Nothing more than feeling
November 10, 2005
If Gino Hollander has darkness in his soul, he’s got good reason for it. Hollander’s eldest son, Mark, was born with a multitude of physical problems and endured many operations. Mark, who died in 1970 at age 25, ultimately lived “a very full life,” said Hollander, but the ordeal took its toll on the parents: “We never recovered, in a sense,” said Hollander, whose first marriage ended in divorce.Hollander has seen other kinds of torment. A member of the 10th Mountain Division during its fabled time as the U.S. Army’s first troop designed for high-altitude combat, Hollander served in Europe during World War II, part of the force that took Italy’s Riva Ridge from the Germans. The battle experience, though, was a cakewalk compared to the training. Hollander says that a midwinter trek in 1944, from Camp Hale, near Leadville, to Aspen, was the hardest thing he’s ever done. Hollander can’t remember whether he was a corporal or sergeant at the time, but he does recall the weight of his pack – 95 pounds – and his own weight – 118 pounds. “Everything since then – the foxhole, the war – was easy after that,” he said. Hollander, who probably still doesn’t weigh more than his fighting weight, has developed emphysema, which he blames partly on the horrific pollution at Camp Hale and partly on his 30 years of smoking cigarettes. For the past year, he has worn an oxygen tank on his back and tubes up his nose.None of those troubles seem to have left a mark on Hollander’s personality. He does, indeed, embody the idea that the world is a benevolent place. On a recent Sunday, my 6-year-old daughter and I were walking a little-used trail along the Roaring Fork River in Aspen’s East End. Across the river was a man on his back deck, painting away at a massive canvas. When he saw us, he waved, and seemed to be beckoning us across the river. At his house, he welcomed us – strangers, essentially; Hollander had a slight recollection that we had met some 10 years earlier – and quickly sketched my daughter before excusing himself. He had to go to town to pick up his wife of 42 years, Barbara, a poet whom he often calls “babe.” Over the course of a conversation a few days later at his house, Hollander was warm and wide-open, enthusiastically sharing about his 30 years in Spain, books he has been reading (Jed Perl’s “New Art City,” and Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything,” which he has read five times since its 2003 publication), and his passion for backcountry snowmobiling.And, of course, the talk included his art. Scattered most everywhere in the house – on the floor, on the deck, in a huge pile on a desk near the front entrance – are finished canvases, painted in acrylic. The prolific Hollander paints landscapes, horses and nude figures. But certainly his most indelible work are his faces – always women, dark-haired, generally gaunt, virtually never smiling. As with all his work, color is used sparingly in his faces, and when it is, it is muted. For me, and not a small number of others, they evoke a sense of trauma, as if these women had just witnessed something terrible. Perhaps because of Hollander’s Jewish heritage and his experience in World War II, his paintings have always put me in mind of the Holocaust. They ooze sadness, heaviness.It is a response which the artist is glad to dispute. Hollander is loath to talk about his work with much specificity; the entire realm of art criticism puts him off. “Art is meant to be made by the artist, and seen by the viewer,” he says, cutting the critic out of the equation. But he will go far enough to observe that his art is about feeling, that it is meant to get at the whole big ball of human emotion – but not any particular emotion.”I don’t see sadness in them. I’m not sad,” said the 81-year-old. “It’s a frozen moment. It’s stillness. It’s somebody involved. I let them be locked in a moment that’s theirs. It’s feelings. They’re not aware. They’re just being.”Hollander has at least one prominent ally in this interpretation. Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, the director and chief curator of the Aspen Art Museum, surveyed a portfolio of Hollander’s work for the current Roaring Fork Open exhibit, and came away with almost the exact same reaction to the work as the artist himself. Jacobson ultimately selected one of Hollander’s nude figures, based on his wife, with the face unseen but apparently turned away, for the Open.”For me, it was more about an astute observer of life, the kind of raw emotion that can be captured when an artist chooses to paint someone they love,” said Jacobson, who spent five minutes with each of the 135 artists included in the show, which runs through Nov. 26. “When we love someone, we see them mad and sad and happy, and it’s all there.”Of his customary aversion to color, Hollander says they distract from emotion: “I look at bright colors and I feel nothing.” Jacobson echoes the view, saying, “It’s like being able to see more in a black-and-white photograph, because the seduction is reduced. He’s showing the starkness there is in life.”
Gino Hollander’s 81 years have, in contrast to his paintings, been full of color. He was born in Newark, N.J., into a well-to-do family; his father owned Hollander & Son, a fur-dyeing and cleaning concern that popularized a method of fur-protection called “Hollanderizing.” A self-described “miserable student with a high IQ,” he found a sense of himself during a 1,000-mile bike ride to Canada. At New York’s Hobart College, he furthered his love of outdoor activity by taking up cross-country skiing. When, in the early ’40s, the call went out for outdoor enthusiasts to join the new 10th Mountain Division, Hollander signed on.Back in the States, after a short go at the family business, he moved to New York’s Greenwich Village and got into filmmaking. He made documentaries and commercials, and worked as second unit director and assistant to director Alexander Mackendrick on the Manhattan classic “Sweet Smell of Success.” But film was too much about the interaction of what Hollander calls the three Ms – men, money and materials.
“I had a hard time in films, but you’re going to have a difficult time on a feeling basis,” he said. “You have to be able to handle power. It’s the handling of how you get those three things together to tell a story.” By 1960, Hollander was ready for a more immediate means of expression. American art was still in its postwar explosion, with New York at the center.”Art was the thing. Not for us, for everybody,” said Hollander, who has been brought back to those times recently by Jed Perl’s new survey of that milieu, “New Art City.” “Cars were parked all across Madison Avenue; you couldn’t get across to get to the galleries. So I wanted to paint.”Hollander spent the early ’60s teaching himself to paint. He got instruction on the basics from his second wife Barbara, a Chicago transplant who had a master’s in art. He opened his first Hollander Gallery on Bleeker Street in Greenwich Village. (The latest iteration of the Hollander Gallery, the 20th by Hollander’s count, is set to open in December in Delano, Minn. He also had a gallery in Aspen in 1995, on the Hyman Avenue mall.)But the burgeoning art world that inspired him also became too much. Hollander felt the crush as pop art and op art began to emerge, and he decided to escape New York.”I wanted to get away from the art world. I thought it would clobber me,” said Hollander, whose daughter, Shiri, is a sculptor in Santa Fe, and whose sons, Scott and Jim, are photographers. “I didn’t want to be around anybody. I wanted out.”In 1962, with $600, Hollander took his wife, their three kids – with one more on the way – and several pets to the most unlikely of places, Franco’s Fascist Spain. They lived near Torremolinos, in the south of Spain, until an airport was built in the vicinity, in 1969. The family then moved 60 miles inland, to a barren corner of a bull ranch, which the Hollanders built, without the aid of an architect, into a tree-lined, art-filled estate.”We took to Spain in every way,” said Hollander, who rode horseback almost every day he was at his ranch. He took to traveling around Spain to trade his paintings for Spanish antique furniture, artifacts and artwork, some dating back thousands of years. In 1982, Hollander was struck with a tennis racquet, leading to severe heart problems. He lost 25 percent of the muscle tissue in his left ventricle and was told he had five to 10 years left. “It was a new phase of life. I got to say, ‘OK, what do I want to do now with my life?” he said.The answer was Museo Hollander, a private museum on their estate. Over nine years, the museum attracted some 70,000 people to the middle of nowhere to see its collection of Spanish works.By 1990, Hollander’s heart problems had grown to the point where a move back to the States seemed wise. Aspen, at 8,000 feet, seemed as ill-advised a choice as Spain had been 28 years earlier. But Hollander fell instantly in love with the spacious, near empty wilderness, so Aspen it was.
Hollander has developed an approach to painting that aims at getting maximum feeling onto the canvas. He gets in close to the canvas, starts painting – and never backs up to get the broader perspective on what is happening. The idea is to retain a lack of consciousness of the work, to have no feature stand out, to paint without awareness of the process or the product.”At a certain point, you become a little aware. I back up and if I see something” – meaning, if something catches his eye – “I change it. I just want to be wrapped up. I don’t want to be aware of it.
“And somewhere down the line, I see something – a painting – and that’s when it’s over.”Ultimately, painting strips away whatever has been going on in Hollander’s mind or body, and allows just the moment, the present emotion, to flood in.”You can be at your lowest, whatever is happening, you can feel the wind change,” he said. “You can feel what’s going on inside your body. It’s a great way to express yourself.”You add it up, and I don’t know what’s in this world other than feelings.”For further information, go to http://www.hollanderart.com.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org