John Heliker: The Order of Things charts the career of a significant American artist. Heliker (1909–2000) was an adept draftsman and accomplished painter who developed a highly personal and expressive approach to drawing during the Works Progress Administration (WPA) years. His early drawings and sketches are comparable to those of his contemporaries, including Ben Shahn and Philip Evergood. Heliker shared their political activism and produced many cartoons for publications like the The New Masses. During World War II and the post-war years he also earned critical acclaim for his bold experimentation with biomorphic and gestural abstraction. By the late 1950s he shifted to more representational subject matter, often depicting everyday scenes with great poignancy. As his career progressed, his palette became more muted and he adopted a nuanced, impressionistic painting style in response to Abstract Expressionism.
Born in Yonkers, NY in 1909, Heliker was the grandson of a stonemason and builder. He left high school in 1923 at the age of 15 to pursue art. He studied at the Art Students League in New York City from 1927–1929. The Maynard Walker Gallery gave Heliker his first solo exhibition in 1936 and several more followed. In the 1930s, the artist worked on the easel division of the WPA Federal Art Project and also made drawings for The New Masses journal. After the Maynard Walker Gallery closed in 1941, Heliker joined the Kraushaar Galleries and exhibited there for more than 50 years. In 1958, Heliker purchased an old sea captain’s house on Great Cranberry Island in Maine. He spent summers there with his partner, painter Robert LaHotan. The compound is now home to the Heliker-LaHotan Foundation and a residency program for artists has been established there.
Heliker played a critical role in the artistic and cultural life of New York City for more than six decades. His work has been exhibited widely and he was given a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1968. He taught at Columbia University for 27 years and was among the founding faculty of the New York Studio School of Painting and Sculpture. He later joined the MFA Painting Program at the Parsons School of Design.
This exhibition is organized by the Asheville Art Museum with special thanks to Patricia Bailey and the Heliker-LaHotan Foundation.