works on view here, "Sculpture 1" (1940) and "Lateral Volume 2" are touchstones of modern art.

Finally, he was, said Colman, "a born teacher," for years expending his energies as a lecturer, provocateur and professor at Brooklyn College and the Institute of General Semantics. Only at the end of his life did he return with his youthful gusto to the studio, to produce some astonishing works — sculptural paintings — that fill the final gallery in this show. He called them "lessons for architects" and considered them "the first paintings in history." This hybrid form, says Lansing, "was his way of achieving the neoclassical goal of wedding art and life."

Until the very end, Holtzman's passion for abstraction never wavered.


Harry Holtzman and American Abstraction

On view through Jan. 26, the Florence Griswold Museum, 98 Lyme St., Old Lyme, (860) 434-5542, florencegriswoldmuseum.org