The art of Clinton Hill has an enduring strength, warmth and generosity spanning his fifty years as an artist. His work speaks of our inborn need to traverse space, to place marks upon the earth, to locate ourselves in nature and leave traces of our all too fleeting presence. He adored the intense colors of the world and found ways to bind colors to materials so that they resonated with a rare and fiery glow. A passionate traveler and collector, Hill delighted in color, bringing the earthy reds of his native Idaho, the colors of spices and ground pigments of an Indian bazaar, the rugged grays of Manhattan streets together in works revealing the rich matrix of emotion and experience that was his life.

Clinton and Allen on bicycles in Italy

Clinton Hill was a tall, blue-eyed, rangy handsome man with an easy smile. He was a worldly, sophisticated person with a steady gaze and a generous heart. A New Yorker by choice, he was born in Payette, Idaho, a small city in the far southwest corner of that rugged and spacious state. The site of several Native American reservations, Payette borders on Oregon at opposite sides of the deep and twisting Snake River. Raised on a ranch, Clinton Hill developed a knowledge of vast, varied physical spaces and man made boundaries that would stay with him for the rest of his life. He rode horses as a young man as he checked the perimeter of the family ranch, guarding the integrity of the fences and restoring strays to the herd. Clinton Hill became alert to the kinds of information nature offers up to the observant wanderer. He studied Native American culture and would, in later life, wear ornaments and talismans to remind him of his origins in the rural American west.

Late in Hill's adolescence, the family moved to the Northeastern corner of Oregon, to the town of La Grande, another place of abundant natural beauty, vast forests, mountains and an area of many Native American reservations and settlements. Here, Clinton Hill began his first tentative experiments with watercolor and found his vocation as an artist.

Clinton Hill in Japan after WWII

During the war years, Hill served as commanding officer on a minesweeper in the Pacific. Exposed to danger, worked in cramped spaces, he emerged from the experience with a new self-confidence and eager to place himself into the mainstream of contemporary art. While in the Navy, Hill also found his life partner, Allen Tran, a fellow art student who joined him in his travels and throughout decades of their life in New York. Hill went to the University of Oregon and graduated in 1947. Sure of his vocation as an artist, Hill headed for New York in the early days of the New York School. He and Allen set up their studio and Hill enrolled at the Brooklyn Museum School where legendary Max Beckman cut a dramatic figure with his theatrical style and his grand self-portraits.

It would be the quieter, younger American, John Ferren who had the most to offer Clinton Hill. Ferren had lived in Paris during the inter war years and knew the luminaries of the international art world: Brancusi; Leger; Miro; Mondrian; Pevsner; Picasso and many others. Moreover, Ferren knew the rising stars of the New York School and argued for the primary role of abstraction in the new postwar American art. Sensing that there was more to learn beyond the classroom, Clinton and Allen left for Paris in 1951 to immerse themselves in the great museum collections and to see the art and people of the first 20th century avant-garde. There they found a younger generation of international modernists akin to those in New York who were focusing upon strong emotions, vibrant color, physical scale and a personal poetry that had little to do with older ideas of artistic movements and manifestoes.

Clinton and Allen with Mark Rothko at Clinton Hill
exhibition New York, early 1950's

The G.I. Bill offered tuition assistance to American veterans like Clinton Hill who were returning to school. The casual atmosphere of the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere in Paris allowed them to learn the pleasures and perils of urban life. A season in Florence studying the Italian Renaissance added to their understanding of the deep history of western art. But Hill and Tran knew that the place of artistic innovation was New York and they returned to start their lives in a city becoming the center of worldwide power and influence.

Clinton Hill's first important works were made in the mid-1950s. Immediately, his architectonic sensibility led him toward and art that is constructed and carefully built. He had a wonderful way of uniting form and color which would persist throughout his long career. Hill's untitled painting made in 1955 has the long, linear tracks and calligraphic symbols that would be hallmarks of his style. It was Mark Rothko who helped Clinton Hill to find the title, "Ladders and Windows" for the newcomers second New York show at the Zabriskie Gallery in 1955.

Clinton Hill in India

A Fullbright Fellowship took Clinton Hill to India in 1956 where the land, the people, the colors and the ancient craft traditions of textile weaving and paper making left their indelible mark upon Hill's future path as an artist. Hill honored the primary role of paper in a brilliant group of closely related works featuring a central vertical "cut" into the plane then flanking it with slightly tilted wedges of color moving and swaying in a fluid, dynamic space. Similar yet also very different, they suggest a running person, a galloping horse or coursing rivers running on almost parallel tracks. Made in the 1960s, they have a minimalist structure but their evocative forms and rich color looks ahead to the abstract yet imagistic art of the 1980s. Strips of painted and dyed paper establish broad strokes of color while softly brushed areas air, light and even water. All of this is achieved with a combination of gestural strength and subtle tenderness.

In the 1970s, Clinton Hill liberated the edges and internal spaces of his work by cutting away the confining rectangular formats. He introduced fragments of everyday life: bits of newspaper; address labels; cardboard received in the mail and beautiful handmade papers either dyed or painted. Hill's everyday marvels took on new mysterious properties. They were specific and real yet also disconnected from their origins Clinton Hill's world was intensely human, full of emotion and careful kindness even as he acknowledged the hard edges and risks of modern life.

Clinton Hill taught at the City University of New York while enjoying celebrity and success as an exhibiting artist. He received two National Endowment for the Arts grants, one in 1976-77 and another in 1980-81. He entered the 1980s at the top of his artistic powers. The work grew to museum scale and Hill became adept and renowned for his handling of paper pulp. He infused it with spectacular color of great intensity and inner complexity.

Clinton and Allen in their loft in New York

Hill discovered a new range of materials when building and remodeling his and Allen's loft on Spring Street in Manhattan's SOHO district. He began to employ sheets of fiberglass, vinyl and wood, cutting into them, layering them and even using discarded construction fragments as found materials. His studio environment had something of the madcap and chaotic about it because he worked in series and loved to prompt chance encounters of visual elements. Brightly colored pieces of wood, canvas, vinyl and fiberglass clamored for attention while standing next to others just as compellingly beautiful. Alternating between hours of freewheeling improvisation and sober intellectual reflection, he let the inner drive of his personality work with strict boundaries of order and discipline.

By the early 1990s, Clinton Hill was literally drawing in real space with large pieces of hand painted wood. His large constructions portray speed, movement and intersection with a deft forcefulness achieved by many decades of artistic commitment.

Clinton Hill with his constructions, 1980's

Later in life, quite surprisingly, Hill returned to painting sometimes adding wooden elements to his canvases. His resonant and romantic "Summer Series" of 1998-2002 traces the passage of summer from the pastels of May to the russet tones of September. Jinket (2002) is a painting so structurally beautiful and intense in its calligraphy that it must be the work of an artist still in complete possession of his physical energy and his mature artistic imagination. And yet, he was gone in the next year, 2003, an event quite surprising to those who knew him as a personality who gave his abundant energy to his friends by virtue of his sincere interest in their lives and their dreams. Clinton Hill was an unforgettable man and a fully integrated personality as an artist. He had the color, the light, the animation and grace that characterizes his work. It stands for him through time and space, radiating the affirmative, wise and always surprising life force that was Clinton Hill.

Susan C. Larsen, Ph.D.