by Lee Roscoe
Painter Robert (Bob) Henry says, “People think I’m a famous artist, but I’m not.” And yet, his work is in a number of museums around the country, and he is having a “mini retrospective” of about 60 small pieces at Berta Walker Gallery in Provincetown and hopes that someday a museum will do the same for his massive body of works. His 90th birthday is in August.
Growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., there was no exposure to art—maybe one museum trip, but when he began to hang out with a group of jazz musicians jamming in a basement, he decided that to be a part of this creativity, he would become an artist. A good friend’s elder brother introduced Bob to the abstract expressionist Grace Hartigan who suggested Bob study with Hans Hoffman, which he did at age 19, in both New York and on Cape Cod.
“For many artists Hoffman was their last teacher. For me, he was my first,” Henry says. At the first class, he saw a model, and wondered how one got from the figure to the abstract drawing. He would learn, as Hoffman talked to him about composition, while Henry drew.
Henry says, “The subject matter emerges from the composition. People always ask what inspires me. I have no idea. It comes from the ether. Subjects pick me. Once in a while I start with a subject; sometimes my work has social and political overtones, but I never start with a message.”
Those subjects are myriad: humans dancing, conversing, gathering, walking, sunbathing, loving, creating, fishing; his studio, interiors, exteriors, lumberyard to city; silhouettes… The results are often slyly wry, and always pulse with the action of the soul made visible, whether of a human, a bridge, a hat, or a bird.
When he was young, abstract expressionists thought it was hip to struggle over a painting. As he matured, Henry cast the struggle aside; paintings often just come—like jazz, improvisational and spontaneous. Like many artists, he will work on a number of things at once, returning later with the perspective of time to change or complete them.
He has many methods, according to what style or media he is creating, sometimes using a photo to draw and then paint from, sometimes drawing or painting first. His styles can be literal, figural, expressionist, impressionist, abstract. Painted on canvas, paper, wood panel and more. His mini retrospective is mostly work on paper, in pen and ink, pencil, charcoal, gouache, watercolor, oil crayon, oil, and mixed media, from his first year, 1953, to now.
What drives him to create work in many media? To express “sympathy. I’m drawn to vulnerability. Berta tells me my paintings predict the future,” he smiles, giving an example of Listening to the Earth: figures huddling with an ear to the ground.
“She thought it was an early conservationist theme. I thought it was about vulnerability and comfort.”
He gives an example of the vulnerable and an encoded message combined in his powerful series, Ship of State, large oils showing people of varied races and genders crammed into narrow boats, stranded in a menacing sea. They were “emigrés, immigrants…from Cuba and Vietnam” when painted, but the subjects and themes are relevant today. Some of the series are at Wellfleet Preservation Hall now, and smaller echoes of them, such as Two on Rafts, at Berta Walker.
What he has learned from years of running his own BHA gallery, is that “everyone sees different things. They bring themselves to the paintings. People pick what they are sensitive to. So, paintings never mean one thing. They mean many things.”
Before moving to Wellfleet full-time, 20 years back, buying a house with a studio and living quarters above the gallery, Henry and his family summered on the Cape and Martha’s Vineyard, and Henry taught at Brooklyn College for 30 years, as a tenured professor. ¡°I was very lucky.”
The job gave him freedom to create as he wished. This was a double-edged paint brush for he says he had no need to “play to collectors or curators. I never thought about working for success.” His lack of fame, he says, is “my own fault. I did not socialize with the right people, with the right connections.” (However, he does love the camaraderie and supportiveness of the art community on the Cape.)
Instead, he hung out with his wife of 60 years, fellow painter Selina Trieff. “We started as friends. It was not a romance. The sexual attraction came later. We were side by side, more than we interacted. We existed in tandem.” She in her studio, he in his. Not competitive, but supportive. A team. After 15-plus years of illness, she passed in 2015. ¡°It took me a long time after she died to stop saying ‘we.’ But now I’m self-sufficient.” One daughter is the managing director of the Museum of the City of New York, the other a sculptor and restorer. The four grandkids are in college, or creatives themselves.
Henry posts a painting a day on Instagram and posted 150 days of thoughts about art on Facebook. He is going strong. But he says, “I want to be remembered first of all as a father—I am very proud of my daughters, and a loving husband. Also, I think that the variety of my work is special. And goes against the grain of a single signature style, and I would love it if someone would catch on to that and if I had a large museum show, a version of the show at Berta Walker. But also, I would say, the sensitivity, my sensitivity to people and feelings, I would like to be remembered for.”
Robert Henry’s work will be on view in an exhibition titled Celebrating 90! A Walk Through the Studio with Bob at Berta Walker Gallery, 208 Bradford St., Provincetown, July 14 – August 5. There will be an opening reception on Friday, July 14, 5 – 7 p.m.