Transfigured Sites - the Aerial Photography of Robert Hartman

By Marable, Darwin | The World and I, May 2003 | Go to article overview

Transfigured Sites - the Aerial Photography of Robert Hartman


Marable, Darwin, The World and I


Photographer Robert Hartman's intriguing images of the earth, taken at various heights from his restored 1949 Piper, appear more as abstract paintings than mere geographical features.

Born in 1926 in Sharon, Pennsylvania, Robert Hartman grew up in the village of Brookfield, Ohio. His father was a physician who loved farming and raised a variety of fruits, vegetables, and animals on an acre of land. Hartman's first aerial experience occurred at age five when an uncle took him for a ride in a hired biplane. Afterward he and his brother, Jim, who later became a commercial pilot, became avid model airplane builders.

When he was thirteen, the family moved to Tucson because of Hartman's health, a move that had a dramatic effect on his future. He saw landscape paintings by Maynard Dixon, Dorothea Lange's former husband, reproduced in Arizona Highways magazine and decided to try his hand at art. Hartman says, "The minute I uncapped a tube of paint, I was hooked." For a high-school graduation present, his father gave him flying lessons, and by twenty-one he was a licensed pilot. "Sky and land are two big factors in everything I do," he says, "and the Arizona landscape was without peer." These early experiences have been the bedrock of his career as an artist.

Hartman graduated from the University of Arizona with a bachelor's and master's in art, but it was at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, during the summer of 1951, that he decided to commit his life to art. He says, "I studied with Vaclav Vytlacil, a New York painter, who was a very inspirational teacher. Then I decided to attend graduate school in painting, followed by a year at the Brooklyn Museum Art School." While in Brooklyn he studied ceramics, which was an increasingly marketable skill in academia.

After completing his formal education, Hartman returned to Tucson and sent out numerous resumes, but the only job he could find was pasting up ads for a local department store. In 1955 he was hired as an instructor at Texas Technological College in Lubbock. Culturally isolated, he was also uncomfortable with the state's Jim Crow attitudes and practices. After three years, he broke his contract to accept a teaching position at the University of Nevada, Reno. During his three years there, he continued to teach, paint, and exhibit his art.

While Hartman was in Lubbock, a colleague, Bernard Farrell, befriended him. Farrell was a former student of Hans Hofmann, who had been a great influence on the Abstract Expressionist painters in New York. Hartman says, "Farrell's paintings were a great revelation to me and brought about a change from realism to Abstract Expressionism in my own work." Hans Hofmann (1880--1966) was one of the most vital and influential painting teachers of his era. He synthesized Cubism with the colors of Fauvism and the gesture of Expressionism, creating bold, intense abstractions. He said, "The whole world as we experience it visually comes to us through the mystic realm of color." In 1963, Hartman had the opportunity to view forty-seven of Hofmann's paintings, which inspired him to consider further the artistic possibilities of abstract art.

Two years earlier, Hartman had been hired to teach art at the University of California, Berkeley. He was now among sympathetic colleagues who were steeped in Abstract Expressionism. The art department's renowned faculty included Elmer Bischoff, David Park, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning. Sam Francis and Richard Diebenkorn had studied there.

Unable to fly after 1955 because of the expense, Hartman changed his style dramatically. Abandoning Abstract Expressionism, he began his innovative airplane paintings, which were a substitute for flying. Integrating Verifax images of early aircraft into painted suggestions of skies, he created his "nostalgic paintings." "These paintings reconstituted the feelings of solitariness, suspension, and disorientation experienced during flight," says Hartman. …

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