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Martha Visser't Hooft

(1906-1994)

The Burchfield Penney Art Center is the institution of record for Martha Visser’t Hooft. Holdings include 35 works in a variety of media (19 paintings, 6 drawings, 10 prints), a portfolio of 82 sketches, and a comprehensive archive relating to her life’s work.

Martha Hamlin Visser’t Hooft’s family was deeply involved in the arts and sciences. Her father, Chauncey Jerome Hamlin, was one of Buffalo’s most influential civic leaders and planners, an attorney known for his activism in museums. As President of the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences, he was a major force behind building the Buffalo Museum of Science. Among many other achievements, he also served as president of the American Association of Museums and creator of the International Council of Museums. Her mother, Emily Gray Hamlin, was a social activist with interests that extended to the arts and philosophy. She was the first president of the Buffalo Chamber Music Society.

Martha studied art in Paris in the 1920s at the traditionally based Académie Julian, and explored for herself exciting new European developments, such as cubism and surrealism, Russian ballet, and modern music. Among the influential people she met in Paris was Boris Grigoriev, a Russian émigré artist. 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 Buffalo, Martha, her sister Mary, and her parents took a trip to Taos, New Mexico in 1928 to visit the important Buffalo-born patron Mabel Dodge Luhan and her husband, Pueblo Tony Lujan. The group rode on horseback to Blue Lake, a sacred Pueblo site. Martha visited on other occasions, meeting all the Taos artists, including Georgia O'Keeffe, Andrew Dasburg, and Frieda Lawrence. Mary eventually made Santa Fe her home. After travelling in the Southwest, Martha married Franciscus Visser’t Hooft, a Dutch chemist, in 1928.  She juggled raising a family of three children while continuing her art career, becoming one of the most highly regarded artists in the city.

Martha Visser’t Hooft was one of the founders of the Patteran Society, which was created as a progressive alternative to the Buffalo Society of Artists in 1933. Edna M. Lindemann and J. Benjamin Townsend organized a solo retrospective of her paintings and drawings for the then-named Charles Burchfield Center in 1973. When her work was included in a Patteran Society exhibition at the Center in 1975, the artist stated: “In my paintings I create situation and images beyond the realm of the possible.  I invite the mind and the eye into a totally new experience.”

Through her association with the Contemporary Arts Gallery in New York during the late 1940s and 1950s, her work was exhibited internationally. In 1991 the David Anderson Gallery in Buffalo produced a major retrospective on Martha Visser’t Hooft. To accompany the exhibition, an important, illustrated catalogue was produced by The Poetry/Rare Books Collection and The State University of New York at Buffalo, with essays by Robert J. Bertholf’ and Albert L. Michaels, and commentary by the artist. About her work the artist wrote: “Painting to me is creating a bridge from the invisible to the visible.” In Dr. Bertholf’s catalog essay, “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 appear 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.