We’ll miss Robert Hanson: ‘Openness, airiness, transparency!’

Robert Hanson's "Pink"/Elizabeth Leach Gallery

Artist Robert Hanson operated in a style that didn’t call attention to itself. The drawings that occupied him since 1995, both of himself and his models, were small and seemed so fleeting somehow, a temporary gathering of a few marks on paper, a spot of color here and a provisional line there.

I’m tempted to call them modest drawings, though I actually think of them as quite bold, a test of his powers, by turns, of reduction and creation. They didn’t have an apparatus; they didn’t scream at you from the rafters; they didn’t blot out the sun. But they did confront you with a proposition: That this was enough. That these marks, so deft and wise, considered deeply enough, could lead you to a series of thoughts about the human figure, the ability of the human hand and eye to represent it, the various qualities of lines and dashes of color and their power to communicate.

I doubt that he’d be upset if I suggested that he’d applied modernist ideas about making art to drawing the figure, and those ideas imply a parallel (or underlying) investigation into the nature of art itself.

Hanson died on Friday morning, and the thought that this experiment, this hand and mind, this creative approach, this inner knowledge expressed through and to the outside world, has ended, well, it’s hard to take without personal, even selfish regrets. My biggest ones: That I hadn’t gotten to know him better and that I hadn’t written the long essay about him that I’d wanted to (one that would have involved lots of interviews and long looks at his art).

Our thoughts are with his wife, the artist Judy Cooke, and all of those he touched so wisely, at Pacific Northwest College of Art, where he taught for many years, and everywhere else.

I plucked these quotes from a nice, fat interview between artist Anne Johnson and Hanson for Pacific Northwest College of Art’s online magazine, Untitled. It’s worth reading as a whole, because Johnson’s questions are excellent and informative themselves and Hanson clearly feels at home with her. And thanks to the Elizabeth Leach Gallery for supplying images of a nice selection of his work.

Robert Hanson's "I'm Not Sickert"/Elizabeth Leach Gallery

“I’ve been drawing—the head, actually—from the early ‘70s on, but it wasn’t until the ‘90s that I really made a concentrated push to focus on drawing. Given my subject matter, I found the brush not as expressive or satisfying a tool, so I stopped painting altogether. I didn’t show the new drawings, a series of self-portraits, or variations of myself, until 1995, at Elizabeth Leach.”

Robert Hanson's "Chiara"/Elizabeth Leach Gallery

“As soon as I just said I’m not going to try for a likeness—if I winged it, if I said I’ll just try to make an interesting drawing and see what happens from there—I would get better results….
I’ll take a pencil or colored pencil, or sometimes chalk, or even ballpoint or black ink, and once I have the model set up, I start just marking up the page a bit. Then I can start drawing rather freely from the model, sometimes with a general kind of outline—it will usually be quite unsatisfactory—just to get some idea of placement and scale. Sometimes I’ll just start with the edge of the eyeglass, say, or an earring, and develop the image out of that. I’ll jump from one object to another. I’ve stopped thinking about proportions.”

Robert Hanson's "Eye Shadow"/Elizabeth Leach Gallery

“In breaking away, in the last few years, I began to do less planning and rely more on intuition. I started elaborating along the edge of forms, trying different line combinations, letting go of consistency…. Yes, I start with flatness. I always know I will add all kinds of illusionistic space as a byproduct of drawing the figure, but the idea that the image happens on a flat surface somehow allows me to mess up that surface, to play around with it. The drawing isn’t precious any more.”

Robert Hanson's "Woman Series 11"/Elizabeth Leach Gallery

“When I taught drawing, one of the things we dealt with was structure and seeing relationships between forms that are more or less “correct.” I was showing students how to put together a form, that it’s a series of relationships based on landmarks on the page you can refer to once you get a few down. In my recent drawings, I’ve really gotten away from that. This is nothing I’m thinking about logically, it’s just something that happens.”

Robert Hanson's "I'm Not Sickert"

“I need to leave breathing room, lots of white paper. I like to leave escape routes, ways out and into the drawing. No filled-in coloring books for me. No stained glass windows…. Openness, airiness, transparency! I love those qualities. Drawing is the best way for me to get at them. When a work of art has these qualities, my feet move directly across the museum floor toward that image.”

A show of Hanson’s portraits opens at the Portland Art Museum on January 7, part of the museum’s APEX series of shows by Northwest artists.

11 Responses.

  1. Bob Hicks says:

    Barry, thanks for this. A fine appreciation of an artist who deserves it. Thanks, too, for gathering the drawings from Liz Leach and reproducing them here. That controlled looseness of line is quietly thrilling.

    • vern luce says:

      Thank you for your attempt to get at the importance and power of Bob Hanson’s work and our loss in his passing. …”personal, and even selfish regrets.” strikes a chord for me. I’d be surprised if this isn’t true for a number of us.

      On reading Anne’s interview with Bob in words accompanying his PNCA show, I thought Bob lifted the curtain a little on the magic of his drawing experience and the satisfaction he took in this freedom to fly with his mastery of the medium. I use “magic” because I felt a fine new thing blossoming in his already powerful work and was eager to see where he would take this next.

  2. John Weber says:

    Thanks for these comments and quotes, Barry. Bob Hanson was a good artist and a wonderful human being. His portraits in colored pencil are restrained, yet gorgeous. They look just great. I was lucky enough to have taught with Bob when I was just starting my career at PNCA in the 1980s. He was great company and an excellent role model as a teaching artis — committed both to his own work, and to his students’ education. His sharp observations were usually delivered with a dry sense of humor that I loved. He’ll be missed….

    • John Weber says:

      …make that, “teaching artist”….!

    • David Ritchie says:

      His was the transparency of a Japanese screen; nicely opaque. I’m shocked that he’s gone and sad that there’ll be no further observations, punctuated by smiles. Always those mischievous smiles.

  3. Becca Biggs says:

    Bob Hanson was the King of the mark makers and leaves behind a treasure trove of exquisite drawings. There is something in the intense visage of his models that mirrors his own quiet yet curious countenance. We were lucky to have his talent and wisdom in our community. Thanks for sharing and I look forward to the upcoming PAM show.

  4. Prudence Roberts says:

    Bob’s drawings have a kind of echo quality–I look at them and then they reverberate, with more to reveal. And he had the best, best sense of humor! I am so glad the exhibition will be happening.

  5. Norm Eder says:

    Bob’s was a wonderful PNCA colleague. I have admired his work from the perch of a part timer at the school and have memories of many students telling me how he much his classes shaped their understanding of art and their own talents.

  6. Mike E Walsh says:

    A Northwest treasure lost too early. He will be missed.

  7. jo says:

    bob used to come into the Northwest library where i work. he had this cloud of calm like he lived somewhere else. more than once i asked myself how does someone get that way? and there was always a reason to laugh. some movie or some damn thing that happened.

    my sympathy to judy.

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