Critique

hamilton-critique

For a quarter of a century, from the mid-fifties until his retirement from RISD in 1980, Robert G. Hamilton, who was born in Seneca Falls, New York (coincidentally the cradle of American Feminism) was the key figure in New England modernist painting and, perhaps, the exact location of its soul.

 

His exhibitions, mostly in Boston, but also in Providence, were noted events as they charted the progress of his journey, and no painter of this locale (or others, to be sure), worthy of our concern, was untouched by the beautiful and compelling pictures of this dynamic man who returned from World War II having earned the Distinguished Flying Cross (it is typical of "Ham" that I knew him some fifteen years before I learned of this honor). More than one painter owed the better part of his or her vision, attitude, to him. With Gordon Peers, a rich formalist, and Dean Richardson, a lyrical expressionist (who had been Hamilton's student), he formed the nucleus of a painting department that was as good as, or better, than any in the republic and, in those Halcyon Days, young painters from all over the country came to study at RISD. I know – I was one of them in the long ago fall of 1961.

 

Robert Hamilton's vision was formed in a crucible containing the components that merged to make this singular painter and no one, no one else. His love of the work and the voice of Max Beckmann has often been noted, but surely he was moved by much of French modernism, especially Matisse, and he responded to most mergers of cubism and surrealism that hit home, coloristically and content-wise. He knew Philip Guston, and there are overlaps there, and in the very beginning his own teacher, John R. Frazier, was the obvious link to the book of Genesis. For all the contributions (art learns from art, after all) the result was a seamless original and it is a testament to his idiosyncratic genius that he was also touched by George Harriman and the lyric tragi-comedy of Krazy Kat, a truly American surrealism, which he introduced to me and to countless others, bless him. Finally like Stuart Davis, another kindred spirit, Hamilton painted with jazz on the record machine and one can almost sense a Beiderbecke or Louis Armstrong solo in his visual melodramas. Another tribute to his love of this most American of idioms is his son, Scott, an eminent and world-renowned saxaphonist.

 

Hamilton taught at RISD for some thirty-four years, and he taught by belief and by his own example. That was a different world, of course, a non-syllabus, pre-computer, first-person-singular world where one became by experience. When Robert Hamilton gave you his opinion, you could go to the bank with it. Ironically, though, he did have a syllabus of two pages, handwritten (no footnotes) that he gave to me on my first day of teaching (sophomore painting) in September 1963. I still have it, certainly in my soul, and I go by it and pay heed to it, almost always – The Gospel According to Hamilton – a firm and knowing foundation, punctuated by the seemingly unpredictable, the blessed joys of surprise, like a Duke Ellington song or Citizen Kane or The Great Gatsby.

 

Never one for subways or the first names of headwaiters, after his retirement he moved to his beloved Port Clyde, Maine. With his wife Nancy, he has spent the past two decades painting the pictures of his life, gorgeous theatres of color and form and invention and, always, surprise, delightful surprise. His vision is like no one else’s that I’ve ever seen, and his pictures are, to borrow a phrase of Charles Demuth, “the nth whoopee of sight.”

Richard Merkin,
Professor of Painting
and Disciple of RGH