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 Hans Moller  (1905 - 2000)

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Lived/Active: Pennsylvania/New York / Germany      Known for: abstract painting

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Hans Moller
An example of work by Hans Moller
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following article is from the June 2008 issue of The Atlantic Times.

Chased Into A Paradise of Color Hans Moller was a German-born artist who thrived in the United States but was virtually unknown in Germany - By Nadia Hassani

The prolific painter created hundreds of works during his time across the Atlantic.  He has yet to be discovered in his homeland.

Of the many artists who fled Germany after 1933, Hans Moller was one of the most fortunate. Not only was he able to immigrate to the United States but also to quickly establish himself. And what a prolific exile it was.  In the 64 years between his arrival in the United States and his death in 2000, Moller created hundreds of oil paintings, watercolors, collages and drawings. Since the 1940s, Moller's works have been part of the permanent collections at major museums, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art.  All this time, however, Moller has remained a blank spot on Germany's artistic landscape.

Moller was born in Wuppertal in 1905. From 1919 to 1927, he attended Kunstgewerbeschule Wuppertal-Barmen, the local arts and crafts school, at night while working as a bricklayer by day. He then studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin and became a graphic artist.  It was in Berlin that Moller met Helen Rosenblum, who was Jewish and training to be a dietitian.  They married in 1933 and fled Germany three years later.

Upon arriving in New York City in 1936, Moller had but a few dollars in his pocket. Yet, within a week, he secured a job as a graphic designer at the leading advertising firm, Lord & Thomas.  Art was his after-work hobby until his first solo exhibition at the prestigious Bonestell Gallery in 1942.  More than 25 solo exhibitions followed, one almost every year in Manhattan galleries in the 1940s and 1950s.

Every few years, Moller changed galleries, and almost every time, this was accompanied by a change in style.  Frequent and positive reviews of his exhibitions by The New York Times and other newspapers, and the selling out of almost all of his exhibitions, emboldened him to experiment.  During his first years in the United States, he worked in the expressionist style using muted, turbid grays, browns and blacks.  Catalyzed by New York's progressive art scene, it did not take Moller long to break away from his European past and start his passionate experimentation with color that would last a lifetime.

Abstractionism, surrealism, cubism, pointilism, fauvism - traces of all of these movements have been detected in Moller's oeuvre.  His many self-portraits, all of which show a good amount of self-irony, also chronicle his changing styles over the years.

During Moller's abstract phase in the 1950s, his gallery at the time, Grace Borgenicht, which also organized shows of Max Ernst and Max Beckmann, led Moller to a new medium: stained glass.   His colorful designs with energetic black outlines were inspired by - and compared to - the work of Henri Matisse, whom Moller admired.

While Moller and his wife mingled with New York's avant-garde art scene in the 1940s and 1950s, Moller remained Moller, never associating with a particular group.  All the while, collectors eagerly absorbed his art. Moller said that the abstract expressionist Mark Rothko had told him that he would be ready to sell an entire year's production for $5,000.  At the time, Moller's works sold for $500 to $1,200 each.

In 1959, the Mollers bought a summer cottage on tiny Monhegan Island off the coast of Maine with spectacular views of the surging sea.  Here Moller did studies and painted watercolors that he would execute in oil when back in New York City. Tam's Garden, a rendering of a house owned by a fellow artist, is one of the many examples where Moller painted the same subject in different variations. Sea and Island, a 1959 painting that is owned by the Von-der-Heydt Museum in Moller's native Wuppertal, is the lone work held by a German museum.

The New York Times art critic John Canaday called Moller's 1973 solo exhibition at Midtown Galleries, "the happiest roomful of pictures in town.  With bright, clear colors and a prancing brush, Mr. Moller describes skies, lakes, gardens and stretches of countryside as if he had just discovered them and wanted to let the rest of us in on something joyous."

The pillar of Moller's entire artistic life and career was his wife, Helen, whom he lovingly referred to as "Leni." For 64 years, she was his model, source of inspiration and business manager.  She corresponded on his behalf with friends and art dealers, and protected him from disturbances and intrusions, making sure that he had the environment he needed to create his art. Moller's line drawing for their 60th wedding anniversary card tells it all: The couple is joined at the torso like Siamese twins.

In 1995, on Moller's 90th birthday, the German art collector Torsten Bröhan organized the first exhibition of Moller's work in Germany in his gallery in Düsseldorf. It prompted Helen Moller to write in a letter to friends: "I hope Mr. Moller is not pining away for German recognition. He'd have a long wait."  Still, she notes, "had he stayed in Germany, even discounting his Jewish wife, his artistic development would have been vastly different. And the joyousness expressed in his paintings is a direct outgrowth of the freedom he experienced here. He has long stopped being a 'German' artist - he most likely is a world spirit - and that could have never developed in Germany."

After three decades in the same mid-town apartment, the Mollers increasingly worried about street crime and moved to Allentown, Pennsylvania.  n a modest apartment filled with works of contemporary artist friends and his own, Moller continued to play chess, his other passion, and to work until his death in 2000, preceded by Helen's three years earlier.

The Allentown Art Museum was subsequently given the entire content of Moller's studio and plans to recreate it in a proposed new museum wing. Right now, the museum is trying to raise funds for this project.  In Germany, the discovery of Moller, who had been "chased into paradise," as the 20th-century art historian Carl-Wolfgang Schümann said at the opening of the artist's first and only exhibition in Germany, is also a work in the making.




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