Hilaire Harzberg Hiler
(1898 - 1966)
Hilaire Harzberg Hiler was active/lived in New Mexico, California / France. Hilaire Hiler is known for precise modernist views, figurative, non objective.
Hilaire Harzberg Hiler
Biography from Fred R. Kline Gallery, Inc.
The following information was compiled and edited, with original research by Fred R. Kline, Fred R. Kline Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; November 2004.
Biography from Crocker Art Museum Store
Hilaire Hiler in his lifetime was well known as a man of many artistic talents and as an artist of the avant garde. He was a highly talented painter, costume and set designer, muralist, jazz musician, psychologist, teacher, and writer of theoretical treatises on color and abstract design.
For the 1968 retrospective "Hilaire Hiler, Pioneer Abstractionist" at the Whitney Museum of American Art, art historian and Whitney director John I.H. Bauer wrote, summing up Hiler's career: "Hiler has several claims to wider recognition. His charming primitivistic works of the late 1920s evolved with a kind of natural logic into semi-abstract paintings, in feeling related to those of the so-called Precisionists, such as Niles Spencer or George Ault. Soon thereafter (up to mid-1930s), he did a series of small gouaches on American Indian themes, which are even more abstract in feeling. From about 1940 to his death in 1966, Hiler produced a series of geometric abstractions. From these he derived a theory which he called Structuralism, praised by Waldemar George as going beyond Cubism in the scientific analysis of 'color-form'."
Hilaire Hiler lived the Bohemian life in Paris from 1919 to 1934 and became a prominent member of the "lost generation". His career as an artist took root as the colorful and popular manager of The Jockey Club in Montparnasse. At the Jockey he played jazz piano and saxophone often joined by two pet monkeys on his shoulders (Hiler archives photograph); painted frescos of American cowboys and Indians on the exterior and interior walls (Hiler archives photograph); and obligingly lowered the prices on drinks for his friends. With Hiler running the show, the Jockey became one of Montparnasse's most popular night clubs and a hang-out for artists, with a clientele that included much of the 1920s literary and artistic avant garde of Paris. Here Hiler found his niche.
Judging from letters, diaries, and literary works, Hiler was held in high esteem by a large and varied group of impressive friends and contemporaries including Henry Miller, William Saroyan, Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, Mikhail Larionov, Natalia Goncharova, Alexandra Exter, Constantine Brancusi, Amedeo Modigliani, Isadora Duncan, Jean Cocteau, Tristan Tzara, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Stuart Davis, Marc Chagall, E.E. Cummings, and even the celebrated model Kiki (Hiler achives photographs). Hiler's influence among this circle—on Stuart Davis, Man Ray, William Saroyan, and Henry Miller, among others— is worthy of further study.
Henry Miller, his life-long friend, profiled Hiler in 'The Air-Conditioned Nightmare' (New York, 1945, pp. 278-79): "An hilarious painter whom I always think of with hilarious glee. Hilaire Hiler, the hilarious. He's had a rich life, mostly abroad. He's loved by everybody, including his fellow artists, which is saying a good deal. Every now and then he takes a vacation from paint—to play the piano in a night club, to open a night club himself, to decorate a bar or a gaming room, to write a learned book on costumes, to study the American Indians, to explore the lost continents of Atlantis and Mu, to practice psychoanalysis, to confute the devil and confound the angels, to go on a bender, to find a new mistress, to learn Chinese or Arabic, to write a tract on the technique of painting, to study rug weaving or sailing a boat, and so on. He has a thousand and one interests and he has friends in every corner of the world—good, solid friends who never fail him."
Hiler's paintings and drawings from his prolific 1919-1934 Paris-period notably had a strongly formalized design quality. He labeled the style of his paintings "Neonaturism", and said his intention in them was "…to combine design with representation [by making] the objects perceived subservient to the basic design of the painting…This I tried to do by committing any required violence on their natural forms, which I deemed necessary to force them into the design." (Hilaire Hiler, WHY ABSTRACT?, New York, 1945, p.21). At this time, Hiler was also involved in making stage and costume designs. His interest in costume was especially strong and resulted in a book FROM NUDITY TO RAIMENT (New York, 1929), which traced the historical development of clothing and costumes, including tatooing and other body ornaments; and he designed a series of masks that are compelling combinations of primitive, Dada, and Surrealist influences. "In the highly organized sensitive artistic personality," Hiler wrote, "the doors to the subconscious stand always ajar." (Hilaire Hiler, "Art, Insanity, Surrealism and the Hatha Yogi", THIS QUARTER, October 1929, p.310).
Hiler returned to America in 1934, part of a returning wave of expatriates, during the Great Depression which also had hit Europe. At a time when most American artists sought social effectiveness through realism, Hiler's art moved steadily toward abstraction. He was, however, a member of the American Artists Congress and was employed by the Federal Arts Project of the WPA. In 1937, with WPA support, he executed his most ambitious work, the murals for Aquatic Park in San Francisco. The Aquatic Park murals were also—like the celebrated "Cowboy & Indian" frescos at The Jockey Club—an extensive and intricately planned decorative undertaking. They are still intact today in the San Francisco Maritime Museum.
The Aquatic Park murals—with their combination of two color harmonies, one of red and green, the other blue-green and orange, and an arabesque derived from the activity of the ocean—reflected Hiler's interest in color theory and provided him with his greatest opportunity for its realization. His interest in color was apparent earlier, particularly in the cowboy and Indian paintings done in Paris. But in the 1930s color was to become, as Henry Miller noted in the The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, "his primary obsession".
Hiler gradually abandoned figuration for nonrepresentation, expressing his color theories through geometric abstraction. His interest in color was so deep and so disciplined that it took the form of a book, COLOR HARMONY AND PIGMENTS (Chicago, 1940), while the chart of his color system guided him in his study of art. Psychology was another of Hiler's major interests. He studied with Otto Rank in Paris and worked at the Sorbonne's Institute of Psychoanalysis, and in 1946 he even attempted the professional practice of psychoanalysis in Los Angeles. He described quite profoundly the fruits of his study of psychology to the painter Carl Holty: "…After we have both passed through the mathematics of composition; [through] a study of psychology to dispose of surrealism; a study of material technique; and a study of color—we will be set free as artists. Not as painters any longer, mind you, but artists." (Carl Holty papers, Letter of January 29, 1941, Archives of American Art.).
During the 1940s, Hiler's strenuous efforts to bring his art to public attention met with little success. In the early 1940s, he founded Fremont College in Los Angeles which specialized in his new interests of color and design theory; Hiler was chief administrator and instructor. In 1944, Hiler moved his family and his college to Santa Fe (now renamed Hiler College), in an attempt to remove himself even further from what he came to view as the pernicious influence of the New York art world. He stayed in Santa Fe for two years.
In 1946, he returned to Los Angeles, despairing of even being an artist. Before long, however, he rallied and continued development of his abstract technique now christened "Structuralism", which Hiler later defined as: "The harmonious relations of structure and order presented in a new way, in the nature of a continuum. Relations of degree, and those of geometric progression of color-form, replace relations of simple analogy—or in turn of contrast, by opposition. As the sequential relations of Structuralism design resemble those of natural growth, it may be termed organic. In this sense, it is like certain kinds of music." (Hilaire Hiler, STRUCTURALISM, London, Heal and Son, 1955).
Structuralism was completely nonrepresentational; its forms invented and shaped by Hiler's genius, by his unconventional intuition and sensibility rather than deduced from nature and conventional science. Hiler employed Structuralism for the remainder of his life, not only making Structuralist paintings but extending its principles into sculpture and interior decoration.
Hilaire Hiler was born Hiler Harzberg in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1898. During his infancy the family moved to Providence, Rhode Island where his father, Meyer Harzberg (later to become an artist in his own right, in a distinctive self-taught style) opened a jewelry store, which he proceeded to sell in order to become a vaudevillian producer. The vaudevillian milieu of Hilaire Hiler's youth could be seen as a notable influence on his personality.
In 1928, when Meyer and Kay Harzberg moved to Paris to join their son, the Harzberg family formally changed their name to Hiler, a change Hilaire had made by around 1920 to camouflage his Jewish heritage because of anti-Semitism he encountered. Hiler's education, both academic and artistic, was fragmentary and diverse. As a child he took art classes at Rhode Island School of Design and was reportedly a private pupil of one Marquis de la Jarre. In Philadelphia, before 1918, he attended the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce at the University of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Pennsylvania School of Industrial Art, and life drawing classes at William Server's studio.
Hiler moved to New York, at age 20 after the 1918 Armistice. There he met Wynn Holcomb, a well known caricaturist, who arranged for Hiler to go to Paris in early 1919 to help coordinate a feature for Shadowland magazine. Hiler had planned to stay for little more than a month but remained for fifteen years. At first he supported himself as a jazz musician in a band; then, as a piano player, he was hired by The Jockey Club.
Ever the interested student, Hiler continued his varied studies in France, England, and elsewhere. Over the years he taught and lectured in a number of art schools and universities and he was a member of many learned societies, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Institute of General Semantics, and the London Royal Society of Arts.
Although he had numerous small gallery exhibitions during his lifetime, Hiler's most notable exhibitions were both posthumous retrospectives: "Hilaire Hiler, Pioneer Abstractionist" at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1968, curated by John I. H. Bauer; and "Hilaire Hiler, 1898-1966" at the Art Museum, University of New Mexico in 1976, curated by Michael Regan and Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr. The University of New Mexico in Albuquerque holds the Hilaire Hiler Papers, which were donated by Hiler's two children, Hilaire ("Hilario") Hiler, Jr. and the late Nicolle Hiler Benselka
Hilaire Hiler's paintings are in numerous museum collections in the United States and abroad; among the collections: Whitney Museum of American Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Eiteljorg Museum, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Museum of New Mexico, and Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery.
BOOKS BY HILAIRE HILER:
SLAPSTICK AND DUMBELL (Paris and London, 1927)
FROM NUDITY TO RAIMENT, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE STUDY OF COSTUME (New York, 1929)
NOTES ON THE TECHNIQUE OF PAINTING (London, 1932)
THE PAINTER'S POCKET BOOK (London, 1934; New York, 1938)
BIBLIOGRAPHY OF COSTUME [with Meyer Hiler] (New York, 1939)
COLOR, HARMONY AND PIGMENTS (Chicago, 1940)
WHY ABSTRACT [with Henry Miller and William Saroyan] (New York, 1945)
MANIFESTO OF PSYCHROMATIC DESIGN (Santa Fe, 1945)
STRUCTURALISM, exhibition catalogue, Heal and Son (London, 1955)
LA TEORIA BASICA DEL ESTRUCTURELISMO (Mexico City, La Sociedad de Arquitectos Mexicanos, n.d.)
BOOKS AND CATALOGUES ABOUT HILAIRE HILER:
Chil Aronson. ARTISTES AMERICAINS DE PARIS (Paris, 1932)
Waldemar George. HILAIRE HILER ET LA VISION PANORAMIQUE (Paris, 1933)
Henry Miller. THE AIR-CONDITIONED NIGHTMARE (New York, 1945)
Henry Miller. SUNDAY AFTERNOON AFTER THE WAR (New York, 1946)
Waldemar George. HILAIRE HILER AND STRUCTURALISM (New York, 1958)
John I. H. Bauer. HILAIRE HILER, PIONEER ABSTRACTIONIST, exhibition catalogue, Whitney Museum of American Art (New York, 1968)
Michael Regan & Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr. HILAIRE HILER, 1898-1966, exhibition catalogue, Art Museum of University of New Mexico (Albuquerque, 1976)
Hilaire Hiler, Jr. & Nicolle Hiler Benselka, and researchers. Hilaire Hiler "Biography", Hiler Papers, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, n.d.
*Note: The exhibition catalogue by Reagan and Cikovsky has been extensively quoted and should be considered the primary source of information for this biographical sketch. Kline's conversations with Hilaire Hiler, Jr. in 2004 also added insight and information.
** If you discover credit omissions or have additional information to add, please let us know at
Illustrator, painter, muralist. Born in St Paul, MN on July 16, 1898. Hiler was educated at the University of Pennsylvania, University of Denver, Golden State University in Los Angeles, and the Nat'l College in Ontario, Canada. Sailing to France in 1919, he continued at the University of Paris while playing saxophone in a jazz band. During the 1920s he ran the Jockey Club (an artists' hangout) on the Left Bank. At the club he often played jazz piano with a live monkey on his back. Upon moving to San Francisco in the 1930s, he was commissioned by the WPA to paint murals in the Aquatic Park Bath House (now the Nat'l Maritime Museum). He contributed illustrated maps for the GGIE of 1939 and exhibited at the fair. From San Francisco he moved to Hollywood where he opened a short-lived nightclub on the Sunset Strip. He then lived in Santa Fe (NM), NYC, and in the early 1960s returned to Paris where he remained until his demise on Jan. 19, 1966. A self-taught artist, he was an exponent of modern art and known for his abstracts. In: Museum of NM; NMAA; MOMA; Santa Barbara Museum; LACMA; Luxembourg Museum (Paris); SFMA; Harvard Univ.; Oakland Museum; CPLH. WWAA 1936-66; WWC 1942; Ben; Art of California, Jan. 1982; NY Times, 1-21-1966 (obit); SF Chronicle, 6-14-1987.
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