In the fall of 2019, before the Covid lockdown, Robert Henry had a memorable solo show called “Ship of State” at the Cape Cod Museum of Art in Dennis. The many large paintings in that exhibit depicted people in boats at sea in what appeared to be desperate attempts to survive. Some of the subjects might have been refugees navigating massive waves; others, shipwreck survivors in lifeboats. The overall mood of the work, despite the gorgeous swaths of blue and green ocean, was unequivocally grim.
When asked at the time why he would focus on such horrific circumstances, Henry noted ironically, “I’m not in favor of drowning. It’s more about how you paint the water.”
Nearly two years later, the Berta Walker Gallery in Provincetown, which has represented Henry for decades, is offering a show of his work called “Solo Moments,” and the mood is anything but grim. The paintings are mostly smaller, many from Henry’s “hat” series, in which subjects who often resemble the artist himself wear jaunty headwear that may or may not reveal something about them. The paintings are fanciful, sensitive, and, generally, filled with mirth.
Sitting in his year-round Wellfleet home, the bottom floor of which has been turned into his personal gallery, BHA (for Bob Henry Art), the 88-year-old Henry is eager to discuss this latest chapter of his life as an artist. “What I always say is, ‘I don’t make stories. I make images.’ People make stories out of them.”
Henry is not being disingenuous. He’s quite deliberate about the process of making art, including his choice of subjects, but he’s not going to credit himself with a narrative he didn’t consciously set out to create. “One thing people will say about me and my paintings is that I’m honest,” he says. “And I know when to keep my mouth shut.”
The lighthearted expressiveness of the most current work might seem off-kilter coming out of a year and a half of Covid. “I felt the isolation a lot,” Henry says. He has lived alone since his wife of 60 years, the painter Selina Trieff, died in 2015; their two daughters have families of their own. “But I’ve always felt isolated as an artist,” he says.
Henry and Trieff, born-and-bred New Yorkers, were longtime participants in the art scene in Provincetown, and both were avid students of the great modernist teacher Hans Hofmann. They met at Brooklyn College, where Henry would join the faculty and spend most of his working life. And even though they took and taught art classes and showed their work in Provincetown, for 30 years they summered as a family on Martha’s Vineyard.
The reason? “We spent three summers in Provincetown after we were married in 1955, but the rent got a little too high for us,” Henry says. A friend offered them a converted chicken coop on the Vineyard for $400 for the season. “It was only slightly changed from a chicken coop to a residence,” Henry adds. They would eventually find better lodging, of course, but in retirement, when the opportunity arose to buy the house on Commercial Street in Wellfleet, he and Trieff jumped at it. “The Vineyard is not a place that was really welcoming to visual artists,” he says. “It was mostly writers and academics.”
Being part of an artistic community is important to Henry, who is a keen observer of work by others and of his own as well. “One of the things about being 88 is you have to look back,” he says. “It’s such a larger amount of time than looking forward. I’ve been painting for 70 years. I take some pride in the things that stand up, and cringe at the stuff that doesn’t. When I came into the art world, I did a bunch of pretty good abstract paintings, but I don’t think it was me. Somewhere in the ’60s, I started drawing in pencil and inventing subject matter. It went against what my cohorts were doing, and it took a while to develop the techniques. But that was when I felt it was really me.”
Henry is pleased that Berta Walker included some of the ink drawings that served as studies for the oil paintings in the exhibit. The drawings are at the heart of his creative process. “In my mind, the activity of art is searching,” he says. “The head and hat drawings are all improvisations. I start with the shape of the hat and then the character beneath. I’m just fooling around with the material and composition.”
That sense of play is vividly present in the show. “Recently, the last couple of years, I’ve gotten more involved with facial expressions,” he says. “Some of that comes out of an appreciation of Selina’s work. Her figures always looked alive — you could communicate with them. I try to get more of that into my work.”
If art is all about searching, Henry is putting less pressure on himself these days to reach a particular destination. “Studying with Hofmann, you expect yourself to be there in the upper level,” he says. “I haven’t gotten there, and I don’t expect I will get there. I’ve adjusted my expectation, and what I appreciate, to smaller and more personal things. I’d rather be happy than great.”
Hat in Hand
The event: “Solo Moments,” an exhibit of artwork by Robert Henry, alongside work by Brenda Horowitz, Peter Watts, Penelope Jencks, Salvatore Del Deo, Selina Trieff, Sky Power, and Polly Burnell
The time: Thursday through Monday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., through Sept. 11
The place: Berta Walker Gallery, 208 Bradford St., Provincetown
The cost: Free