“A teacher affects eternity,” wrote Henry Adams. “He can never tell where his influence stops.” This sentiment is worth contemplating when regarding the exhibition of John Heliker’s works at Courthouse Gallery Fine Art in Ellsworth, Maine. Someone hurrying through it on their way to the next item in the busy summer event schedule Downeast might assume them to be a modern New Englander’s repurposed Post-Impressionism. This would be a dual crime. First, it would cheat these lovely paintings of the time they need to unfold in the eye. Second, it would slight the reputation of a man who had put thousands of artists on the proper path over the course of four decades as one of New York City’s most beloved art instructors.
There is a thorny problem at the core of art pedagogy: no one who has been at it for a while thinks that art can be taught. You can teach art techniques to anyone. John Ruskin noted in The Elements of Drawing that “I have never yet, in the experiments I have made, met with a person who could not learn to draw at all.” You can teach the basics of good form and how to see the world clearly to anyone with a bit of knack for them already. But the rest of the matter, how to do something worthwhile with your aesthetic powers, is out of the teacher’s hands. A few students are redwoods, some are rose bushes, and most are dandelions. All the teacher can do is provide sunshine and water and a temporary space in the academic hothouse.
That said, Heliker radiated spectacular weather. One of his students was Jed Perl, who is currently the only living art critic whose work I study rather than merely read. Perl recalls that “his intelligence was in equal parts exacting and poetic. I will not forget the many mornings I spent with him at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We would sit in front of a Poussin or a wall of Corots and talk about everything under the sun. The meandering conversations seemed somehow related to the paintings, although in ways I could not explain beyond knowing that it felt good to talk about things that mattered while looking at paintings we loved.”
Anyone with a sense for such things will recognize this as a description of the real deal.
The circumstances behind the work in John Heliker: Paintings from the Cranberry Years bear some explanation. While born in Yonkers, he had fond memories of trips to New England dating back to his teenage years in the ’20s. He spent 1949 at the American Academy in Rome, sharing a studio with Philip Guston, with whom he became friends. A 1951 Guggenheim fellowship allowed him to draw and paint on the Amalfi Coast, and he continued to return to Europe until homesickness set in and he bought a property on Great Cranberry Island on the Maine coast in 1958. He continued to teach at Columbia until 1974 (he started there in ’47), helped found the New York Studio School after his retirement, and then taught in the MFA program at Parsons. But Great Cranberry became his refuge, as well as his happy domicile with the painter Robert LaHotan, for the rest of his long life.
By the late ’50s Heliker completed a (sort of) round trip from social realism to biomorphic surrealism to abstraction to painterly figuration. Heliker, after all, had the kind of figure-centered art education that one has to go to some trouble to find nowadays, and moreover had received it at the Art Students League when George Bridgman was teaching there. Bridgman taught a conception of human anatomy as a sequence of three-dimensional solids that would have appealed to the son of a stonemason like Heliker. Thorough practice of the Bridgman method – his instruction books are still available if you’d like to try it – leads to a confident, even breezy handling of the figure that is in evidence in a sketchbook on display in the exhibition.
But Heliker arrived at his figuration having sampled surrealism at its height in the ‘40s and abstraction at its height in the ‘50s, and having befriended a circle of New York artistic innovators including Merce Cunningham and John Cage. Thus the works he produced on Great Cranberry, despite that some of them could fairly be called New England genre scenes, possess enormous sophistication, a profound contemplation about the nature of art that joins sensitivity, training, and erudition in a manner that hardly anyone calling himself an artist today can match.
Sketch of a Young Clamdigger from 1990 is likely called that because he worked it up from a figure in the aforementioned sketchbook. The title notwithstanding it is as resolved as any other painting in the show. Nevertheless it retains an informality that is entirely the product of a behind-the-scenes fight of which you can witness traces in the passages of scraped and wiped-away paint. That is to say, there is nothing informal about it except the result. Lines describing the figure and the landscape elements seem to have arrived there by way of a hundred corrections, with a trail of erasures, such as the ones in the lit side of the clamdigger’s shirt and in his stern face, left in their wake. It occurs to me from looking at this painting how much the process recalls that of Alberto Giaccometti, at least as reported by James Lord, in the production and adjustment of lines to make the work coalesce. Giaccometti of course could never hope to use color like this: mauve earth and cobalt sky constrained within a narrow range of saturation and value that imbues the palette with a mysterious tone.
By then Heliker was 81 years old, but he had been painting at this high level consistently for thirty years. Bouquet of Flowers in the Corner from 1963 shows all the same pieces in place, the evocative colors and the courageous search for the line. And again, despite the evident struggle, the paint has the freshness and softness of a good pastel. Heliker, by some alchemy that frankly baffles me, is able to give an evening quality to the light in scenes that are clearly taking place during the day. It has something to do with the coolness of the hues, but it isn’t only that.
The centerpiece of the exhibition is Clamdigger with Dog from 1985. It is a large piece for Heliker, five feet high. Most of it is devoted to an atmosphere that one sometimes sees in Maine in which neither the blue sky nor the fog prevails. A man seated on the ground looks over his shoulder to see a purple-brown silhouette of a pooch, at once comical and mystical, regarding him in return. The figure and the dog interlock with a red boatshed and an orange toolbox on the grass, forming an ABAB rhyme scheme across the turquoise waters and the violet landscape in the distance. The lines that hold it all together are lively and deft. John Heliker is ripe for rediscovery, and getting his work in front of your eyes is eminently worth a trip to Ellsworth.