Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, Curator of Prints and Drawings
Back in the mid-1990s, I was researching the abstract painter Alma Thomas for an upcoming exhibition. I made several trips to the DC area to see her work in private collections. It was during one of these visits that I met Dorothy Fisher, the wife of African American painter Felrath Hines. I was able to go to his studio and see some of his work. Hines was a contemporary of Thomas and had just passed away in 1993 following a life working professionally as both a fine art conservator and a painter. In 2009, Mrs. Fisher approached select museums across the country about a donation, which resulted in a generous gift of five paintings and one related drawing to the Fort Wayne Museum of Art.
Born in 1913 in Indianapolis, Felrath Hines’ talent in art emerged as a young boy. He won a scholarship at age 14 that he used to take drawing and painting classes at the John Herron Art Institute. The public schools Hines attended, and those throughout Indianapolis, were segregated. Herron, however, was not and attracted a number of other African American artists including John Hardrick, William Edouard Scott, and Hale Woodruff. In 1937, Hines moved to Chicago, where he balanced studying at the Art Institute of Chicago with working nights as a dining car waiter for the Chicago and North Western Railroad.
Hines lived in New York City from 1946 to 1972 where he studied art privately and at Pratt Institute. It was an exciting time to live in Manhattan as Abstract Expressionism exploded onto the art scene, the first American movement to gain international recognition. Initially, Hines created abstract figurative paintings articulated by dark contours. Gradually, however, the artist moved towards more non-representational compositions made up of simple, soft-focused forms.
At the same time, Hines studied conservation under Caroline and Sheldon Keck, who later founded the renowned conservation program, Cooperstown Graduate Training Program. He became a supervisory conservator at the Fine Arts Conservation Laboratories, New York in 1962. There he worked on paintings by leading artists like Josef Albers, Helen Frankenthaler, and Mark Rothko. Exposure to this work undoubtedly made an impact on his refined color sensibility in his own paintings.
A personal favorite from this time period is Morning (1968) which hovers between pure abstraction and realism. The artist said in a 1993 interview, “My best paintings have a sense of mystery, a wonderment about them.”[i] At its essence, the painting is deceptively simple, split up into horizontal bands of luminous shades of yellow. There is an ethereal quality calling to mind the hazy glow of morning. Two sections mirror each other, like a landscape reflected on the water. Feathery strokes resemble faint traces of trees made barely distinguishable due to the intense sunlight.
Racial discrimination was a part of the art scene in the 1960s-70s. Exhibition opportunities were limited for African Americans. Frequently, their work was relegated to group shows devoted to Black artists. By 1971, Hines refused to take part in such exhibitions. He participated in the March on Washington in 1963, protested the controversial exhibition Harlem on My Mind, and was a member of the artist group Spiral that probed issues facing African American artists.
Hines was an activist, but his artwork remained apolitical and universal. He worked in an abstract style that was considered mainstream, yet he was still marginalized. He struggled with the art world and the black community’s expectation for him to create “black art,” which would speak to the African American experience.
In 1972, a position as chief conservator at the National Portrait Gallery brought him to Washington, DC. Thirteen years later he retired from a post at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden to focus on painting full time. Open Ended (1981) demonstrates Hines’ continued sensitivity to color with its unassuming red-orange triangle floating in a field of richly glowing red. It is a prime example of his signature geometric abstractions that fascinated him for the rest of his life.
While there have been periodic exhibitions since his death, recently there has been renewed interest in his work. Rachel Berenson Perry authored the book, The Life and Art of Felrath Hines: from Dark to Light in 2018 and his paintings will be the subject of a major exhibition, A Universal Language: The Art of Felrath Hines at the Indiana State Museum from June 22-September 29, 2019.
[i] Floyd W. Coleman and Holliday T. Day, Felrath Hines (Indianapolis Museum of Art, 1995), p.7.