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An Eames Primer: Painting in the Broadest Sense Posted February 1, 2018 by Kelsey Rose
Now and then we refresh our thoughts and perceptions of Charles and Ray by picking up An Eames Primer. Here is an excerpt dedicated to one half of the design pair, highlighting Ray’s abstract painting background with Hans Hofmann prior to her introduction to Charles.
In 1933, Ray moved to Manhattan. While she had enjoyed the opportunities to visit New York City from Bennett, after her graduation she became truly immersed in the culture of the city. She considered going to Cooper Union to study engineering. Around that time, Helen Donnelley, a friend from Bennett, was a key player in the effort to bring the painter Hans Hofmann to the United States from the deteriorating situation in Europe. He taught first at the Art Student’s League and then at his own school. Ray signed up for Hofmann’s first classes. “He was marvelous. It was a great part of my life—a great experience. It meant a great deal to me. I worked with him for six years. It was like working with him, it wasn’t as most classes are considered today, I think. It just went on and on.” And it was a lot of work.
But work and play were intertwined. Ray remembered seeing Chaplin’s Modern Times with Hofmann. “I’ve never laughed more. He laughed so, we were just in stitches from it all. No one could enjoy anything more than he, but as far as teaching, it was structure and relationships, and color as structure.” For some, Hofmann had a reputation of being about fixing things in boxes, but Ray adamantly disagreed: “He didn’t close anything, he opened everything and made it possible to see wholly, I think, as we do see: we don’t see a line, we see a line and both sides of the line. . . .I don’t know of anyone else who was as able to relate the experience of life to a canvas, to a format.” The idea of structure as something that could free you to see things still more richly was an important common ground Ray would eventually share with Charles.
Ben Baldwin, who joined the Hofmann classes in 1936, remembered that “[Hofmann] was very fond of [Ray] and very fond of her work. But, it was very different from everybody else’s in the class. There was nobody doing anything like what she was doing.” Ray remembered the specificity of Hofmann’s comments: rather than saying that they had done right or wrong, he would try to help the individual students achieve their own ideas. Baldwin recalled a particularly striking Hofmann technique: he “would come in and look at what we were doing and very often we were working in charcoal from a model and he would take a razor blade and slice the thing in lots of different pieces and move it all around, with thumbtacks, so that it had a much more spacial relationship.” Hofmann was also noted for the precision with which he posed his models, sometimes taking up to an hour to set a single pose.
Ray’s nickname was Buddha in the Hofmann circles and she adopted it gracefully. Her classmates at the Hofmann School included Lee Krasner, Wilfred Zogbaum, and Robert de Niro, among others. Interestingly, many of Hofmann’s students were not planning to become painters at all. Baldwin described Ray this way: “she was always, you know, on point. She was always . . . she was like a Gaston Lachaise, sort of bursting with enthusiasm about everything, particularly when it was that big [indicating the size of a dime with forefinger and thumb].” Summers in the 1930s were mostly spent in Massachusetts. Hofmann had a studio in Provincetown, on Cape Cod. The students piled into Helen’s old Rolls Royce and drove up there from Manhattan.
To read more about Ray’s time painting with Hans Hofmann, and about her childhood, look to An Eames Primer, a wonderfully researched publication by an Eames grandson, Eames Demetrios.