Haynes Ownby: Patterns of Thought 

The Life Work of an American Abstract Painter  

Cape Museum of Fine Arts: September 15 - November 11

Originally published in Cape Arts Review, Vol.1, 2001

In the heavy mist of an early spring evening, friends of Haynes Ownby, including many long-time members of the art community, gathered in Provincetown to honor the artist. Ownby studied four years with Hans Hofmann in New York and Provincetown, and several artists, fellow students of Hofmann, spoke at the service about Ownby's deep simpatico with Hofmann's teaching, and the master's special appreciation of his student's work.  This fall the Cape Museum of Art in Dennis celebrates the life work of this extraordinary, inventive artist with a long-planned, major retrospective of his more than 50-year career. 

Since he chose painting as a career at 20, Haynes Ownby was always interested in color and movement.  He was the only abstract painter in Dallas in 1952 when, fresh out of the University and longing for a community of like-minded artists, he left Texas for New York City. 

After studying with Hofmann, the artist moved to Taos, New Mexico.  In Taos, Ownby was exposed to the 12-tone system of composer Arnold Schoenberg, giving him the idea to use a grid system in his own work.  This use of repeating grid patterns, Ownby has said, freed him from concerns with form and let him concentrate on color.  "Some think when they see geometric paintings that it's all calculated, but Mondrian is just as intuitive as Hofmann," Ownby insisted.  "Art cannot be done other than intuitively.  Otherwise it's no good."

During his time in Taos, Ownby began to read the novels of Herman Hesse.

I was very much taken with Hesse's books -- Steppenwolf, Siddhartha, Narziss and Goldman, all of them, all great books and all about art and the artist, the role of the artist in society.  The Glass Bead Game takes place in a remote future society.  What struck me was that in this society, the game has become a substitute for art.  It isn't about winning; rather, the spiritual experience that comes from playing.  It uses math, the visual arts to play the game.  I've always thought about art that way, as a spiritual discipline. 

Some of Ownby's most remarkable work came out of what he called "semi-automatic drawing".   In a meditative state, he allowed the shapes to reveal themselves on his canvas.   After the lines were in place, he worked more consciously on the coloration of the created spaces. 

Back in
Austin by the mid '70's, where he earned an MFA from the University of Texas in the dual fields of painting and film, Ownby began working with "platonic bodies," making studies and maquettes from conglomerations of polyhedrons inspired by the work of Buckminster Fuller.  Fuller's influence caused Ownby to change from a diamond grid to a grid of triangles, with which he continued to work, and which inspired the dice for Kruztrax, the art game he invented and which became a kind of crucible for his developing work.

Even though Ownby "never expected to do anything like this," one hot summer night in 1976 he found himself sitting around the house thinking about making a pair of dice.  "I thought - why do you have to have the dice the same shapes, why not have them two different shapes?  So, I made an octahedron and a tetrahedron."  The dice just sat around until the fall of 1982, when Ownby began making paintings that would ultimately lead to a game board.

Ownby left Austin behind and settled in Provincetown for good in the spring of 1983.  The game had been percolating since 1961.  He worked like a demon to get ready for a large exhibition in Texas the next March.  The new paintings, some of them as large as 6' x 8', presented blocks of color in a complex arrangement of tracks circling a field with inner parks, and served as studies for the developing game board. One of these paintings, as well as the complete Kruztrax, is included in the CMFA exhibition.  In weekly play sessions with friends in Provincetown, Ownby refined the game through many versions until a final version was copyrighted in 1991. 

Ownby's work has been featured in numerous shows over the years.  He has shown at Cherry Stone Gallery, Wenninger Gallery, Cortland Jessup Gallery, Tirca Karlis Gallery, Tennyson Gallery, and the Provincetown Art Association and Museum. For the last several years, he exhibited at The Schoolhouse Center where last season he engaged and amused viewers with his recent grid-based "tropical erotica" paintings. The Schoolhouse will exhibit Ownby's most recent work June 29 - July 12, work which gallery director Michael Carroll calls astounding.  "He knew he was dying and it freed him.  He was able to bring everything together in an amazing way and to enter a wholly new territory. It's truly extraordinary work." 

Ownby taught at the University of Texas, privately in Provincetown, and at the Art Association Summer School.  In the fall of 1999, he began teaching Design on the faculty of the new Provincetown International Art Institute.  Later that year he was diagnosed with lung cancer.  Last July, Ownby learned that he was a recipient of a Pollock-Krasner Grant, a gift of the foundation begun in 1985 to aid individual "worthy and needy" artists by the abstract expressionist painter Lee Krasner, widow of Jackson Pollock, and herself a student of Hans Hofmann.   The grant allowed Ownby the concentrated time for studio work, and the assistance important to preparing for the exhibition planned for September at the Cape Museum of Art.  Haynes Ownby died at home in his studio on April 10.  He was 71.  Throughout his remarkable artistic career, he remained faithful to his intuitive understanding of form and pattern and his love of color.  He always, as friends and family said, "did only what he wanted to do, his own way."  Through his art and his teaching, Haynes Ownby made an abiding contribution to the continuum of American abstract art.   This exhibition is testimony to the significance of that work. 



©2007 Rena Lindstrom All Rights Reserved