June 7, 2012

John Heliker: ‘A Tribute’


Davis & Langdale Company, 231 East 60th Street, Manhattan

Through next Friday

It’s a treat to encounter the small, late paintings of the American modernist John Heliker (1909-2000) in Davis & Langdale’s two small rooms: intimacy and a sense of enclosure, even in landscapes, are characteristics of the work.

Heliker was born on a farm in Yonkers and died near the coast of Maine, where he shared a house with his longtime partner, the painter Robert LaHotan. But he spent much of his time in Manhattan, where he taught art for decades and was deeply involved with the avant-garde world of music and dance: John Cage and Merce Cunningham were among his close friends.

This city-country split has a parallel in his work. During the first half of his long and productive career he was a figurative painter; then around midpoint, when many artists are set in their ways, he turned to abstraction. In the paintings in this show, from the 1970s to the early 1990s, the two modes essentially become one. Paint is laid in washy cubistic blocks to create figures (including a portrait of Edwin Dickinson), still lifes, and interior and outdoor scenes. The grayish-blue that Heliker favored as a chromatic binder makes everything seem to exist in a dreamy haze, or in the enveloping salt-air atmosphere of a winter-into-spring afternoon.

The show has been organized by the art critic Jed Perl, who studied painting with Heliker at Columbia University and writes affectionately and conversationally about him in a take-away catalog. Heliker’s late paintings have a conversational quality too, not relaxed but poised, the way art can be after years of practice, when habit hides effort.