Henry Pearson, American (1914 - 2006)

Henry Pearson

Henry Pearson is perhaps best known for a mildly optical manner of painting, featuring a mutable labyrinth of undulating parallel lines, which somewhat inadvertently linked him to the Op Art movement of the 1960s. Although included in the Museum of Modern Art's landmark exhibition The Responsive Eye in 1965, his work displays an intuitive rhythm and poetic elegance that falls well outside of the calculated, often hard-edged quality normally associated with the Op group of artists.

Pearson came late to the visual arts. His first career, in theatre design, was cut short by the Second World War. He entered the U.S. Army in 1942, and at war's end requested duty in occupied Japan, where a prolonged contact with Japanese culture nurtured a passion for painting. Upon his discharge from the army, in 1953, he enrolled in the Art Students League in New York City, where he studied with, among others, Reginald Marsh and Will Barnet. Inspired by Malevich, he turned to rectilinear abstraction, and employed it as the dominant means of expression in his painting between 1954 and 1961.
As early as 1959, however, sensing an incipient decadence in his geometric canvases, Pearson began to develop a new direction in his work. During the war, he served for a year in Culver City, California, where his interpretive drawings of secret imperial maps were employed to construct three-dimensional scale models of the Japanese islands. Recalling the hypnotic movement of those earlier efforts, he produced a series of exploratory sketches, first in pencil and then in ink, which over a period of several years gradually transformed illusionary mountains and valleys into purely non-objective exercises. By 1961 these drawings, reflecting a personal vision now well removed from any topographical transcription, heralded a new era of linear abstraction in Pearson's work. Quickly celebrated as well on canvas and in print, the idea became central to his oeuvre for the next fifteen years, a period which coincided with his rise to some prominence in the New York art world.

Pearson was an American abstract and modernist painter. Pearson was born in Kinston, North Carolina, graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1938, and studied theatrical design at Yale University. He served in the U.S. Army Air Corps in the Second World War, designing maps for the Okinawa campaign, and then re-enlisted to serve in the US occupation of Japan, where he was influenced by Japanese art and theatre forms. Moving to New York in the early 1950s, he studied at the Art Students League of New York with Reginald Marsh and Will Barnet; he remained friends with Barnet for the remainder of his life. Pearson was loosely associated with the Op Art movement and the famous "Responsive Eye" exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1965. Other influences were Piet Mondrian and Kasimir Malevich.

Pearson was known for abstract, multi-colored globes; 'stochastic' or chance-generated paintings; paintings modeled on Dogon (West African) sculpture; as well as paintings based on the map work he did in the army. In general, his mode was hard-edged abstraction, although not without traces of humor and whimsy. His works are in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the North Carolina Museum of Art.

He taught at The New School for General Studies and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts for many years.

Pearson was also greatly interested in literature and illustrated several poems by the Irish Nobel Prize winning poet Seamus Heaney. His correspondence with Heaney, and his comprehensive collection of Heaney books, manuscripts and memorabilia, is now housed at the University of North Carolina.

Pearson died in 2006 after a long illness.

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