New World Reordered 

Immigrant visions of 20th-century America by two abstract artists.

To look back on the 20th century through the eyes of a "new" artist is a remarkable opportunity to open one's own. Yet Carl Heidenreich (1901-1965) is no "new" artist by any means -- his work has just not been publicly exhibited for three decades. This prolonged absence from a wildly changing and commercial art scene, as well as his idiosyncratic uses of abstract art, promise a fresh perspective in a new exhibition at the Berkeley Art Museum, "Carl Heidenreich and Hans Hofmann in Postwar New York" (May 21-October 3).

Heidenreich holds special relevance for the museum, which holds the world's largest public collection of Hans Hofmann's works. Heidenreich studied at Hofmann's Munich school, considered the most progressive art school in Germany, in the early 1920s. Both were displaced by the upheavals of fascism in Europe: Hofmann left Germany in 1932, Heidenreich in 1941. In late-1940s New York City, both artists turned to abstraction. This exhibit emphasizes their work from the 1950s and '60s and affords a chance to compare Heidenreich and Hofmann, who were influenced by one another and their negotiations with the New World. Curator Alla Efimova characterizes the difference: "Whereas Hofmann turned to abstract paintings because he could see the world with great clarity, Heidenreich's abstractions represent a breakdown of the visible."

Heidenreich was politically active in his European life -- he participated in the Munich uprising of 1918 and was a member of the Communist party. The Nazis persecuted him, launching him on his fugitive wanderings through Paris and Barcelona, where he fought in an anti-Franco battalion and was imprisoned and tortured during the 1938 Stalinist show trial of the POUM. Much of his work was destroyed by the Nazis or lost in his travels.

Landing in New York without family or compass was a trauma seen in work dating from this time. Heidenreich stayed in the shadow of more illustrious émigré artists such as Fernand Léger and Piet Mondrian. He struck up relationships with immigrant intellectuals Hannah Arendt and Oskar Maria Graf, as well as with Harlem artist Romare Bearden, and led a vigorous life of artistic and political commitment. But he was neither a self-promoter nor an extrovert, and his works suggest a detachment and estrangement from his new home -- we see New York through smeared, splotchy windows. In Efimova's words, "the recognizable world is scratched out and covered over."

Heidenreich's series of paintings of Alaska and Mexico also express the emotional distance between himself and these wonders of the New World. Rendered from recollection once he was back in his studio, the abstract landscapes only suggest phenomena such as ice fields, rivers, and tropical light, while emphasizing his feelings toward them.

Visitors expecting to encounter gray-black themes of dislocation, alienation, and impenetrability may be unprepared for the magnificent colorist they'll find. Even plates from the superb book available in conjunction with the exhibit can't do justice to the brilliant color choices that can be seen in a direct engagement with Heidenreich's work. But how do we engage an important Abstract Expressionist artist untouched by the PR machinery of the current art world? According to Efimova, this is "a first step in showing Heidenreich's art so that it can be meaningfully read" in the context of the multiple New Worlds that embrace it.


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