< James Hilleary,Reflections Gallery,Reviews


"Hilleary's paintings are pure numinosity. . . . ." Donald Kuspit



The Washington Daily News


By Tom Harney


  The walls of the Henri Gallery are emblazoned this month with the stripes of James Hilleary, a Silver Spring architect having his first one-man painting and sculpture show. Mr. Hilleary, 43, a Georgetown native, originally studied to be a concert pianist, and in the repetitive motif of these works we can hear the echo of the fugues being played. His basic image is that of a core of straight stripes compressed on both sides by angled stripes.

  In the earlier paintings in the show, this image is balanced in form and subdued in color but in the more recent paintings, which are by far the best of the show, the balance is shattered and the image becomes asymmetrical and at the same time pregnant with tension.

  With it there is an increase in the brilliance of the acrylic color combination, which the artist plays upon to vary the sense of space and volume of his work. He has included a piece of Plexiglas sculpture in the show that gives these spatial properties of his image a three- dimensional explicit-ness and says he hopes to execute sculptures to parallel all of this initial show we can look forward to with curiosity and pleasure.

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The Evening Star


By Ben Forgey


  Gene Davis once remarked that an amazing number of architects were purchasers of his stripe paintings, even back in the days when the words Gene Davis weren’t household words and his stripes the household look in many Washington art-collecting households. This odd bit of information really is not so odd, when you consider that the scale, sterility, logic and clarity of Davis’s paintings also are concepts that architects work with every day.

  The art of James Hilleary, a practicing architect who also is a painter, tends to support this little theory, at any rate. Hilleary’s paintings currently are on view at the Studio Galley (1735 Connecticut Ave. NW). Hilleary is a color painter. That is to say he paints abstract paintings by staining the canvas and he deals with the problems of scale and sterility and color in a logical and clear-headed way that is not without its own particular mystery. His paintings, in short, owe much to the examples of Gene Davis and Kenneth Noland, in particular, and to the whole spectrum of color-field painting, in general. Hilleary’s work is quite varied, but it all depends in some way on manipulation of sequential stripes.

  In some paintings differentiates between the field and the stripes by superimposing loud and hard-edged stripes over a ground of similarly-hued but softer dapples. In others he neatly segments the canvas into two wedge shapes, each with its own color and motif of stripes, under a horizontal rectangle at the top. Hilleary’s own personality emerges most forcefully in the way he deals with the speed of the stripes - they keep the eyes moving very fast, especially in those sharp diagonals - without sacrificing the structural tightness of the canvas. It is an uneven show, but a good one.

  Also on view, in a little alcove in the rear of the gallery, are three glowing watercolors by Kenneth Young, who recently joined this cooperative gallery. This turns out to be something of a trial run, because Hilleary and Young will have a two-man show together next June at the AM Sachs Gallery in New York.

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Potomac Current



A One Man Show


  James Hilleary, one of the newer members of the Studio Gallery, 1735 Conn. Ave., N.W., is having a one-man show there through December 11, 1971.  Mr. Hilleary’s work is not new to Washington as his paintings a sculpture have been seen before at the Henri Gallery, the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the two group shows during the 1970-71 season at the Studio Gallery.


  Mr. Hilleary was born in Washington in 1924 and attended the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and Catholic University School of Architecture where he received his Bachelor of Architecture degree.  Although Mr. Hilleary has his own architectural firm, he is an established member of the Washington art community.  Barbara Rose, art critic, reviewing an earlier exhibition wrote about his “assured geometric abstractions” in the November 1967 issue of “Art Forum,” and Cornelia Noland, in the “Washingtonian,” cited his work as being “particularly promising” after his first appearance with the Studio Gallery last fall.  Future exhibitions will include an appearance in a group show of Washington artists at the Phillips Gallery in December, and a joint exhibition with Kenneth V. Young in June at the AM Sachs Gallery in New York City.


  Mr. Hilleary’s long architectural training is a very apparent influence in his paintings. Mr. Hilleary has said about his work “For me, painting is a natural extension of the creativity which directed me professionally toward architecture.”  Mr. Hilleary resides in Potomac, Maryland.

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Washington Star News

Monday, April 1, 1974

Art Gallery Roundup

More Abstractions than Excitement

By Benjamin Forgey


  JAMES HILLEARY is an architect and painter who has worked for a decade or so in the mode of the color school. His painting has been distinguished by a refined color sensibility and crisp, rational design. In the recent work Hilleary seems to be following a strong, tidal urge of color painters to turn from the hard edge to the atmospheric stain and pour (Sam Gilliam did it seven years ago, for instance; Paul Reed, five years ago). So it is with a certain sense of déjà vu that one watches Hilleary’s neat linear configurations dissolve in a sort of Rothko-like aura, but there are, nevertheless, some nice paintings in the group. In the most recent work on view, linear configurations are entirely absent as the auras take up most of the rectangle of the canvas.

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The Washington Star

Sunday, April 4, 1976

The Flowering of Gallery Rows

By Benjamin Forgey


  HILLEARY’S NEW EXHIBIT at the Studio Gallery (1735 Connecticut Ave. NW) shows him continuing in the direct stain tradition of the early color school here and the lack of metaphysical straining is somewhat refreshing. The paintings are literally what they are, and very beautiful, that is to say sensually pleasing. The geometrical, diagonal stripe formats are familiar to Hilleary watchers, but the colors have a new richness and zing. In one series of paintings bleeding free-hand stripes emerge behind transparent but darkening overlays; in another, larger series the colors are brighter, watery and lyrical - no darkness at all. It is rare, these days, but not inappropriate, to end a roundup of Washington reviews with a look at a painter still doing excellent work in the ways and means of the painting that put Washington on the art map in the first place.

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The Washington Star

Monday, April 5, 1976


By Paul Richards


  Viewers who remain in love with Washington Color Painting ought to pay a visit to the Studio Gallery, where the stained canvasses of Washington’s James Hilleary are on view. His show is like old times. Like Noland, Hilleary likes chevrons, though he tends to group them in pairs, sometimes in fours. The way he bleeds his colors recalls the “Veils” of Morris Louis. His colors are rich and subtle, and he strikes a delicate balance so that his fields of color almost, but not quite, swallow and absorb the image he employs. It’s on display through April 17.

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The Washington Star

Sunday, February 12, 1978

Around the Galleries: Encounters with High Levels of Energy and Ambition

By Benjamin Forgey


  JAMES HILLEARY, architect and artist, was a relatively late arrival to the stain technique of the Washington Color School. Precisely what he has done with it in the years since can be seen at two exhibitions running concurrently at the downtown cooperative Studio Gallery (801 G St. NW) and at the Barbara Fiedler Gallery (1621 21st St. NW) near the Phillips Collection. Works from 1965 to 1975 are at the Studio, and recent paintings at Fiedler’s.


  Hilleary at first adopted the then-reigning hardedge format utilizing relatively subdued optical color combinations; the distinction of early works is their solid, architectonic structure. His development has been a study in the gradual release of lyrical energies, in which softer colors and thin, translucent overlays of paint have been added to the logical structure of interlocking vertical and diagonal stripes.


  The recent works are the largest and most lyrical of all. Without entirely dropping his stripe motif, or his concern with logically molded space, Hilleary now “draws” his brilliant stripes with a free-hand gesture and quilts them with shadowy layers of color. The results are always pretty and often quite beautiful. A big horizontal painting (“No. 9-220”), for instance, contrasts two opposing gracefully curved arabesques (one basically green, one blue; one right-side-up, one upside-down), that start as clusters of stripes at the outer edges and almost touch in the center (an electric device for activating space ever since Michelangelo did it on the Sistine ceiling).


  In several of the works the body gesture is still a little awkward, a minor complaint, perhaps, but one sure to be seized upon by any lover of oriental calligraphy, to which these paintings have some attachment in spirit. Both shows through Feb, 18.

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The Washington Post

Saturday, Feb. 18, 1978

‘Awakening Land’: An Intelligent, Insightful Sage

By Joanne Lewis


  James Hilleary is having a double-header: a small, 12 year sampler at Studio Gallery, opposite the National Portrait Gallery; and new work at Barbara Fiedler, 1721 21st St. NW, which closes today. Since he abandoned hard-edge painting, architect Hilleary has concentrated on perfecting a warm, seemingly fluorescent glow of color, usually laid onto flat, rectilinear abstract formats. His new paintings have the same glow, but now attached to bunches of slim, curving forms which arch over large areas of bare canvas. The results are elegant, but largely decorative.

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The Montgomery Journal


 By Abby Wasserman Rayman


  At the close of a narrow Bethesda lane lies a low, rectangular house surrounded by oaks, maples and birches.  It is the home of painter/ architect James Hilleary, his wife Peggy and their family.  When they first moved into the house, which Hilleary designed, the isolation of the place was disquieting.  Through the expanses of the drape-less windows, they felt “little aliens eyes” examining their every move.  Slowly the vague discomfort dissolved as their neighbors revealed themselves to be raccoons, squirrels and opossums.


 Then a developer bought up the adjoining property, and tract homes were built along the crest of the woods.  But in back of the house it is still empty and quiet.  In the fall, with wet yellow and brown leaves layering the ground like paint, it is splendid.  As a young man, James Hilleary studied to be a concert pianist.  He still plays his venerable grand piano, which dominates the living room like an old master, but music has for years bowed to architecture and painting.  Hilleary has practiced architecture for 27 years.  All of his days “start as an architect,” he says, but they “end as a painter.”  For years, after a full day doing architecture, he “sat in bed watching the Late Show,” making color studies with pastel chalks or mixing pigments “getting ready for the weekend orgy of painting.”


  Hilleary says he “backed into” painting.  He couldn’t afford the work of his artist friends, so he began to paint “to decorate the walls.”  It became more and more important to him.  At the urging of friends, he began to exhibit in Washington and New York in the mid-Sixties.  Asked why an architect would want to paint, he counters “What is a building but a piece of sculpture in space?”  He continues: “I find painting is kind of compliment to architecture, because after you do the initial design, there is an incredible amount of detail to manage – bookkeeping, building supervision, record keeping’ It takes a year to create an average building, after one month of fun.  During the dry periods, one could take the frustrated creative drives to a canvas or paper and create.”


  Hilleary’s early panting were “balanced like a Bach fugue” A central thick geometric split the canvas in two.  It was complimented on either side with thin rectangular areas of various harmonious colors.  It was a pure uncomplicated symmetry.  He explored distinct, less predictable ways of balancing his forms, splintered color areas, retaining always the underlying architecture.  He painted in clear, rich colors: olive, light and dark oranges, grey – and green-blues, purples.  His colors became at one point “liturgical,” bringing to mid cardinals’ robes and ritual tones.  In a series of canvases called “Afterimages,” Hilleary captured the spotted, blurred image the eye retains after staring at some bright shape and then closing.  Thin chevrons lie under an acrylic wash.


  He further explored acrylic staining in his “Alta” series.  Washing dark colors over bright under-areas, or the reverse, he explored layers of light and dark, keeping them distinct from one another even when superimposed.  Over the years, Jim Hilleary has softened the edges of his painting.  His newest canvases are beautifully flowing.  He leaves large areas of canvas unpainted (though he primes these parts with acrylic wash to preserve the canvas).  He has left the straight line to a large extent: he is exploring the arc.  Colors are pastel-soft and illumined.  His forms are like fountains of colored light.  Hilleary works on large canvases, generally about 10 by 16 feet.  He lays the canvas on the floor to paint.  His painting reminds one of Bach interpreted by jazz musicians.  The underlying structure is nearly pristine, but it is washed over by a very warm, very human improvisation.  Hilleary did play with jazz groups on U.S.O. tours in Europe years ago, and liked it.


  There is a creative dichotomy in the architecture and painting of Jim Hilleary, which confirms the jazz-on-Bach metaphor.  He describes it in this way: “I like the tremendously austere pillow in a white cell with one painting on the wall.  But I love the meandering, accidental qualities of coziness, of a warm building.”  Asked which will prevail, the architect or the painter, Hilleary laughs.  He loves both.  In fact, to make more time for his painting, he is moving his architectural office to his home.  The two professions will doubtless become even more integrated.

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The Washington Star

Friday, November 9, 1979

Geometry as an anchor for rich explorations

By Benjamin Forgey


  James Hilleary, an artist-architect whose roots in painting go back to the stained abstractions of the Washington Color school, employs a familiar set of iconic, abstract motifs in recent paintings on view at the Barbara Fiedler Gallery (1621 21st. NW). These motifs basically are linear in nature. The design most frequently deployed is a set of centralized, vertical lines that expands in graceful curves towards the outer horizontal edges. Thus Hilleary’s paintings are basically geometrical. They are not, however, dry or mathematical. To the contrary, Hilleary uses these linear patterns as a secure anchor for explorations of rich colors and mottled textures. The more complex these researches, the more that Hilleary puts into them in terms of variety of color, light and surface, the better the pictures.


  Two paintings stand out. One “Howard”, was conceived as a tribute to Howard Mehring, the late color painter, and in fact was painted on canvas Hilleary purchased from Mehring’s heirs. Built into this intense painting is a paradoxical sort of expansion-contraction as the colors move from a whitish pastel green though Mehringesque mottled pinks through deep, luminescent greens and blues - and back again. Another bit painting, “Variation - 1”, is a wonderfully dramatic, harmonious combination of fluid “S-curve” gestures.

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The Washington Post

December 6, 1985

A Colorist of Formidable Ability Plays Dual Role as Both Artist and Architect

By Michael Weizenbach


  “My mother used to tell me that it takes two people to paint a picture: one to wield the paintbrush and one to wield the hammer to hit him over the head when it’s time to stop.” Washington painter and architect James Hilleary has never forgotten the aphorism. After a lifetime of painting, the 61-year-old artists still bears it in mind every time he begins a new work. And he’s still turning them out – bit, gloriously colorful abstractions with fine surfaces and multi-layered transparent pigments. Anyone aware of the art of this city will find Mr. Hilleary’s work oddly familiar. It calls to mind the work of several well-known painters, a number of whom are, sadly, no longer with us – Howard Mehring, Morris Louis, Gene Davis, Kenneth Noland and Tom Downing. The resemblance is not surprising, for James Hilleary, while never formally recognized as one of the bunch, is nevertheless a genuine Washington Color School painter.


  Like fellow Washingtonians Leon Berkowitz, Jacob Kainen, Paul Reed, the late Alma Thomas and the young Mary Meyer – tragically murdered in Georgetown along the C&O canal towpath in the early 60’s – Mr. Hilleary worked for most of his career outside the mainstream. Though his painting was concerned with the same dynamics of color space as the better-known Colorists, he never paid particularly close attention to the goings-on in the Washington Art scene of the 50’s and early 60’s, when the influential critic Clement Greenberg was defining what came to be known as the Color School. When in 1964 Mr. Greenberg was selecting work for his definitive show “Post Painterly Abstraction”, which included Davis, Mehring and Downing, Mr. Hilleary was pursuing his career as an architect and raising a family, in addition to painting diligently. In fact, he was so removed form the scene – despite his close friendship with Howard Mehring, possibly the most influential of the Color painters – that he was for ears unaware of the existence of the Washington Workshop Center for the Arts. This was the institution – begun in l947 by Leon Berkowitz, his wife, Ida Fox, and Jacob Kainen – that was responsible for introducing modernism to the then very conservative art community. It brought together the various talents that produced the Color School.


  “Had I known of the Workshop,” says Mr. Hilleary, “I would have been there in five minutes.” But I was living way out here. The Hilleary home, a beautiful, airy rambler which Mr. Hilleary designed and built in 1956, is located in what may accurately be described as “The sticks.” Surrounded by woodland, it is well off the beaten track in the farthest corner of Bethesda.


  The spacious studio, which adjoins the living room, is flooded with clear daylight. Two enormous windows look out on the nearly bare autumn trees. There are dozens – maybe scores – of paintings rolled up and stacked in one corner. A big, moody abstraction of swirling, feathery lines of color adorns one big wall. An electric piano – which the artist, an accomplished pianist, plays at every opportunity – stands against one wall. A drafting table, some chairs, a sofa, a coffee table and a storage cabinet complete the furnishings. A colored plexiglass sculpture, like a geometrical butterfly, stands in a corner by the door.


  The artist is a slight man with thinning auburn hair, who manages to look positively elegant in a worn denim shirt. His manner, though refined, bears more than a hint of Bohemian spirit. A constant, mischievous twinkle animates his mild, blue eyes. His hands are restless. Having spent an hour or two unrolling big paintings – new and old – on the studio floor, he reminisces about his career. “I evolved as an independent,” says Mr. Hilleary. “I’ve been exposed to art since I was very little. My father was an artist and studied at the Phillips (Collection) back in the late ‘20’s or early ‘30’s, when C. Law Watkins (later head of the art department at American University) was teaching there. My father dragged me through the Phillips since early childhood. In fact I grew up painting – but never that seriously.


  “In the ‘50s and ‘60s, when the children were all small, I was too busy putting bread on the table to check out the art scene. I was going my way quite by myself. Then I met Adelyn Breeskin, when she first became the director of the (now defunct) Washington Gallery of Modern Art. So I asked her to look at some of my work. She made this comment… “Why, you’re one of the Washington Color painters.” To which I naively said, “Oh? Who are they?” “Delyn felt that what I was doing was paralleling what Louis and Mehring and the others were doing and that it would profit me to get acquainted with them. At the time I was editing a magazine for the Potomac Valley chapter of the American Institute of Architects. I thought maybe if I did a piece on the Washington Color School I’ have an entrée to the group. Louis and Noland had by that time moved to New York. The locals were Paul Reed, Howard Mehring, Tom Downing and Mary Meyer. “I called Howard up and we immediately hit it off and became good friends.”


  Mr. Hilleary and Mr. Mehring were to remain friends until the latter’s untimely death nearly 20 years later, when the chronically depressed painter succumbed to overindulgence in eating, smoking and drinking. It was an immense loss – the more so because even though his work continued to be shown, the artist had refused to pick up a brush for the last eight years of his life. Then again, in the opinion of many – including Mr. Hilleary – Mr. Mehring’s most brilliant work was that of his early career. “Howard’s early paintings,” says Mr. Hilleary, “pre-figured Louis’ “veil” works (large, transparent washes of grayish pigment which “veiled” brighter colors beneath)”. He was just too far ahead of his time to be understood. It’s very sad.”


  Mr. Hilleary’s own work underwent some startling changes under the influence of his accomplished friend. Having entered the field of abstraction doing rather geometric, linear constructions, Mr. Hilleary began to eliminate the severity of his line. He began to paint them free hand, and allowed the color to bleed and blend through them, ultimately all but obscuring the structure beneath it. Painting was not Mr. Hilleary’s only medium by any means. In fact, it was initially in one of a series of meticulous colored conte crayon drawings that he first broke through the rigidity of his compositions and found amorphous ‘ louds’ of color beginning to dominate the surface. “Howard would come over all the time,” says the artist, “and he never said much about my work. In fact he acted as if he didn’t like them at all. So I finally got in the habit of putting all my new work away whenever he came by. But one day he said: ‘Where’s your new stuff? Aren’t you working?’ So I showed him some of these drawings.”


  At this point, Mr. Hilleary produces a folio of lovely little studies. It is evident immediately that the artist is a colorist of formidable ability. One can see the gradual progression away from the tight linear structure. After some digging, he pulls out a quiet, deep plum-brown, blue and amber piece – quite unlike any of the others. “This is the one,” says Mr. Hilleary, “that Howard held in his lap and stared at for a long time. Finally he said, ‘When you can do this as a large canvas, then you will be there.’ I worked and worked at it, and finally I did it. It took a long time. I’ve always been wary of making things too pretty – too much of what I call ‘Andy-colored’ palette. I was painting seriously and turning out lots of good canvases. Breeskin had given me some advice, both good and bad. Her advice to me was: ‘Paint, paint, paint.’ And that’s what I did. But meanwhile interest in (the Color School abstraction) was breaking. It was about 1966 before I finally decided it was time to get a gallery.”


  Having shown his paintings to a number of dealers in town, including Nestor Dorrance of the renowned (since closed) Jefferson Place Gallery, Mr. Hilleary settled on Henri Gallery, which at the time represented most of the major painters in the area – Berkowitz, Davis, Mehring and Downing. He cannot recall having had a bad review, and, later, Mr. Hilleary’s work was being shown at Adolph Sach’s Gallery in New York. Henrietta Ehrsam, Proprietor of Henri Gallery, remembers the old days and Mr. Hilleary well. In particular she recalls a show of his that got off to an inauspicious start due to the riots of 1968. “It really hurt his opening,” she says. “Rome was burning.  There was a curfew and nobody could make it to the opening.


  “I saw quite a few of his canvases back then, and I thought he showed great promise. But then he dropped out of the picture for some time – I think he showed with Barbara Fiedler, too. I showed his sculpture and his paintings. I guess I had (all of the color painters) back then – including Paul Reed.” “Things happened for me for a while,” says the artist, “but as the pendulum swung to realism, there was very little interest in abstract painting generally.”  It has been some five years since he has had a major one-man exhibit, and the artist is no longer interested in group show. “I’ve done a lot of ‘throwaway’ shows in my time. They’re just not worth it. But I’m ready to start looking for another gallery now – someplace with good space. That’s very important. I need something like a bit single unit so that the paintings can breathe, and so the peripheral effect can work on the viewer. I’ like to create a total environment. That’s a dream of mine.


  Meanwhile, James Hilleary’s paintings are getting surer, more directly assertive in their ability to convey space and mood. He has been working with a fairly consistent format for some years now – like great fountains of liquid color – refining and developing both the color and composition with singular dedication. Watching the big canvases unroll, the viewer is reminded – not in form, but in substance – of the work of another color painter who died early this year: Gene Davis. Though Mr. Hilleary is no longer doing straight lines of color, his work bears the same stamp of meticulous working and re-working a theme.  “I was always fascinated by stripes myself,” says Mr. Hilleary. “Stripes on the wallpaper interested me as a small child before I could appreciate their entirety as a picture. I learned to appreciate Gene’’ pictures immensely. The larger the paintings got, and the finer the stripes got, the better they were. I didn’t subscribe to the school that thought he ought to quit and go on to something else.”  Mr. Hilleary lists his influences from Mehring back to Pierre Bonnard, Claude Monet and J.M.W. Turner – and, like so many other Washington Colorists, notable Mr. Berkowitz – he dotes on the quality of the light about this city.


  “I think to a great extent you give back the sum total of what you’ve absorbed. A lot of people have commented that the paintings look so much better in the studio than anywhere else. It’s because they were painted in this light, and they change as the light changes.” As to his dual role as an artist and architect – a duality which has, in some ways, hindered his career as a painter – Mr. Hilleary says: “ architecture has given me my independence, but it’s given me problems with local dealers. Jim (Harithis, former director of the Corcoran Gallery) used to say, ‘Why does an architect want to paint?’ which is weird, because it doesn’t make sense. I see them both as extensions of the same thing: Art.  “I think the important thing for any artist with integrity is he’s got to stick with what he does, until death do him part.”

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The Washington Post

Saturday, February 20, 1988


Rainer’s Scream of Consciousness

By Paul Richard

James Hilleary at Carroll’s


  The Washington Color School is history, that’s pretty well agreed. Morris Louis, Howard Mehring, Tom Downing, Gene Davis, Alma Thomas, Leon Berkowitz, all of them are dead. If you think about their pictures - blending in the memory Berkowitz’s colored fogs, Louis’ grand “Veils”, Downing’s “Dials”, Mehring’s “Zs” - you can just about imagine the paintings of James Hilleary now on view in Georgetown at Susan Conway Carroll’s, 1058 Thomas Jefferson St. NW.


  Those artists were his colleagues. More than 20 years ago Hilleary was showing his stained acrylic pictures with Berkowitz, Davis, Downing, Mehring and Paul Reed at Henri’s. Hilleary has not had a one-man show in Washington since 1978. He says, “I did not intent to be absent so long. It just happened.” It’s good to have him back.


  Most of the large paintings here were begun in 1979 and revised last year. Time, and something else, seems compressed within them. He often makes you think of two artists at once. The granular-but-airy colors of his “Capricorn” suggest those of Berkowitz, while the picture’s composition looks something like a “Veil” that’s been turned upside down. Hilleary doesn’t use masking tape, he doesn’t like hard edges, but his painted mists frequently contain chevrons much like Kenneth Noland’s and rows of marching stripes.


  That softening, that blending is what one remembers most from his exhibition. His paintings have about them a kind of quiet music, and while they summon ghosts, they do so with such integrity that one almost never thinks that’s just a pastiche. Also in the gallery are a number of his small “Alta Series” conte drawings from 1975. Each suggests a structured glow. They are among the nicest works on view. His show closes March 6.

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The Washington Post

Saturday, October 28, 1989


By Michael Welzenbach


  In contract to Kainen’s generally heavy, opaque applications of paint and careful attention to texture, veteran Washington painter James Hilleary works in the stained-canvas tradition of the color school painters.


  A number of recent works on view at the Susan Conway Carroll Gallery reveal just how close are Hilleary’s ties to the work of his former colleagues Howard Mehring, Kenneth Noland, Paul Reed and Morris Louis. Like theirs, Hilleary’s art is fundamentally about transparencies, pigment as a metaphor for pure light. The paintings here are particularly interesting in that he has begun to make a distinct break with the style and format of his earlier work, which for many years was concerned with large-formal, “fountain-like” compositions reminiscent of and aesthetically related to Mehring’s and Louis’s “veil” paintings. These were generally composed along a series of arching, rainbow-like patterns radiating from the center or bending inward from either side of the canvas.


  Only one picture in this collection recalls such work to any degree, a painting in deep yellows and amber browns titled “Serenissima.” Divided in the center, this horizontal work is composed around a series of radiating arches resembling the double-vaulted ceiling of a 14th century cathedral. But the other works are far less typical, concerned with fields of regular, flowerlike patterns separately framed as triptychs or, in one instance, organized on the wall to resemble a rough cross.


  Typical of these new pieces is one titled “Florentine,” a triptych of two small and one larger panels; a harmony of mottled blue, lavender and pale rose. Hilleary’s works of this nature are interesting and attractive. But overall they come off as rather static next to larger canvases such as the lovely “Japanese Bridge.” This striking composition in turquoises and vivid thalo greens dominates the entire gallery. It is something of a compromise between the old and new styles, incorporating the fairly rigid structure of the earlier paintings with the growing concern for flat fields of the recent efforts. By way of tightening the composition, Hilleary has divided the vertical “Bridge” horizontally with a distinct horizon line, and edged the entire composition with a band of pale blue-green. This serves to render the piece more traditionally window-like.


  The “Japanese Bridge” of the title probably refers to the bridge across Monet’s famous lily pond at Giverny, which Hilleary visited last year as a reprise of an influential journey he made there 35 years ago. Certainly his tour, which also took him to Venice, has considerable impact on his approach to these paintings. “Bridge” successfully evokes the play of reflections on still water, and the haunting silences of memory.

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Washington Review

December/January 1995


By J.W. Mahoney

James Hilleary

Small Drawings and Table-top Sculptures

Susan Conway Gallery, Washington, DC

April 5 - May 7, 1994


  To hear the word “color” pronounced by a member of the Washington Color School is to hear a very special sort of poem. When James Hilleary says it, it sounds like music, rich, resonant, full of a mix of wonder, desire, and deep affection. Hilleary, along with Betty Pajak and Alice Blum, are among the members of the Color School whose work, although it developed in the fifties and early sixties in response to or under the teaching of Morris Louis or Ken Noland, never received the kind of public attention that the more museum-anointed Color School members enjoyed. Nevertheless their working presence at a particularly sharply defined point in American postwar aesthetics has remained a living value in their continuing work, as James Hilleary’s new pastels amply demonstrate.


  Hilleary’s iconography often involved interplays of visually equal gestalts. In a recent painting, flowing horizontal bands of rainbow colors, one set grouped to the right side of a painting and another to the left, advance and retreat from each other in as natural a pattern as that made by tall grasses blowing in a wind,. This subtle and instinctive naturalism - often found in the work of other Color School artists, most obviously Leon Berkowitz - has been carried through by James Hilleary in a variety of formats and visual systems.


  In this newest work, his “Reflections” series, Hilleary was directly inspired, simultaneously, by an image from life and an image from the history of art - the sight of the tree line and pond at Claude Monet’s garden retreat at Giverny, France, employed often by Monet in his later work. The haunting, fluid contrast between the tree line and its mirrored image in the pond, and the field of the sky beyond, also reflected in the water, produces a form like the wave patterns created in an oscilloscope - or an electrocardiograph or a seismograph - a primally natural shape. This form, as a template for Hilleary’s nearly infinitely inventive exploration in the use of color, has generated a wide variety of results.


  These works are as much about the emotional resonance of color - what Clement Greenberg used to refer to as “feeling” - as they are about purely formal concerns, though. His earliest works in the series follow the mirroring format most strictly, and their landscape references echo the full range of nuances that the day’s light produced: the optimistic, shy glory of morning light in the yellow “sky” and purple “trees” of No. 21, the wistful stillness of a fading afternoon in the green and light ultramarines of No. 22, or the opulent passions of sunset in the rust-red and pale blue of No. 28. His format changes, in the intermediate section of the series, to a more abstracted study of the effects of colors meeting at the edges of a wave. No. 31 offers a metaphor for gro2wth in the transition from a deep, blackened green at the top to a progressively brighter green bordered to a sharp yellow green filling the bottom. In No. 43, a dull sienna warms to a tawny brown, edged to a turquoise green, a contrast of energy and a darker reflectivity, perhaps No. 44 almost seems like an essay in depression and its soft, tentative dissolution - a blackness gives way to a charcoal, above a much lighter gray. In the last works, Hilleary returns to a more horizontal format, in which a darker color, established at both extreme ends, attenuates to a thick wave pattern in the center, bordered by a lighter color. These pieces appear to be expressions of abstract power, of energy projecting through space. Black waves pass through a stark white void in No. 73, while vermilion waves pass through a more creamy whiteness in No. 75, and in No. 80, medium gray waves vibrate through a light orange space. More autonomous and less referential, these works offer a much less verbalizable purity.


  James Hilleary’s art can be easily misinterpreted, as most Washington Color School work has been, as a continuing exploration of the strictly formal qualities of color expressed through purified or simplified forms. What has always been present, however, as a guiding force in this work has been an endless fascination with the symbolic powers of pure form and color, not as symbols for specific ideas or “literary” concepts, but as direct evocations of the qualities of the numinous that are birthed, in their full mystery, out of the most basic - deceptively common - means an artist can find.

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Art in America

November 1996

James Hilleary at Gregory

By David Ebony


  This recent exhibition presented 16 paintings and works on paper produced over the past 20 years by James Hilleary, a member of the so-called Washington Color School. This group of abstractionists, which included Gene Davis, Tom Downing and Howard Mehring, among others, shared a technique which involved staining unprimed canvas with oil-based Magna, the first acrylic paint. While a number of artists in the group enjoyed national reputations, Hilleary rarely showed outside Washington, D.C. In a footnote to her catalogue essay for this exhibition, the late writer Eleanor Green offers a possible explanation. She suggests his career suffered when critic Clement Greenberg, who had been introduced to Hilleary’s paintings by Betty Parsons, offhandedly dismissed the work. In any case, this show represented Hilleary’s long overdue New York solo debut.


  The canvasses on view ranged from approximately 4 by 3 feet to nearly 6 by 10 feet. All of them feature poured and sprayed clouds of pigment that seemed to shift as one moved around the room. In some works, long, narrow bands of color have been deftly brushed onto damp rounds, their edges slightly blurred as they bleed into the background pigments.  The artist’s debt to Rothko and Still is evident, as is a correspondence to the Color Field painters of the ‘60s - particularly Olitski, Poons and Dzubas. But unlike those artists, Hilleary, who is also an architect, often makes direct references in his painting to architectonic structures, landscape and sometimes even to the figure.


  In Japanese Bridge (1989), for example, a horizontal green line divides the canvas as it traverses a cobalt field surrounded by patches of forest green. Bordered on all sides in emerald green, the canvas suggests a window through which we see mist rising above a hillside lake in midsummer. Reflection Series VII, #292 (1994) recalls Monet’s opalescent views of London along the Thames, as an apparent cityscape bathed in a warm yellow and orange sunset seems to be reflected in a pale blue stream that spans the width of the canvas. In Variation II @245 (1979), Hilleary obliquely evokes the figure. Here, thin, hazy, curved lines stretch from either side toward the center of the horizontal canvas, like elongated fingers or limbs that reach out as if to embrace.


  In all his paintings, Hilleary sets up spaces that are dreamlike and mutable. Despite the bold colors, the mood he establishes in one of quietude and serenity that remains consistent from canvas to canvas. Although the tardiness of his New York debut is regrettable, one wonders if Hilleary would have been able to cultivate such gentle and pensive work if early on it had been swept up in mainstream trends. Like rare hothouse plants, these paintings, insulated from New York’s tumultuous critical climate, seem fresh and robust.

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Art in America

(no date)

The NYC top ten: James Hilleary at Gregory Gallery 41 E 57 St. NYC 10022

By David Ebony


  James Hilleary was one of the original members of the Washington Color School, which included Gene Davis and Tom Downing. Hilleary continues to paint ethereal fields of vaporous color. Sprayed and poured, the paint somehow does not seem to stay within the confines of the frame. It reaches out toward the viewer, enveloping one in a warm, celestial light, like the misty arms of Jupiter in Giorgione’s painting. This show is a mini-retrospective, spanning the artist’s work of the past 30 years, from Olitsky-like expanses of colorful mist to works featuring arrangements of softly undulating curved and vertical lines. The sensory experience of Hilleary work is gentle and soothing.

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The Georgetowner

(not date)

Susan Conway Gallery at Glackens House

James Hilleary at Susan Conway Gallery

By Georgia Shallcross


   The late art historian Adelyn Breeskin declared in response to James Hilleary’s bold canvases, “You’re a color painter.” Hilleary’s Petal Series, currently on exhibit at Susan Conway Gallery, attests to the artists superb color sense.


  Hilleary grew up in Washington and as a child frequented the Phillips Collection with his father who was studying painting on the fourth floor of the museum with C. Law Watkins. Although he earned a degree in architecture from Catholic University, painting remained a great passion. Early influences on his art included Monet, Rothko, and Avery, all master colorists.


  After Breeskin accurately categorized Hilleary as a color painter, she introduced the artists to other members of the so-called Washington Color School. Among them were Gene Davis, Leon Berkowitz and Howard Mehring. Like Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis, Pioneers of the Color Field Painting, Hilleary employs a technique whereby unprimed canvas is stained with acrylic paint (initially, oil based Magna paint, the first acrylic paint). The paint acts as a stain not as overlaid pigment. However, Hilleary’s method is not limited to pouring and staining. “Stipling, pouring, painting, swinging sumi-brushes at arms length, sponging, misting and scrubbing” contribute to the richness of his canvases.


  Hilleary’s Untitled 312 #2, painted in July 1996, is the earliest of the series and the most realistic. In the upper right corner of the canvas is a dark nucleus from which radiant orange petals cascade against a steel gray background. The opaque pigment and distinct outlines create a powerful image. Untitled 314 #2 is a more abstract image, composed of dazzling gradations of color including Kelly green, purple and fuchsia. Despite the intense high-keyed colors, Hilleary’s languid tendrils are soothing to the eye.


  In later works painted in citrus hues in autumn 1996, the pigment is more diffuse and the outlines of the petals less exact. Yet, Hilleary continues to enchant with his exquisite color and sensuous forms.

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The Washington Post

Thursday, October 9, 1997


Color School Graduate

By Ferdinand Protzman


  The exhibition of James Hilleary’s paintings at the Strathmore Hall Arts Center in north Bethesda offers viewers an opportunity to see the possibilities and limitations of the Washington Color School. Like Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Howard Mehring and the other leading lights of that movement, which flourished in the 1960s, Hilleary works primarily by pouring thinned-out acrylic paint directly onto un-sized canvas. This staining technique results in flat fields of muscular color that often have the cloth’s slightly fuzzy surface texture, depending on how rich or lean the pigment mixture was. When done well, the paintings have a unique, murky depth that can be enchanting.


  Hilleary’s earlier works, such as the “Variation Series” from the late 1970s, compare favorable with the better-known works of his Color School comrades in terms of their depth of field, subtle color combinations and restrained, lyrical compositions using a few sweeping arcs. But in his later works the artist appears to be struggling with some of the inherent problems of stain painting. Staining depends to a great degree on how the canvas takes the paint, a process the artist can never completely control. It also limits the artist’s use of simple, narrow lines. As a result, the paintings can seem formless, like amorphous blobs of textured color.


  In his more recent work, Hilleary has tried to address those problems by adding other techniques, overlaying the stained canvas with splatters, stippling and in some cases, brush strokes, the very thing the original stain painters, such as Helen Frankenthaler, were fleeing. The techniques expand Hilleary’s visual vocabulary, letting him create finer lines and invoke architectonic and figurative elements, but the greater breadth of style is not accompanied by much substance. In “Petal Series” and “Reflection Series,” groups of bright, glowing canvases executed over the past six years, he has created more defined shapes and manipulated the paint to heighten the color contrasts. But to what end? Some of the pictures call to mind exotic flowers; others, in the “Reflection Series,” seem like homage’s to Monet’s paintings of London’s bridges and Parliament. Lovely as some of the colors are, none of the paintings seems particularly original or possessed of the magnetism marking Hilleary’s earlier works.

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The Washington Post

Thursday, November 20, 2003


By Jessica Dawson


   Despite a spate of 1960s abstractions that owe a little too much to Frank Stella, James Hilleary has amassed a solid group of canvases in his four-decade-and-counting career as a peripheral Washington Color School painter.  His survey, at the Edison Place Gallery, kicks off with the Stella-alikes and rides the peaks and valleys of a fruitful career.  I enjoyed his large-scaled canvases from the early 1980’s, especially those with finger-like tendrils of color, some glowing violet and green.  But judging from Hilleary’s most recent works, I’d wager this artist, at age 79, is now hitting his prime.  Six canvases from his recent “Striae Series” delight the eye with a combination of surface friction and implied oceanic depth.  Cloudy bands of color recede mightily as painted drips and splatter wrinkles and flutter on top in an aqua-colored number that steals the show.

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The Washington Post

 Friday December, 12, 2003

 James Hilleary Painting Retrospective


By Michael O’Sullivan


    LOCAL PAINTERS Joseph Holston and James Hilleary have been making what is, different reasons, quintessentially Washingtonian art for decade’s now-Holston is 59, Hilleary 79-and lately without the hoopla accorded some of their younger, flashier or more famous colleagues.  A pair of well-deserved current exhibition casts a spotlight on both artists again, however briefly.  


  While “Dialogue in Color and Form: The Art of Joseph Holston at the University of Maryland University College focuses exclusively on work made within the past three years, the Washington Arts Museum-sponsored “James Hilleary Painting Retrospective” at Edison Place Gallery includes nearly 40 years’ worth of art.  Nevertheless, each show in its own way makes the case that it is the artist’s newest work that is the best.


  Hilleary, for his part, trained as a architect, but was steeped in the aesthetics of modernist art by his armchair-painter father and by his own childhood excursions to the Phillips Collection.  According to Hilleary, it was the inability to afford the art he loved that drove him to take up, after he had established himself in private architectural practice, what had been a lifelong passion.  “I could have become a contents art collector,” he writes in the show’s accompanying catalogue, “had I been able to afford the work of artists I admired.  Lacking funds, I began painting in the manner of all the artists I coveted.”


  Hilleary’s roots in admiration of contemporary masters are evident in a wide-ranging array of works that evoke the angular geometry of Joseph Stella; the stained-canvas “veils” of Morris Louis; the half-abstract. Half-impressionist mists of Leon Berkowitz; and the clean-edged, regimented stripes of Gene Davis.  Like fellow Washingtonians Louis, Berkowitz and Davis, Hilleary also is able to distill lyricism out of pure line and color.  In other words, his feet are in the Washington Color School, but his head is in the clouds.


  It is, however, in Hilleary’s breath-taking series of paintings from the last few years (titled “Striae,” after the Latin word for furrows or channels), that the artist most fully synthesizes his disparate interests and, in so doing, finally breaks away from his long-standing influences.  With these paintings, he finally yokes his affinity for bands of often luminous color to his facility at creating the illusion of depth.


  In these five canvases, hung together in a back room, Hilleary moves beyond the handsome, albeit decorative, to the realm of potent emotion.  The “Striae” paintings, all of which feature strands of vertical color that alternately clump together and separate, forming a forest-like energy field, have a brooding electricity.  They almost literally hum.  Staring into their dark, mysterious depths, one might get a sense of something both spiritual and deeply, muscularly sensual.


  True to the “Form and Color” part of his show’s title, Holston is similarly enamored of pigment.  Despite growing up in Chevy Chase, or perhaps because of the fact that it was a historically black neighborhood, his palette evokes the sunny hues of a southern clime, suggesting an almost anachronistic affection for a pre-urban, African American past that Holston himself never knew.  The brown-skinned woman all seem to have straightened hair and many of the men wear ties and natty hats, or neatly buttoned shirts under their coveralls.  Rich, earthy reds, warm oranges and ochers suffuse his compositions, tempering the cool, watery blues.


  Like Hilleary, Holston is very much a product of the art he admired.  “My work,” he once said, “is a reflection of every artist before me; if I am to become a giant, it will be by standing on the shoulders of other artists.”  Echoes of Henri Matisse, along with Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence and even the sculptor Constantin Brancusi can be heard in his strongly graphic, quasi-abstract pictures.  So too, content is secondary to composition here.  While representational, Holston’s art avoids the political overtones of Bearden or Lawrence, and his black men and women, whether at work or at rest, exude the quiet contentment of statues.  Contemplation, not complaint, is their purpose.


  It may seem like hypocrisy, because many of us have been trained to think of African American art as, of necessity, angry.  Why does it need to be?  Like Hilleary, is it not enough that Holston celebrate formal beauty, finding it, in his case, in the human form?  There is something genteel and comforting about both men’s art that is, I think, endemic to this city.  But there is also a kind of ardor there too-if not a flame, then an ember that gives off palpable heat

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Abstract Painting As James Hilleary Sees It

 by Donald Kuspit


  James Hilleary grew up a Washington Color Painter before there was such a thing, as Eleanor Green wrote. Hilleary is indeed a master of color, but line also plays a crucial part in many paintings. Etude and Howard, both 1979, are atmospheric fields of exquisite color, glowing with diffused light. In contrast, in the Petal Series, 1997 and Variations II Series, 1999 color is contained in a filament-like lines, which streak through space like pyrotechnic meteors. From the beginning of his career, as Coptic, 1966, Polaris, 1971, the Afterimage Series, 1974, and Portal Series, 1979 indicate, Hilleary was interested in patterns as well as colors—patterns not simply as decorative displays of color, but as an intricate arrangement of what the Futurists called lines of force. Thus he oscillates between the geometrical and atmospheric extremes of pure painting, integrating them in the act of acknowledging their difference.

  It is a subtle balancing act, making for singular works which are at once hedonistic and taut. The austere pattern adds backbone to the pleasure, the pleasurable color adds delicate flesh to the pattern. The Alta Series, 1979, and such works as Aries, 1979, make the point clearly: pattern is embedded in color, which becomes its aura—and Hilleary’s paintings are pure numinosity—while remaining autonomous atmosphere. In the magnificent Striae Series, 2000-2002 line and color are seamlessly one. Vertical striations of a single color, deceptively uniform, form a kind of veil, often with a broad black or white horizontal, irregular edged, across it. In these grand modernist paintings, with their drip-like striations and acute sensitivity to color and edge, process and pattern are dialectically indistinguishable.

  But there is more to Hilleary’s painting. Many works involve the return of what has been repressed in the development of pure painting, indeed, its historical source—Impressionism. The Reflections Series, 1991-94 are what might be called Abstract Impressionist paintings. What becomes an however equivocally, an atmospheric horizon, usually luminous, as though at dawn, sometimes dark, as though at dusk. Hilleary has acknowledged that the Reflections Series is a homage to Monet—they deal with reflections in water, as Monet did —but my point is that they reveal the pure painting in Monet’s lyric naturalism, and suggest that naturalism continues to be implicated in pure painting. That is, Hilleary makes it clear that pure painting is dependent upon the same fascinated concern with the dynamics of light and atmosphere evident in Monet—nuances of light and atmosphere no longer anchored in nature yet subliminally bound to it.

  In fact, Hilleary’s Reflections are subliminal landscapes—or rather abstract landscapes become sublime. One might recall that Kandinsky was inspired by one of Monet¹s Haystacks Series. He experienced it as an abstract epiphany before he realized that it was a scene from nature. Kandinsky was also inspired by music, and he formulated the influential idea of musical painting. Hilleary’s abstract paintings have their sophisticated place in its history. Indeed, they civilize the primitive musical painting with which 20th century abstraction began, making it harmonious with no loss of drama. Inner conflict is unresolved in Kandinsky¹s visual music—from the beginning, abstract painting was an emotional breathing space in an everyday world which had none—but Hilleary’s visual music resolves it in the act of revealing it, which is why music is said to be healing.






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