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John Edward Heliker (aka John Heliker)

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John Edward Heliker
(Yonkers, New York, 1909 - 2000, Bar Harbor, Maine)

John Heliker was born in Yonkers, New York on January 16, 1909. (1) His father, John Edward Heliker, was a stonemason and the descendant of Dutch farmers; his mother, Jane MacLaughlin, was Scottish-American. Heliker was raised on a farm in upstate New York. In 1923, at the age of 14, he decided to leave school and pursue his interest in art so he began commuting daily to New York to study and copy paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. During one of these sessions he met Arshile Gorky who introduced him to the work of Manet, Gauguin, and Cezanne, among others.

In 1925, Heliker made his first trip to the Maine coast to attend art school at Boothbay Harbor, which was run by a teacher from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Two years later, he began studying at the Art Students League in New York with Kimon Nicolaides who believed that painting was an extension of drawing, a philosophy that Heliker took to heart. Also during his two years as a student, Heliker studied life drawing with Boardman Robinson, Kenneth Hayes Miller, and Thomas Hart Benton. He took only two painting courses during these years, both from Kenneth Hayes Miller.

In February of 1929, Heliker left New York City and began to work independently. His efforts began to bear fruit in 1936, when he received his first one-man show at Maynard Walker Gallery in New York. The show was a popular success. Paul Sachs, whose collection is now in the Fogg Museum at Harvard, bought a group of drawings from the show as did a number of museums including the Addison Gallery of American Art, the San Francisco Museum of Art, and the University of Nebraska Art Galleries. The following year, Heliker's work was included in the International Watercolor Exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago.

From 1938 to 1939, Heliker worked in the easel painting section of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) under the supervision of Philip Evergood. During this period, he moved to Greenwich Village and became an active member of the New York art scene. In 1938, Maynard Walker Gallery held a second one-man show of his work, followed by a third in 1940. The Maynard Walker Gallery closed soon after, and Heliker joined the Kraushaar Galleries. After leaving the WPA in 1939, Heliker began teaching at an art school in the Bronx called the American People's School. In 1941, he was included in the 17th Biennial at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, where he won a gold medal as well as the first W. A. Clark Prize. Encouraged, Heliker began to exhibit frequently, most notably in the Whitney's annual show in 1941, and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1942. In addition, his works began to be purchased regularly by both public and private collectors.

In 1945, Kraushaar Galleries held their first one-person show of Heliker's work. In the fall of 1947, Heliker began teaching at Columbia University in New York, and in 1948 he won the Prix de Rome and traveled to Italy. He spent the fall of 1948 in Naples and Rome where he lived and worked near his friend Philip Guston. During his time in Rome, Heliker learned about both Surrealism and Symbolism, as well as pursuing an interest in Italian landscape. Also in 1948, Heliker won the Adolph and Clara Obrig Prize from the National Academy of Design. He returned to Europe the following year, lingering particularly in Italy, Sicily, and Paris.

During the 1950s, Heliker exhibited frequently in both the United States and abroad, and he spent his summers traveling, returning to Italy for several years and also visiting Greece and Nova Scotia in addition to frequent trips to Maine. In 1952, Heliker won a Guggenheim Fellowship which allowed him to spend two summers in Italy. He also became acquainted with Robert LaHotan, a fellow painter, who became his lifelong companion. In 1958, Heliker bought an old sea captain's house in Maine which became his summer home. The same year, his work was featured at the World's Fair in Brussels along with that of Josef Albers, Stuart Davis, and Arshile Gorky.

Heliker's success continued through the next two decades. In 1965, he became a founding member of the New York Studio School along with Philip Guston, Leland Bell, Alex Katz, and Mercedes Matter. In 1966, he was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts by Colby College in Waterville, Maine and in 1967, he received an Award of Merit from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1968, the Whitney Museum of American Art held a retrospective of his work including over ninety paintings and drawings, and in 1969, he was elected a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters.

In 1971, the Museum of Art in Ogunquit, Maine held a retrospective of Heliker's works. Also that year he was elected Vice-President for Arts of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, a position which he retained for two terms. In 1974, Heliker retired from Columbia University and the following year he began teaching at the Art Students League. In 1976, his works were included in the Bicentennial Exhibition organized by the U. S. Department of the Interior which opened at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington and traveled throughout the country. In 1979, he was elected an associate member of the National Academy of Design and two years later was elected a full member.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Heliker continued to exhibit widely and garner frequent awards for his work. In 1990, the Museum of Art in Ogunquit held a second retrospective of his work. (2) In 1991, he was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts by Bard College in Annendale on Hudson, New York and in 1995, Kraushaar Galleries held a retrospective exhibition of his work, marking the fiftieth anniversary of their relationship with Heliker.

IHeliker's work is part of the collections at museums throughout the United States including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I

Heliker's primary media were oil painting, watercolor, and drawing, and his subjects were predominantly landscapes, though he also did portraits, still-lifes, and interiors. Heliker did all his work in the studio, painting his scenes from a combination of memory and imagination. He did not produce studies for his paintings, but sometimes used his drawings to remind him of a particular setting. For his still-lifes, he used familiar objects and painted them in "remembered relationships" (3) rather than setting up arrangements in his studio and reproducing them.

Heliker worked predominantly with a restrained tonal range throughout his career, though his palette varied. Much of Heliker's work contains an underlying sense of structure due to his use of strong horizontals and diagonals, (4) but awareness of this visual structure is reduced by the regular blurring of edges and outlines in his works. The thin, dark outlines which do appear in many of Heliker's paintings reflect the centrality of drawing in his creative process. (5)

Heliker's early works were primarily influenced by Cezanne and the works of Marsden Hartley (6) and these influences are visible in the solidly outlined planes and patches of color that appear in his early paintings. Heliker's work changed dramatically when he went to Italy in 1948. He began to focus exclusively on landscape and architecture, and his palette was dominated by earth tones. (7) As well, over the next few years his work became increasingly abstract and looser in design, his palette became cooler, and his works often had a new sense of movement. (8)

During the 1960s, Heliker began to soften the angular facets of the objects in his paintings and began to try new subjects, such as interiors and occasionally figures. His interest in representation slowly returned as well, until recognizable objects became common once more in his works. Despite this interest, Heliker's art never focused on detailed description of the objects he painted, but rather emphasized the process used to depict them. (9) Heliker also said that he wished to convey the feelings or impressions a subject evokes, rather than explore the innate qualities of a particular object or scene. "Nature is what my painting is about, what I am most concerned with, but I rarely work directly from nature—occasionally I make a drawing, a note, so to speak—but the best paintings I have ever done relate to the deepest feelings I have had about a place—an experience...I choose in my painting to give expression to those aspects of nature which contain an inner sense of harmony." (10)

Margaret Bullock 11/27/96

(1) Biographical information was compiled from the following sources: Lloyd Goodrich and Patricia FitzGerald Mandel, John Heliker, Frederick A. Praeger, Publishers, New York, 1968; Paul Cummings, Dictionary of Contemporary American Artists, 3rd edition, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1977; Art Inc.: American Paintings from Corporate Collections, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in association with Brandywine Press, 1979; Harriet W. Fowler, New Deal Art: WPA Works at the University of Kentucky, University of Kentucky Art Museum, 1985, p. 54; Who's Who in American Art, 1995-1996, R. R. Bowker, New Providence, New Jersey, 1995, p. 528; Karen Wilkin, John Heliker: A Celebration of Fifty Years, Kraushaar Galleries, New York, 1995.
Critiques of Heliker's work reviewed for this essay include: Lloyd Goodrich and Patricia FitzGerald Mandel, John Heliker, Whitney Museum of American Art, Frederick A Praeger, Publishers, New York, 1968; Jed Perl, "John Heliker at Kraushaar", Art in America 65, July/August 1977, p. 101; Bruce St. John, "John Heliker", Arts Magazine 54, April, 1980, p. 5; Arline Meyer, "John Heliker", Arts Magazine 58 (1), September 1983, p. 22; Karen Wilkin, John Heliker: A Celebration of Fifty Years, Kraushaar Galleries, New York, 1995.
Other recommended sources on John Heliker's career include: John I. H. Baur, Nature in Abstraction, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1958; Gertrud A. Mellon and Elizabeth F. Wilder, eds., Maine and Its Role in American Art, 1740-1963, The Viking Press, New York, 1963.
(2) For a complete review of Heliker's career including exhibitions entered, honors awarded, and a list of collections which own Heliker pieces in addition to an extensive bibliography on his work, see Wilkin, 1995.
(3) St. John, 1980, p. 5
(4) Meyer, 1983, p. 22; See also Goodrich and Mandel, 1968, p. 7 and Perl, 1977, p. 101
(5) Hardly a day goes by that I do not draw either as a note of something remembered or directly from nature." (Heliker as quoted in St. John, 1980, p. 5; See also Goodrich and Mandel, 1968, p. 5)
(6) Goodrich and Mandel, 1968, pp. 5-6; Art Inc., 1979, p. 170; Wilkin, 1995, p. 2
(7) Goodrich and Mandel, 1968, p. 6
(8) Goodrich and Mandel, 1968, pp. 7-8; Art Inc., 1979, p. 170
(9) Goodrich and Mandel, 1968, p. 5; Wilkin, 1995, p. 3
(10) Wilkin, 1995, pp. 3-4

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