Martha Visser't Hooft (1906-1994) was a painter, sculptor, printmaker, and leader in the Buffalo art community and beyond. She is celebrated and recognized for her artwork and the connections she formed in Paris, New York, Buffalo, and Taos with leaders of social concerns and artistic expression.
The artist stated: "In my paintings, I create situations and images beyond the realm of the possible. I invite the mind and the eye into a totally new experience." She lived by that mantra throughout her career, particularly applying it to works she created between 1947 and 1968 when she exhibited regularly in New York with the Contemporary Arts Gallery. Beyond the Realm of the Possible celebrates the period of her career when she was exhibiting in New York. It features works in the Burchfield Penney Art Center's collection and rarely seen loaned works.
Martha Visser't Hooft was motivated by a creative, abstract vision and her concerns about environmental pollution, Native American and women's rights, and oppressive government. She was a strong and vocal artist. The Burchfield Penney Art Center holds the most extensive collection of her art in various media spanning her career, as well as a substantial archive relating to her life. This collection reveals her social and political concerns, as well as her distinctive style of expression.
Young Martha Hamlin studied art in Paris in the 1920s at the Académie Julian, a major alternative school to the Ecole des Beaux Arts, especially for women. She explored exciting new European developments, such as cubism and surrealism, Russian ballet, and modern music. In 1926 she moved to New York to study briefly at the Parsons School of Design, before transferring to the John Murray Anderson School of Theater Design, which she loved.
After returning to live in Buffalo, Martha, her sister Mary, and her parents took a trip to Taos, New Mexico in 1928 to visit the renowned Buffalo-born patron Mabel Dodge Luhan and her husband, Pueblo Tony Lujan. The family traveled to Taos on multiple occasions, and the experience there would influence her throughout her life. After their trip in 1928, Martha married Franciscus Visser't Hooft, a Dutch chemist. She grappled with balancing the work of a spouse and mother while continuing her art career. Nevertheless, she emerged as an influential member of the arts community in the city. She became one of the founders of the Patteran Society, created as a progressive, more inclusive alternative to the traditionally based Buffalo Society of Artists in 1933.
Visser't Hooft continued being actively involved in Buffalo’s art scene while creating unique abstract, surrealist paintings driven by imagination and the influence of contemporary American artists. The Buffalo artist whose work demonstrated the most kinship to Martha's was the slightly younger Chet La More (1908-1980), who came to Buffalo and taught at the Albright Art School in 1942 and 1945-47. In 1947, during La More's second tenure as a teacher in Buffalo, Visser't Hooft had her first exhibition in New York. The two artists shared a surrealist approach, which was unique in their community. Although no documentation has been found linking the two, records of exhibitions during this period illustrate an affinity in their work.
During the 1940s, Visser't Hooft began showing her work with the Contemporary Arts Gallery in New York, the same gallery that, in the 1930s, introduced the work of Mark Rothko and Mark Tobey, now internationally renowned. Her relationship with Contemporary Arts lasted until the gallery closed in the late 1960s. While showing in solo and group exhibitions at Contemporary Arts, her work was celebrated and acquired for significant collections, including the Whitney Museum of American Art. Like many women artists, however, Martha did not experience the same success in the male-dominated art world, which resulted in years of being ignored by art historians and critics. This anti-woman, pro-white-male bias unfortunately continues today in the exhibitions and collections of many institutions. Slowly efforts are currently being made to bring overlooked women artists to public attention.
In 1991 the David Anderson Gallery in Buffalo presented a major retrospective on Martha Visser't Hooft. For this exhibition, she wrote: "Painting to me is creating a bridge from the invisible to the visible." To complement the exhibition, The Poetry/Rare Books Collection and The State University of New York at Buffalo produced an important, illustrated catalogue with essays by Robert J. Bertholf and Albert L. Michaels, and commentary by the artist.
Dr. Bertholf's catalog essay called attention to two works now part of the Burchfield Penney Art Center's collection. In "The Lyric Painting of Martha Visser't Hooft," he wrote: …The same kind of contrast between the parts of the vision and the whole vision appears in the two paintings entitled Arrival from 1969 and Blue Shards from 1969. Arrival has a reddish-orange background and Blue Shards has a bluish-green background, but both present curved geometric shapes suspended in a field as if to be emblematic of parts of the imaginative version defined now by spatial dimensions. That the curved pieces remain separate and are not combined into a controlling figure is itself important because the pieces maintain a spatial definition to one another and create in the spread of their designs a contextual vision which is a radical version of reality.
For her time, Martha Visser't Hooft was considered radical—ahead of the curve—serving as a role model for younger women artists and earning a place among the inner circle of artists in Buffalo and beyond.
Martha Visser't Hooft: Beyond the Realm of the Possible is presented through the generosity of Bank of America. For their additional support, we gratefully acknowledge The Margaret L. Wendt Foundation, the Tower Family Fund, David & Jessica Brason, Lynne Stenclik Finn & Broadleaf, Daniel & Shelley Fogel, Mrs. John T. Kociela, Cindy & Francis Letro, Eric Stenclik & Steven Dietz, and Lynn Stievater.