Robert William Hansen was born in Osceola, Nebraska in 1924. He served in the U.S. Army from 1943 to 1945. In December 1945 he was transferred to Munich and assigned to the Regierungsbezirk Oberbayern Section of the Office of Military Government for Bavaria under the direction of Monuments Man Capt. Jonathan T. Morey. Stationed in Munich, Hansen worked as part of the motor pool delivering works of art found in the field to various collecting points. He was involved in the transport of the collection of Martin Bormann found at Berchtesgaden, a collection of Russian icons looted by the Schwarzhuber brothers, and multiple truckloads of works of art and other cultural objects belonging to the Russian state museums from Schloss Höchstädt. Hansen was redeployed in February 1946.
Hansen controlled how slowly or rapidly the paint spread by changing the paint's viscosity -- allowing new cans of paint to sit open for extended periods while the paint thickened. The thicker the paint, the slower it spread on the panel. Once shapes were created, he sometimes brushed into them. As a result, some works are painterly (such as the Mirror series), with extensive brushwork, while others consist of plain, solid colors with hard edges.
It has long been recognized that to some degree the artist is a slave to his or her medium, accepting its limitations while exploring its possibilities, always searching for a marriage between imagery and technique. Using Duco, Hansen elected to keep the shapes in his paintings relatively simple. When he desired complex configurations, he divided them into sections with each part formed separately. Principally a draftsman, Hansen limited his palette to whites, blacks and browns. In the 1960s, he added rich reds and occasionally other intense hues.
Hansen introduced additional elements to widen his visual vocabulary. He cut panels into various non-rectangular shapes or notched pieces out of them. Some of these works have slanted or curving sides; some form figures. He also included textural elements (detritus) in some paintings, or he left the surface unpainted, the bare wood exposed. In others, he intentionally tore the sides of the pressed wood panels to create ragged edges.
The space Hansen created in his paintings is often ambiguous. Size relationships between figures seem arbitrary or fanciful (one small figure might be superimposed on another of gigantic proportions). As one attempts to peer into these paintings, as though through a window, the space appears to recede into infinity or, conversely, there is no sense of depth. Hansen chose not to employ the usual methods of depicting deep space. Linear perspective, for example, is absent from his work. Only a shallow field of depth was introduced by the use of overlapping shapes, thus giving the viewer the impression that some figures are positioned in front or behind others. The overall result is a flat, graphic space.
By way of contrast, while the depiction of the space is two-dimensional, the physical paint is three-dimensional. A slight shadow is cast at the edge of each shape, forming a subtle relief. This relief is one of the most compelling qualities of Hansen's work.
In size, Hansen's paintings range from small to large, up to 96” in length. He also produced several mural sized paintings. One work, done for an exhibition at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1964, consisted of 14 panels that formed a painting 12' high by 25' long.
Hansen adopted the use of Duco upon his return from a year spent in Mexico in 1948-1949, a place where many American artists have found inspiration. In Mexico, Hansen attended a lecture at San Miguel de Allende given by David Alfaro Siqueiros, the great Mexican muralist, and his technical assistant. 4 Siqueiros encouraged, even demanded, that artists use the newest materials of the industrial age. This included paints that employed a pyroxylin binder, the chemical basis for the product sold as Duco. The idea appealed to Hansen. He immediately obtained the lacquer and other industrial materials upon his return to the United States.
The experience in Mexico was so engaging that Hansen returned in 1951-1952 to study mural painting with Alfredo Zalce at the University of Michoacan. While there, he painted three murals in public buildings in Morelia, the state capitol, using mosaic, casein, ethyl silicate and colored cement. He returned again to San Miguel to teach during the summers of 1959 and 1960.
Hansen became steeped in the style and iconography of Mexican mural painting. The monumental figures and the muscular drawing style of the Mexican muralists are reflected in the paintings Hansen did after returning from Mexico. This can be seen in one of his most acclaimed series, entitled Man-Men. In these paintings, Hansen's figures often appear large in scale and imposing, even in smaller paintings (typically 12”x24”).
There is another possible source for the imagery in his work. Hansen grew up in a tiny farm community, the son of the town butcher. Working for his father, Hansen learned various aspects of the trade. He observed the joints that divide body parts as he dissected carcasses and carved steaks and roasts for sale at his father's meat market. Hansen believes that his stylized, fragmented – even dismembered – figures may have had their origin in these activities, as did his interest in the fundamentals of the human anatomy. Perhaps these experiences influenced his selection of the color red as his principal hue.
Hansen is fundamentally a figurative painter, and the figures that populate his paintings display an endless variety of postures. The figures are highly mannered (not classical in proportion). Sometimes they stand alone, squarely facing the viewer. They stare, often blankly. The figures can be passive or aggressive, humble or god-like. In some paintings, single figures seem to float or balance precariously. In other paintings, figures huddle in mass. Alone or grouped together, they are universal -- the skin of individuality has been stripped from them.
The themes of Hansen's work can range from the religious, as in a painting entitled Betrayal, Crucifixion, Entombment, Resurrection, to the dark recesses of the Marquis de Sade. (In fact, in 1964, he produced a livre deluxe, based upon selections from Guy Endore's Satan's Saint, featuring 17 lithographic images, as well as an independent suite of lithographs.) Hansen's themes are never political, however, as are those of the Mexican muralists.
Hansen's themes have to do with the fundamental elements of life (embryonic and phallic forms are present in many paintings), the paradoxes of the world, and the struggles of humanity, both singly and collectively. There is an overwhelming sense of spirituality and symbolism that pervades his paintings, even if one is hesitant to define those symbols in a precise manner. Hansen, in fact, regards his paintings as depictions of reality that transcend fixed interpretations. What Hansen depicts is primal and elemental, and the cumulative total of his work has the grandeur of a myth.
His interest in the primordial nature of existence may also originate, unconsciously, in the annihilation fears and existential angst that fueled much of American art following World War II. Some of Hansen's early works of distorted figures, standing in front of black backgrounds, can be seen as apocalyptic. However, his work does not represent a doomsday, cautionary tale. Rather, it explores the fundamental nature of life, humankind and society in its base state. His skeletal figures are perhaps more closely related to the life-cycle representations associated with the Mexican celebration of Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos).
Beginning in the late 1950s, Hansen's work was regularly exhibited and well received. His work was represented in fourteen solo exhibitions, half at Comara Gallery in Los Angeles, and in three retrospectives. His works were included in Painting U.S.A.: The Figure, held at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1961; the Whitney Annual, New York, in 1962 and 1964; and the Carnegie International, Pittsburgh, in 1961 and 1966. Both the Whitney and MOMA acquired his work.
In 1961-62, Hansen received a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Fulbright Senior Research Grant. These awards allowed him to travel in India and to Southeast Asia. He was attracted to Asia, and India in particular, because the multi-limbed figures of Asian art were similar to the figures that he had produced prior to his travels. The trip, as Los Angeles Times critic Henry J. Seldis noted at the time, “…seems in no way to have altered his style or symbology, rather it added strength, since Oriental thought seems to be the source of his pictorial considerations.”
Even if Asian thought and practice was not the actual source of Hansen's art, it had its influence. Often the figurative shapes in his paintings take on the appearance of mudras, the symbolic hand gestures of Buddhist art (some works are entitled Mudra). This can be seen clearly in a series of small, square shaped paintings (12”x12”) that Hansen made while living in Spain (1967-1968). These paintings continue his figurative focus, but the shapes have the appearance of calligraphy.
Adding to the ambiguities of his early work, many of these calligraphic paintings are filled with mystifying pictographs, sometimes human and sometimes animal, often transmuting from one to the other. These paintings present a world of suggested forms -- anthropomorphic and biomorphic – that continue the primal themes of Hansen's earlier work. These figure/shapes seem to move about, dancing, flying, falling, but rarely do they sit still.
Some paintings are reminiscent of Chinese scrolls, displaying rows of calligraphic figure/shapes. Therefore, it seems appropriate to borrow the words of a calligrapher, Lui-sang Wong, to aptly describe Hansen's paintings: “The dynamic, asymmetric equilibrium of a well-written character can be better understood if it is thought of as a living form in motion, a skilled dancer or athlete, possessing head and limbs, direction and center of gravity.” Many of these thoughts -- the ideas of equilibrium, dynamics, asymmetry, and living forms -- are essential to Hansen's art. Wong and Henry J. Seldis offer a fitting summation of Hansen's accomplishments: “In his most ambitious work… Hansen achieves an astonishing projection of spirituality through his own ingenious amalgamation of influences which range from the Romanesque to the ritual art of India and the explosiveness of Mexican mural painting.”
In the early 1960s, DuPont ceased the manufacture of Duco. Hansen stockpiled large quantities of the material, which he used until the cans began to rust in the mid-1980s. He retired from his longtime faculty position in the Art Department at Occidental College, where he used a campus studio to execute many of his painting. Following his retirement in 1987, he ceased painting (but resumed in the 1990s, using acrylics and continuing his figurative interests). In spite of the considerable recognition his work once received, no significant showing has been seen since the late 1980s.
When Hansen's career began in the late 1940s, Los Angeles painting was dominated by a tradition of figuration that is perhaps best epitomized by the work of Rico Lebrun. Lebrun was unquestionably a virtuoso, and Hansen admired his work. But by the 1960s, figurative painting seemed tired and outdated to many in Los Angeles. Progressive artists were pursuing other approaches. Many artists expunged representational or symbolic references. Examples abound: Hard-edge painting, Finish Fetish (ushered in chiefly by the Ferus Gallery in the 1960s), Minimalism, and Light and Space art were all prominent movements in Los Angeles during Hansen's career.
In spite of this climate, much of it hostile to representation and symbolism, Hansen found a way to carry forward the tradition of figuration. He did so with a personal, unique and affecting style. I can think of no body of work, done in Los Angeles or elsewhere, that is its duplicate.
An avid birder and conservationist in his later years, Hansen became active with the Carpinteria Creek Commission in Carpinteria, California. For his work to conserve the wetlands near his home in Carpinteria, the city council named the Bob Hansen Creeks Preservation Program in his honor in 2011. He passed away on February 10, 2013 in California.