In my fourteen plus years of training as an art historian I somehow never learned about the wonderful Horace Pippin. And then last week I stumbled across one of his paintings online: “The Getaway, The Fox (The get-a-way)” from 1939.
Pippin’s biography is fascinating. He was born near Philadelphia and educated in segregated schools in New York. He had to leave school early, as a teen, to support his dying mother and later fought (and was wounded) in World War I with the Harlem Hellfighters. In spite of having almost no formal training, he managed to establish himself as a respected painter. He earned representation by a gallery in Philadelphia and lectured at the Barnes Foundation. In 1938 he was included in the exhibition Masters of Popular Painting: Modern Primitives of Europe and America at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Given his background, it’s not surprising that much of his work deals with race and social justice and the suffering of war. He’s especially famous for his paintings that tell the story of abolitionist John Brown. But I find his domestic and landscape paintings to be his most powerful.
Asleep from 1943, for example, shows two people asleep in what appears to be a dilapidated room. He doesn’t provide a great amount of detail, but you can see that the plaster has crumbled away to reveal the horizontal laths underneath in several spots. The curtain hanging above the sleepers also looks tattered—moth-eaten and dirty. And yet this isn’t an unpleasant scene. In fact, it looks quite cozy.
Pippin’s abstracted approach to painting resulted in works like this one with tantalizing fields of color and pattern that help to convey a powerful atmosphere. The many horizontal and vertical lines in this particular painting seem to compete with one another while also countering any suggestion of depth in the work. I find myself wondering about these two anonymous people. Who are they? What is their story? Simultaneously, I also enjoy taking in the formal elements of the work. Allowing my eyes to dance across the painting.
Similarly, the work I stumbled on last week, The Fox, is a painting without much detail, but Pippin gives just enough detail—just the right details. I truly love this painting. There is so much ambiguity in this painting that I can’t stop looking at it. The fox has caught something. Or has he stolen something from a farmer? He’s running away, but is he hurrying home with his catch or racing away from someone, hoping not to get caught? There’s an almost human look of worry on the fox’s face. As with Asleep, my interest in the story is matched by my interest in the visual details. The clouds that dominate the painting simultaneously convey depth and flatness. They create a captivating pattern and play of color that almost makes me think of Color Field painters like Mark Rothko. The white and chartreuse shapes of the clouds seem to hover over and engage with the surrounding slate gray of the sky. And the area of the sky in turn hovers over the plane of stark white in the area below.
For an image without much intricacy or detail, there’s really a lot going on here. I wish I’d been introduced to Pippin’s work sooner. His stuff is gold.