Kunitz, Daniel, New Criterion
John Heliker, who died this Spring in his nineties, had his first show at Kraushaar Galleries in 1945. His last, "A State of Seeing,"(1) was the gallery's first devoted exclusively to the artist's drawings. While Heliker was of the same generation as de Kooning and Pollock, and formed close friendships with Philip Guston and Walker Evans, he was also, as Jed Perl notes in his catalogue essay, "not an easy artist to place." Even so, the thirty-eight drawings on view at Kraushaar comprise a brew wafting with the scents of early eighteenth-century French influences mixed with a particularly mid-twentieth century American expressivity. His Don Giovanni, Two Figures has the on-the-spot immediacy of a Watteau sketch though without the older artist's solidity and precisely rendered details; Heliker drew only the figures, providing no background and thus no context, nor has he included facial features. Ronda, oppositely, couples a craggy, romantic landscape with an aqueduct or railroad bridge to form a distinctly neoclassical vista.
Aside from the one drawing of actors, the works are portioned almost equally among interiors, still lifes, landscapes, and portraits. When he used pencil, Heliker pressed lightly, resulting in a jumpy and ebullient line. In charcoal, his line is fuzzier and darker, describing forms rather than particulars. Heliker seems to have been afflicted with deliquescent perceptions, which he then tried to fix on paper; the drawings have an evanescent quality, like tomb rubbings made on extremely worn stone. The title Vase of Flowers with Suggested Room captures his method perfectly: he presents one object, one fact, and tends only to suggest the others. Some of the landscapes are composed of but the barest of marks. In Maine Coast, a charcoal on paper, the scratches and lines describing the foreground are extremely similar to those delineating the clouds. A few lines establish the horizon, faint shading forms a hill. His is a vision decomposing into nothingness, yet it holds one's attention because it is as lovely and fleeting as a mirage. By conjoining these eccentric marks, Heliker entirely avoided illustration in his drawings. His figures have scant volume, and his shading obscures as much as it bodies. When he wanted to, though, Heliker could draw with precision and vigor. The stove in Interior with Figure and Stove has a cast-iron density and a dark smudge makes up the figure's torso. Yet these tangible elements occupy the same space as eerily transparent objects, like the two tables which are drawn only in outline, allowing one to see through and behind them to the floor. Interior with Piano has the closeness, warmth, and diffuse feeling of an intimist's domestic scene. Then again, the artist fastens on the integrity of planes and volumetric columns, on the rectilinear forms of the piano and the door to its left, and on the circular forms of the piano stool and the table leaf hanging down in the background.
Heliker's technique is especially suited to the tracing of emotion. The eyes and posture in Self Portrait with Hat turn from the lower right up to the left on a diagonal, while the linear shading occurs on the opposite diagonal, from lower left to upper right, producing a strong torsional movement that evokes similarly strong emotions. Nevertheless, the face itself seems reserved, cautiously inquisitive. Heliker's inquisitiveness comes across, too, in the drawings as a whole, fueled by what Perl calls their "diaristic element," the sense that these are the cullings of a restlessly searching sensibility. No mean feat, still to be searching, and searching fruitfully, in one's nineties.
"Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art,"(2) was guest curated by Justin Spring to accompany his recent biography of the artist, which, while gorgeously illustrated with high-quality reproductions of Porter's canvases, largely eschews the sort of substantive art historical analysis that one expects from a scholarly biography published by the Yale University Press. …