"Breaking Wave" (Bermuda)
John H. Kaufmann
Canadian b. 1937
Signed and dated lower right: Kaufmann '15; and Breaking Wave South Shore Bermuda, 2015 on the reverse
Acrylic on canvas
Sight Size: 20 x 24 in. (50.8 x 60.96 cm.)
Framed: 27 x 31 in. (68.58 x 78.74 cm.)
JOHN HOLLIS KAUFMANN (b.1937) is a Canadian-born artist and architect who has lived and worked on the island of Bermuda since the age of twelve, forging an award-winning career painting seascapes, landscapes, and still-lifes, as well as designing important public structures, with his efforts receiving royal affirmation in 1999 when he was named as a recipient of the Queen’s Certificate and Badge of Honor for “both his innovative architecture and his renowned art greatly enriching Bermuda’s cultural landscape.” Among the island’s artistic community, he is consensually acknowledged to be one of Bermuda’s greatest living painters, with the noted local art historian Dr. Charles Zuill bestowing upon him the title of “the doyen of present-day Bermudian impressionist landscape painters.”
Kaufmann was born in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, in 1937, the son of the late Canadian surgeon Dr. Mark Kaufmann and his Bermudian wife, Jeannette Helena Roberts. Besides being blessed with an innate talent, Kaufmann realized at a very young age that he “loved to paint and draw,” with his first efforts being reproductions of Christmas cards and snow scenes intricately crafted on cigar-boxes. Initially his mother disapproved, wary of the mess that could be made with oil paints, but eventually she relented, and sent him to the Montreal Museum School for lessons with Arthur Lismer (1885-1969), an English emigre who was one of the original famed “Group of Seven” artists; the Group (also known as the Algonquin School), in existence from 1920 to 1933, played an instrumental role in establishing a national Canadian artistic identity through its expressionistic landscapes of the rugged Canadian (mostly Ontario) wilderness, and Lismer followed up this experience by establishing in Montreal one of the most successful children’s art programs in North America (in 1936 he set up school programs in South Africa). Kaufmann’s early development was also aided by Richard Jack (1866-1952), a painter of portraits, figure subjects, interiors, and landscapes, and, during World War l, Canada’s first official war artist. Born in Sunderland, County Durham, United Kingdom, Jack won a national scholarship to the Royal College of Art in 1886, where he won a gold medal and a traveling scholarship to the Academie Julian. He was awarded silver medals at both the 1900 Paris International Exhibition and the 1914 Carnegie International Exhibition in Pittsburgh, and painted well-received portraits of King George V, Queen Mary, King Alphonso of Spain, and various interiors at Buckingham Palace. He immigrated to Canada in the 1930s, where he continued to paint landscapes as well as portraits. Kaufmann described Jack as “a friend of the family,” and added, “I would go out and paint with him. He was really helpful to me.” Other artists who influenced Kaufmann during these formative years included the French masters Paul Cezanne (whom Kaufmann says “did something for me”) and Claude Monet, as well as Tom Thomson (1877-1917), a progenitor of the Canadian Group of Seven whose broad brush strokes and unusual self-crafted new colors were used to expressively capture the vibrant Canadian wilderness, leading to posthumous international acclaim following an early death. His oil painting, Unfinished Sketch, has been called by his biographer Harold Town “the first completely abstract work in Canadian art,” presaging the innovations of abstract expressionism. Kaufmann was also drawn to the work of Austrian artist Oscar Kokoschka (1886-1980), who was best known as a painter of intense expressionistic portraits and landscapes, in addition to his work as a humanistic poet and playwright. His tragically dark, often turbulent figurative paintings are marked by broad, colorful, and agitated brushstrokes, semi-abstract in nature and reflecting a deep emotional involvement of the artist with his subject. But of all the notable artists with whom the young Kaufmann came into contact or admired, perhaps it was the Hungarian-born modernist painter Herman Heimlich (1904-1986) who exercised the most influence on him. Heimlich was himself influenced by fauvism, cubism, and other European art movements of the day, and studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest, where he taught for several years upon graduating. Departing Budapest around 1928, he traveled and painted throughout Europe, the United States, and Canada before settling in Montreal, Quebec, in 1930; that same year, he took part in his first Canadian exhibition, a show held by the Exhibitions Association of the city of St. John, New Brunswick, at which he was awarded first prize. Primarily a figurative artist, he also illustrated children’s books and painted landscapes and murals, dividing his time between drawing, painting, and teaching. Recalling his time under Heimlich’s artistic tutelage, Kaufmann explained: “The first ten years of my life were predominantly spent in Montreal with many trips to the Laurentian Mountains. . . . In fact, we had a summer place in the mountains, and Herman Heimlich opened the door to painting the mountains. One of the first things I did with him was copy some of his paintings of the mountains, that was exciting . . . whether it was my age and stage, whether he was ready for me, or I was ready for him, he moved me from doing my little things to putting oil on canvas in a real painterly way. . . . He really moved me into the world of being a painter.” It was also during these childhood years in Montreal that Kaufmann began his lifelong love affair with Bermuda, albeit an ocean away. Laying the foundation for his relationship with the island were Bermuda’s own Tucker sisters, Ethel (1874-1962) and Kate (1879-1970), two pioneering artists and businesswomen whose iconic watercolors and postcards (based on their paintings) of the island earned them international fame. The sisters, who came of age during the late nineteenth century and were active during the first half of the twentieth, were the first female artists in Bermuda to achieve commercial success, fostering an independent, unconventional path that was strikingly different from the more traditional pursuits of nineteenth century upper-class white Bermudian women. In 1909 they opened the legendary Little Green Door Tea Garden at Barr’s Bay in Hamilton, which catered to not just the burgeoning tourism industry but also many visiting celebrities, including Mark Twain, Eugene O’Neill, and Rudyard Kipling. Two years later they opened the Little Green Shop on Queen Street, said to be the island’s first souvenir and gift store, where they sold their own original watercolours as well as paintings by other artists. Said Kaufmann: “In my early years during the war the paintings of Bermuda by the Tuckers, postcards and so on sent by my grandmother from Bermuda, were copied over and over, establishing my love for the island.” These “little sketches of watercolours that first caught my attention” gave rise to the eventuality of “a very emotionally-charged relationship with Bermuda,” which he first visited in 1946; a year later he executed his first painting of the island, John Smith’s Bay (which appeared in a retrospective of his work at the Bermuda National Gallery in 2007), and in 1949 his family moved to the island permanently, with the pre-teen Kaufmann making his first impression on the international art world that very year: in the course of his studies with the English painter and teacher Mabel Rainsford (1890-c.1963), whose own work took first prize in the Watercolour Landscapes category at the 1907 and 1924 Bermuda Agriculture Exhibitions and whose art-school was at one time rated third-best in the British Empire by the Royal Drawing Society in London, Kaufmann produced a painting that Rainsford deemed worthy of entering in a judged exhibition at the Royal Drawing Society; the painting, of a sailboat in Hamilton Harbour, won the Book Prize at the exhibition. But, according to Kaufmann, success at such a young age didn’t affect his development as an artist. “For some reason it didn’t seem to affect me,” he says. “It was just something inside of me that I had to get out. I sometimes think I worked in a vacuum developing my own approach without being very much aware of what was happening outside. It sounds strange, but I never thought of it. I’m sure it encouraged me (as did his parents and teachers) but I just painted . . . it was just something that continued to evolve.” His passion was such that, while a student at the Saltus Grammar School (which he attended following his studies at the Whitney Institute), Kaufmann convinced the headmaster that he “just wanted to paint,” so they permitted him to drop Latin (the only student to be granted such an exemption), and take his University of Cambridge Advanced Level Exam in Art, for which he earned a 'distinction.' But he was also prescient enough to see that the continued development of his skill at painting - which he explains was “basic to my being” - would be made that much more difficult if he came to depend on it for a firm financial footing. “By my early teens,” he explains, “I knew that I would have to find a more practical career that would allow me the freedom of expression and creativity for my painting without the pressure of having to sell. In that respect I never had to ‘succeed’ because that had a monetary meaning. Success was the internal satisfaction, hence the abstract . . . expressing a personal love, a trip to infinity.” Thus, the self-doubt that often accompanies the rocky path to artistic achievement never interfered with his progress. “Because I was painting as a hobby, (failure) never occurred to me,” he says. “You don’t think of failing at a hobby. A hobby is something you do because you love it and you like doing it. When I was given the opportunity to put paintings in an exhibition I just figured what happens would happen, and nice things happened.” When the opportunity arose, he decided to submit “a couple of paintings to the Society of Artists’ show at the Masonic Hall in ’54, when I was seventeen,” inducing a notation in the May 1954 issue of The Bermudian magazine citing him as “a new exhibitor of outstanding promise and not a little present achievement,” and a student in Society-sponsored classes. Also submitting work to this show was the painter and former banker Ben Shepardson, whose credits included exhibitions at New York’s Salmagundi Club and the National Academy of Design, and who was referenced in the February 1953 issue of The Bermudian as a painter whose “profound and moody oils and watercolours are illuminated by the fortunate blending of superb technical skill and powerful intellectual motivation.” Shepardson took a keen interest in Kaufmann’s work, and his mentorship had a pronounced effect on the rapidly budding artist: “I was just a kid,” Kaufmann recalls, “and he offered to teach me. He was good, he did some interesting paintings . . . he did an awful lot for me. A lot of what he taught me is still with me. I used some of his very words the other day when I was teaching a student.” Shepardson went as far as to contact Kaufmann’s father and suggest that, in light of his pupil’s talent, the family should consider enrolling him in the Art Students League in New York. Further consideration of this potential artistic track, however, was sidelined with Shepardson’s untimely death in 1954, though one of the paintings Kaufmann produced during this period was purchased by the renowned woodcut artist and painter Emile Antoine Verpilleux (who co-founded and served as the Society of Artists’ first president). “It was one of the first paintings I ever sold,” Kaufmann recollects. “Antoine paid 5 pounds for it.” Kaufmann’s progress - particularly at depicting the intricate, ever-changing nature of wave motion - was further enhanced by his association with Canadian artist Joseph Monk, whose work was exhibited at the newly formed Society of Arts (the result of a merger in 1956 between the Society of Artists and the Bermuda Art Association) from 1957 until at least as late as 1962, at which time the Royal Gazette newspaper called his submissions “perfect as usual.” Monk’s paintings in the 1959 show reportedly captured rough seas, foam, and spray very well, a complex, rarely-mastered variant of the seascape theme in which Kaufmann would come to excel; indeed, commenting on Kaufmann’s talent in this area, Bermudian art critic Andrew Trimingham would later say: “One can even sense the shimmer of fine salt spray that hangs in the atmosphere over our seashores.” Of Monk, Kaufmann recalls that, in Canada, he was known primarily “for doing almost calendar art: horses pulling wood in the winter, seascapes probably off the coast of Newfoundland or New Brunswick; he was my friend; I thought he was really good.”
Following the completion of his primary-school education in Bermuda, Kaufmann departed the island to attend McGill University in Montreal, arguably Canada’s preeminent institution of higher learning. There, he took up the study of Art and Design, with his primary instructor being the American-born Canadian modernist painter (and head of the University’s Fine Arts Department) John Lyman (1886-1967), whose broad international experience included painting trips to Bermuda in 1913-1914, and again in 1918. Lyman briefly studied architecture at the Royal College of Art in London, then went to Paris, where he first studied at the Academie Julian, meeting and establishing a friendship with the Canadian artist James Wilson Morrice, and then at the Academie Matisse; the contacts with both Morrice and Matisse were to become crucial to Lyman’s art - the two artists’ devotion to a pure art of color, line, and form, an art devoid of all anecdotal details and “non-artistic” concepts, would remain with Lyman for the rest of his life, though his initial attempts at introducing European modern art to Montreal were met with derision in 1913, forcing him to live as an “artistic exile” in Europe for many years. Ultimately, Canadian patrons of the arts became acclimated to modernism, allowing for Lyman’s eventual return as the first president of the Canadian Contemporary Arts Society, which organized exhibits of modern European art in Montreal, the first of which, titled “Art in Our Day” and featuring work by Kandinsky, Derain, and Modigliani, opened in May 1939. Kaufmann would himself come to adopt an approach to art in which he sought to remove what he terms the “mind-numbing” details from his work, details which prevented the viewer’s mind from being freed up to “drift across the canvas . . . away from just the scene to a continuing experience of the feeling beyond the canvas,” culminating in a journey toward what Kaufmann describes as “the timelessness . . . that infinity which reaches out to me and I try to express;” perhaps John Lyman expressed it similarly when he stated: “The real Canadian scene is in the consciousness of Canadian painters, whatever the object of their thought.” Following his departure from McGill, Kaufmann’s artistic education continued at Bard College at Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, where he studied for two years under the American painter and woodcut printmaker Louis Shanker (1903-1981), one of the earliest practitioners and proponents of the art of abstract-expressionism, who in 1936 became a founding member of the group known as the American Abstract Artists (AAA), which arose to foster and promote public understanding of abstract art. Shanker was one of the major American printmakers of the 1930s, and his abstract paintings, though often controversial (as was the movement they represented) were respected enough to be included in exhibitions at both the Whitney and Brooklyn Museums. His work remains popular and there is a continuing interest in it; in 1989, summing up Shanker’s career for a book on American abstraction, Virginia Mecklenburg wrote of “an animated expressionism that aims at a fundamental emotional structure,” and Shanker himself expressed the idea that “all of my work develops from natural forms. I have great respect for the forms of nature and an inherent need to express myself in relation to these forms.” Though not a practitioner of non-objective, purely abstract art, Kaufmann likens his own process to “the merging of natural elements with those within the human soul,” and his work, like that of his former professor’s, aims at connecting with his (and the viewer's) underlying emotions, beginning with these "natural elements" or “forms of nature” - examples of which Kaufmann lists as “the reflections, the clouds, morning mists, distant horizons, or tumbling waves onto the beach” - which Kaufmann hopes act as catalysts that unchain the viewer from the purely representational aspects of the canvas and open the door to the realm of free-associative thought. In the January 1955 issue of Life magazine, Louis Shanker was described as having “trained or influenced a generation of talented younger artists,” one of the best of whom, in Shanker’s eyes, being Kaufmann, of whom the eminent modernist painter and woodcut artist was moved to say “had a genius for landscapes.”
Kaufmann’s time at North American universities did not prevent him from submitting his increasingly highly-regarded paintings to exhibitions at the Society of Arts; the August 13th, 1958, edition of the Royal Gazette, in its review of a 1958 show at the Society, said that “Mr. John Kaufmann has maintained the quality shown in his last exhibition. . . . It is good to see a young artist with such talent and ability. The best work of his seen to date is on show. It is called Still Life. . . . He is also showing a landscape done on the banks of the Hudson River in New York state and a seascape near Castle Island. All three oils are good.” In the early summer of 1959 he participated, along with Ruth Fountain and Hereward Watlington, in a small-group show at the Society, where it was noted that, like his countryman Joseph Monk, Kaufmann liked to paint rough seascapes, with special mention accorded to his rendering of Darrell’s Slip, which was described as “excellent.” (ibid, June 3rd, 1959) That same year, an early indication of what was to become Kaufmann’s longstanding commitment to Bermuda’s cultural community was borne out by his participation in the island’s 350th Anniversary programs: As evidenced by Dr. Charles Zuill in his Curator’s Statement for Kaufmann’s 2007 retrospective at the Bermuda National Gallery, Kaufmann conceived the design for the production of This Island’s Mine at the Festival Theatre at Prospect, and the settings for the pageant My Heart Stays Here at Fort St. Catherine. The following year witnessed Kaufmann’s marriage to Roxana Outerbridge, and the couple, with her four children, took up residence at Kaufmann’s abode “Tranquillity” in Somerset, the former home of artist Clark Greenwood Voorhees. In 1961, Kaufmann selected the title for the “Design, Form, and Color” show at the Society of Arts, with the June 11th and 13th editions of the Royal Gazette stating that he deserved “top honors in the exhibition,” adding that his paintings “reveal great visual and emotional impact,” especially Spring Rain. By this time he was practicing as a professional architect and interior designer, having already, as early as 1957, created artist’s renderings for the well-known local architect C.E. Hinson Cooper. In 1966, in recognition of his rising status as one of Bermuda’s most prominent architects, he was appointed to the government’s Architectural Advisory Panel; additionally, he was a founding member of the Association of Bermuda Architects.
One of the most fulfilling aspects to Kaufmann’s career began in 1970, with his decision to become a part-time art teacher, eventually mentoring a group of seven students who met with him for instruction “a couple of times a week” at his studio at Tranquillity. In Kaufmann’s view, it was just a matter of “getting together with a few friends who came to me to help them sort out their paintings and get on with it . . . just a group of guys and gals who over the years have come and worked in the studio on a regular basis.” He goes on to say that “the happiest I’ve ever been is working with students or people that I’m teaching and seeing them come alive in my opinion . . . that’s been the most wonderful thing, sharing the happiness of people who I have been teaching on their completion of a painting that fulfills a dream.” The reality, irrespective of Kaufmann’s ever-present modesty, is that his tutelage, for which he has never charged, has been the takeoff point for a generation of many of Bermuda’s most accomplished artists, and that his “Somerset Atelier,” as it has come to be called, has arguably been the most important, if unofficial, art academy on the island, turning out such notable painters as Shirley James (his first student), the Society of Arts’ Grumbacher Award-winning Norma Louise Christensen, the late Susan Curtis (founder of Kaufmann’s longtime artistic home, The Windjammer Gallery), and many others. The group (including Kaufmann) held its well-received debut exhibition in 1973 at the Society of Arts; Kaufmann had successfully made his own solo debut at New York City’s Thomson Gallery a year earlier. The New York show, named for the Kaufmanns’ Bermuda home, “Tranquillity,” featured landscapes from Bermuda, Canada, Ireland, Austria, and Italy, and of the 36 paintings on exhibit, 20 were sold. Writing in the November 2nd, 1972, edition of Park East newspaper, columnist Betsy Powell said of the show: “The artist paints his exceptionally pleasant subject matter in a loose impressionist manner, emphasizing natural light and the way in which it affects whatever he is painting,” taking particular note of several efforts, including Deep Water, Irish Pines, Nasturtiums, and the “exceptionally fine” St. Marks Church. (Though it was his first solo effort, Kaufmann had previously displayed his work in New York City, in a group show at the Salmagundi Club, of which he was a member at that time, and a venue at which his friend and mentor Ben Shepardson had exhibited.) The following year included not only the group exhibition with his students, but also a solo show at a private club in St. Paul, Minnesota, and participation in the Spring Show at the Society of Arts, where his Somerset in Spring and St. Marks Church were among the featured items. The year 1973 also marked his first election to the Society of Arts’ governing body, on which he served for many years, at one point as its president. In 1974 he held a solo exhibition at the Hamma Galleries in Hamilton, Bermuda; titled “Bermudian Seascapes,” the show featured not only numerous Somerset-area views and beach scenes, but also two floral still-lifes and several landscapes, including two of the New Hampshire countryside. Reviewing the show for the June 28th, 1974, edition of the Royal Gazette, Marion Robb referenced Kaufmann’s aforementioned quest to travel beyond purely representational art when she wrote that he “paints Bermuda scenes in a softer way than do many other artists,” and that while this “more romantic treatment sometimes mutes the actual visual impact of cerulean skies and aquamarine waters as most people see or visualize them, it also makes one feel the moisture and elasticity of the embracing atmosphere, which adds a sort of third dimension to his canvases.” Augmenting this theme, Robb added that “the loosely-brushed floral pieces, less literal than the landscapes and seascapes, have a special charm, as if seen through an incompletely-adjusted telescope,” presciently observing that “pure water and pure cloud, focused on for their own sake and freed of distracting elements, make up some of the most dramatic paintings.” The following year Kaufmann returned to his native Montreal for a solo exhibition at the Galerie de L’Esprit; titled “Recent Paintings by John Kaufmann,” the show featured 35 oil paintings, mainly of the New England countryside near “Hamelin Farm,” the Kaufmanns’ second home in Colebrook, New Hampshire. Explaining the origin of their move to New Hampshire, Kaufmann recalls: “What happened is that after the one-man show in New York, I had a few bucks in my pocket; Roxana and I were driving up there and got hold of a book on New Hampshire real estate and saw that land was cheap where we wanted to be . . . also the kids were in Bishop’s College School (in Quebec), so we decided to buy land and subsequently design and build a cottage in the mountains. . . . It brought back the excitement and love I had as a youngster for open spaces and for the mountains.” A further selection of New Hampshire landscapes served as the primary focus of Kaufmann’s second solo exhibition at the Hamma Galleries, in 1977. The show, appropriately titled “The Mountains,” also included one South African scene. (“John was fascinated by the colors in South Africa,” Kaufmann’s wife Roxana had explained to E.J. Gordon of the Montreal Gazette during the exhibition at the Galerie L’Esprit.)
In 1981, Kaufmann’s solo show, “Shorelines,” ushered in his longstanding association with his student Susan Curtis’s recently-opened Windjammer Gallery in Hamilton, Bermuda, which Kaufmann cites as “a very important gallery, really the only commercial gallery going at the time, with the only other way of showing being the Bermuda Society of Arts.” The exhibition primarily offered 18 variant scenes of Bermuda’s coast, perhaps his best-known area of interest. As Kaufmann explained at the time in an interview with local writer Madeleine Andersson: “Much of my work is of the sea and the beaches. I have spent a lot of time getting to know the movement, the colouring of the ocean and the beaches, how the rocks are put together and the motion of the waves. I think I know its every move well, and that’s why so much of my work is inspired by this sort of scenery.” More recently, when asked what it is that has compelled him to make water a central motif in his art, he replied, “It’s timeless! It goes on and on and you can follow it out to infinity. It’s motion, it’s color . . . terrific.” The show was warmly praised, with one reviewer writing that Kaufmann “manages to bring alive the colour and beauty of the sea and beaches. He has succeeded in portraying its unique beauty in a totally individual yet impressionistic style by enhancing the gentle colours with strong light patterns which reflect, but don’t glare at the viewer. . . . Whether you are interested in art or not the show its a must. . . . To look at the paintings is like a new awakening on a crisp, cool, autumn morning.” Writing in the July 6th, 1981, edition of the Royal Gazette, Marion Robb said that the paintings “make an alluring invitation to Bermuda’s soft sands and brilliant seas. . . . The freshness of the Kaufmann oils is achieved by exercising just enough restraint to leave a ‘painterly,’ almost unfinished look. During his studies in Canada and the United States, this artist must have learned to heed the sound advice often given to art students about knowing when to stop wielding the brush.” The offerings on display included the eponymous Shorelines, Horseshoe Bay, Dunes-Horseshoe Bay, To Infinity, Silver Grey, Spring Morning, Early Morning, Beach Grass, Surf, Shadows, Boathouse, Approaching Storm, and the “richly rendered” Mangrove Bay. In 1985, several of Kaufmann’s large pink-tinged seascapes were on view in the summer show at Bermuda’s new Arts Centre at Dockyard. His next one-man show, “Both Worlds,” opened at the Windjammer Gallery in August 1987, featuring 26 new canvasses produced both in Bermuda and in New Hampshire (as well as a Middle Eastern painting called Red Door, Persian Gulf ). His six-year absence from centre-stage (though he had been painting and selling his works privately during this period) reflected the necessity of managing a round-the-clock schedule as an architect, designer, and family-man as well as artist. “I had to support myself with a full-time job-my architectural firm,” Kaufmann says by way of explanation for this complicated balancing act. “I had married Roxana and we had six children to bring up, along with dogs, cats, chickens, ponies, you name it, so the only time I could find to paint was in the studio in the evenings after supper. There I would utilize the photographs I had taken along the shores of Bermuda and the mountains of New Hampshire and even from my trips to Africa and Iran (the latter locale visited prior to the 1979 Revolution). Amongst them I would find the necessary material for the expression and direction that I wanted my paintings to take.” During interviews conducted for the “Both Worlds” show, Kaufmann elaborated on his stylistic direction and artistic goals; speaking with Michele Lawrence of the Mid-Ocean News, he described his work as “abstract impressionism,” stressing that, though he indeed captured areas of Bermuda and New Hampshire on his canvasses, his focus lay in representing the idea of the place rather than a strictly literal interpretation of what he saw. “I think very few of my paintings are scenes,” he admitted. “The idea of a ‘pretty scene’ doesn’t interest me as much as taking the elements of that scene and creating a whole new play of shape and colour. Obviously, a few ‘scenes’ creep in, but I think this time I’ve been more impressionistic than I was in my last show. . . . I want people to be involved in my work. I want them to have a strong emotional reaction, and that’s what I’m painting for.” Correspondingly, Marion Robb - in her review of the show in the August 5th, 1987, edition of the Royal Gazette - noted that “there are some signs of changes in style; on the one hand toward looseness and less definition, and on the other toward a bolder, more abstract approach.” Recently, Kaufmann has conveyed his belief that “if you take impressionism to the point of the shorthand that I use, then it becomes abstract. Impressionism dealt more with light and how the subject was treated in light; ‘abstract’ is sort of losing the subject and going beyond the so-called ‘mind-numbing’ detail. My definition of abstract impressionism is a much-looser impressionism.” According to Robb, this approach was evidenced in the “Both Worlds” show by two new depictions of Mangrove Bay - a rough sketch and a large finished canvas. Additionally, Robb pointed out that the price for an original painting by Kaufmann was up by about a third since his previous solo exhibition, reflecting both inflation as well as the prevailing opinion in Bermuda’s art community that Kaufmann, in Michelle Lawrence’s words, had become “one of Bermuda’s most highly-regarded oil painters.”
Following his “Celebration of Spring” show at the Windjammer in 1988, Kaufmann’s next major one-man event came in the fall of 1991, when the Windjammer mounted his famed “Promises” exhibition. Reviewing the show in the November 25th, 1991, edition of the Royal Gazette, Patricia Calnan posited the view that “this exhibition will surely confirm that Kaufmann is at the height of his powers.” The 20 oils on display consisted of a cross-section of New England and Bermudian scenes, with several singled out by Calnan for particular recognition: Morning Walk (“a scene of glittering, improbable beauty”); December Sunlight (“another superb snowscape”); Dockhouse (“a marvelous study of an old, traditional house”); the legendary Sea Scape (“There is an air of reverie in this painting that brings to mind Wordsworth’s ecstatic early descriptions of nature . . .”); the title painting Promises (“a powerful and brilliantly brushed work . . .”); Shadows; and Winter Light. Calnan also referenced the still-life Geraniums, adding that it “confirms that he is also a master of this often specialized department.” In an interview with Sean Dill for the November 22nd, 1991, edition of the Mid-Ocean News, Kaufmann expounded upon his pivotal artistic constructs: “Most of my paintings have a third dimension, a spirituality which the scene or object in the picture makes me feel. And I try to pass on those feelings to the viewer. I attempt to put across the magnificence of creation, the depth of beauty in the world, the ‘something’ beyond what you are looking at. . . . When I paint a scene, I want the viewer to look through it and turn their mind to what is beyond the landscape of the picture, to mentally traverse the road and travel out of frame to wherever their mind takes them. The figures are prominent in Promises, but I rarely put figures in my work because the eye tends to stop moving after it rests on a person.” But Kaufmann goes on to add that, in Promises, “the figures help to create tension. Their walk down an unseen road helps to convey the wealth of emotion I was feeling when I painted it,” underlining the fact that the picture's creation took place while Kaufmann was recovering from a serious medical ailment. For this reason, Promises holds deeply personal and special feelings for him.
In 1994, two years after the Bermuda National Gallery opened its doors, the museum mounted a retrospective of Kaufmann’s work. He had worked very hard at making the dream of the island possessing a national repository of its art a reality, having designed the museum’s physical facility at Hamilton’s City Hall, and serving as one of the institution’s founding trustees. The retrospective, titled “Visions of Tranquillity” and curated by the distinguished, award-winning photographer (and Kaufmann’s stepson) Graeme Outerbridge, consisted of a small grouping of Kaufmann’s works assembled from private collections in Bermuda. In her review of the show for the May 31st, 1994, edition of the Royal Gazette, Judith Wadson stated: “Bold impressionist images take viewers on a magical tour. Seascapes and vignettes of Bermuda together with several scenes from his home away from home - in northern New Hampshire - create a proverbial feast for the eyes. . . . The show is a tribute to excellence.” Of the Bermudian seascapes on view, Wadson concluded: “Each is magnificent, no matter their size.” Selections for the show included “the mesmerizing” To Infinity; “the beautifully executed” Cedar; “the compelling” Mangrove Bay-Dock; “the near-mystical” New Hampshire scene Spring Green, and Mid-May, described by Wadson as “a canvas that deserves to be savoured.” Andrew Trimingham, writing in the May 13, 1994, edition of the Mid-Ocean News, singled out Sea Change as “perhaps the grandest expression of the quintessential Kaufmann I have seen,” adding that “the subject has long intrigued the artist and occasionally he seems even to improve on nature, while never over-reaching.” Assessing Kaufmann's stature, Trimingham said that “(he) is generally regarded as Bermuda’s foremost landscape artist in oils, possibly Bermuda’s foremost artist - as they say - period! . . . Even though he is on the young side to fit the description, John Hollis Kaufmann must really be thought of as Bermuda’s reigning Old Master.” A year later, at the “Christmas in November” group show at the Windjammer Gallery, Trimingham had this to say about Kaufmann’s Glory of the Morning of the Wave: “Many try such a scene; few succeed. Mr. Kaufmann does. He combines movement, life, light, and drama in a brilliant and effective impression achieved with masterly brush strokes and a perfect understanding of the dynamics of wave movement.” In 1997, Kaufmann’s work appeared at the Windjammer’s “Contemporary Bermudian Impressionists Show,” where his Green Door was praised, and was on display again two years later, in the well-received Windjammer exhibition, “Miniatures for Christmas.” It was also in 1999 that Kaufmann was awarded the Queen’s Certificate and Badge of Honour, which he regards as one of his proudest moments. He received the award not just for his “renowned art,” but also for his “innovative architecture"; unbeknownst to many patrons of the arts who have admired Kaufmann’s paintings over the years, his career as an architect and designer led to his inventing one of the most important architectural innovations in recent memory: the so-called “K-Roof,” a synthetic roof made of acrylics that has replaced, in Bermuda as well as many other island locations, the old-style roofs that necessitated cutting stone out of the hillsides, and that performs better than traditional roofs because it is engineered to withstand high winds. Of the effort involved in producing this milestone achievement, Kaufmann recounts: “I realized in the late sixties that a number of people had tried to come up with a replacement for existing roofing systems, so I set out to see if something could work. There were a lot of failures at the beginning, the chemistry didn’t exist in some cases back then. It was just my dream. It took almost eight years to get to a point where it really worked well. I worked with Rohm and Haas (the well-known Philadelphia-based manufacturer of specialty chemicals), who supplied me with experimental resins. We set up a plant in Bermuda and went from there. It’s now the predominant system used in Bermuda; outside of the island it’s used in the West Indies, the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, and many other places. It’s been so long it’s now a standard thing.” Indeed, the downtown “skyline” of Hamilton, Bermuda, is now marked by the omnipresence of Kaufmann’s roofs. Moreover, acrylics also have played a prominent role in Kaufmann’s art; twenty years ago he switched from oil-based paint to acrylics, the primary reason being health concerns. “I had a golden retriever (his beloved Titian) that was always in my studio,” he explains. “There were hydrocarbons and turpentine and other stuff around, and the poor bugger died of cancer. That really upset me. My experience with industrial acrylics and their development in my roof systems gave me the confidence to make the change. I had been working with acrylics since the sixties and I realized how good the materials were, especially by the third or fourth generation. If they could withstand the rigors of being on a Bermuda roof, I figured they could certainly stand up on a canvas in a house. Besides, I had seen oil paintings develop cracks and discoloration. With acrylics you don’t get that, you don’t get that at all. . . . Apart from that, I haven’t really changed my technique, only refined it to better achieve ‘emotional infinity’ or that third dimension.” Enhancing his goal of attaining such a spiritual state of mind is at the heart of the work produced for his “Essential Elements” solo exhibition held in 2000 at the Windjammer Gallery; its 20 canvasses, consisting primarily of his renowned Bermuda seascapes but also including island landscapes as well as scenes of New England, provided Kaufmann with the opportunity to take the viewer beyond the pictorial surface in ways he deems more abstract than in previous shows. In his studio on the eve of the exhibition, while surveying the paintings to be displayed, he told Nancy Acton of the Royal Gazette: “This is the distillation of many years of painting in Bermuda and looking for deeper meanings. I am trying to get at the root of us - Where is your soul? There are touches of light and reflections, all of which are purposely done to try and get the viewer’s mind involved,” adding, “I am painting an idea, and the elements have to come to together in such a way as to illustrate the idea.” In an interview with Lilla Zuill on November 3rd, 2000, Kaufmann expanded upon his objectives: “If you sit and look at the ocean you can see that there is an eternity in the spaces. The whole idea is to capture this eternity, this is the picture content I am after rather than a ‘nice’ view of Horseshoe Bay, or what have you. Ultimately, I want to leave the viewer with something to contemplate, rather than reinforce a fixed image of a place. I have been moving towards this approach in painting over several years but I am more conscious now than I have ever been before. I am no longer concerned with depicting a scene but have a greater interest in capturing what I see, even if it might be philosophical, rather than purely visual.” Achieving this, at least in part, involved paring his paintings down to the basics, to the “essential elements,” as the show’s title suggests. More recently, he reflected upon the artistic maturity borne out by the “Essential Elements” exhibition: “As one becomes more proficient in applying paint to canvas the term “less is more” really comes into play. There’s an element of comfort that you develop over the years in knowing what I can do and what is required to make something work and therefore I don’t waste energy in doing something that is unnecessary. . . . In my opinion my most successful paintings are the ones where I have done the most preliminary work, sketches and analysis, so that I have been able to paint very quickly and freely, almost a shorthand development not rich in detail but in colour, movement, and brushwork. I want to stay away from the mind-numbing detail, and the way to do it is like a quick freehand, one stroke with a brush, with a ‘jiggle-jiggle.’ I’ve learned to do certain movements; Picasso did the same thing later on in his life. He would just do a sweep, a dot, and a bump, and there it was. If it becomes too detailed than I think I have lost the path to that other dimension that I want to convey. To that extent one could say that I am a ‘visual poet.’ A poetry of painting. The same way a poet takes words and creates a tableau with the words, I take colour and brushstrokes and put something together.” Ultimately, Kaufmann’s aim is to “lead the viewer into a world of peace, softness, and reflection, with barely recognizable forms of colour and position, uncluttered with man and man-made things which distract from the journey. It make take a number of paintings in a cycle to finally produce a work that achieves my goal but in the work-up the paintings produced are part of the examination and may be well received for many reasons.” A number of the paintings in the “Essential Elements” cycle remain particularly special to Kaufmann, who believes that they were “going in the right direction.” (Another favorite of his is the painting Groundswell.) Kaufmann’s move during this period to a freer, looser, and more abstract approach was influenced by the work of Chinese/French abstract-expressionist Zao-Wu-Ki (1920-2013), whose explosively-colored “big-bang” style canvasses have become some of the most sought after paintings in today’s art world, and are held in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum, and the Tate Modern. “I love his ‘space,’ ” Kaufmann says of him. “The paintings have a great sense of space to them. The brushwork and the application of paint is totally free and that is what really appeals to me.”
Kaufmann’s time spent with brush in hand represents but one part of the story: Though most artists procure their frames from commercial sources, by the time of the “Essential Elements” show Kaufmann was producing his own, meticulously employing the Old World methods that he learned from his long-time framers in New York City, the Matt Brothers, whose assistance played a vital role in his solo debut at the Thomson Gallery, but whose eventual retirement coincided with an astronomical increase in the cost of the framing process. Additionally, Kaufmann makes his own mattes, making him something of a master craftsman to go along with the title Susan Curtis bestowed upon him at this juncture in time, that of “the premier landscape painter on the island.” In a passage on the front cover of the invitation to the exhibition's opening, Kaufmann himself gave voice to the state of his artistic journey: “When you are young all things are possible: all vistas new and exciting. Perhaps now I paint their substance - memories, reflections. The merging of land, sky, and water is infinite, timeless - essential elements of our soul.”
In 2007, Kaufmann was honored with his second retrospective at the Bermuda National Gallery, making him the only artist to have his work twice recognized by the museum. “I was flabbergasted,” he told Nancy Acton of the Royal Gazette on the eve of the show’s opening. “It’s sort of fun, but I don’t like the spotlight on me. All these things people are saying - I have never particularly thought that is what I was.” The exhibition, titled “Essential Elements, 1947-2007” and curated by Dr. Charles Zuill, marked the occasion of Kaufmann’s 70th birthday. The show displayed thirty works and spanned sixty years of Kaufmann’s artistry in Bermuda (as well as several paintings of New Hampshire), beginning with the aforementioned John Smith’s Bay (1947), painted when he was just ten, and moving forward to 2007’s Church Bay Evening. In the May 3rd, 2007, edition of the Gazette, the Gallery’s director at the time, Laura Gorham, said that the Gallery was “delighted” to stage the second Kaufmann retrospective, adding that “his name is invariably invoked in discussions about Bermuda’s art history, and modern artists in particular, and he is justifiably acknowledged as one of Bermuda’s few true masters - and certainly one of its greatest living artists.” Concurring, Dr. Zuill, in his Curatorial Statement for the show, said that “when the history of Bermudian art is written, John Kaufmann’s art will be seen as an important step in the maturation of local painting. There is a qualitative leap from the tendency of our artists to make souvenir art to, in Kaufmann’s case, not only create something much finer but which has a completely different purpose. While dealing with the same subject matter, Kaufmann’s art is a more abstract rendering of the Bermuda landscape. Indeed, the artist sees his paintings as expressions of infinity.” The exhibition was accompanied by a soundtrack featuring a selection of the music he always listens to while painting; he maintains that the “movement in the music controls my brush and helps to free it up,” and that once the brush is in his hand he works very quickly, because that is what makes his work “freer” (though the physical act of painting is preceded by countless hours of painstaking preparation, involving digital photographs and computer applications). Kaufmann’s varied musical tastes range from classical to pop - he listened to Ravel and Shostakovich while readying for the “Essential Elements” exhibition in 2000 - and, in addition to the musical accompaniment, he ‘dances’ while painting, having taken Modern Dance in college. “It’s nice to move your feet and pick up the brush and paint,” he told Leah Furbert of the Bermuda Sun on May 11th, 2007, adding that “this retrospective leaves me speechless. I didn’t know I was 70. . . . Sixty years of painting, that’s over half a century. There’s been a lot of changes since then.” Recounting these ‘changes’ more recently, Kaufmann bittersweetly related that “the built environment has changed tremendously, but the seashore hasn’t, and that’s what attracts me. Bermuda is not the dreamy little island that I once knew, by any means. . . . It’s a different world. Change has come in the form of an increase in the population, and a change in the demographics of the population. The affluence has enabled people to build what they shouldn’t build, in my opinion. It’s the same as the rest of the world; everything’s gotten out of control, the values aren’t what they were.” Nevertheless, the widely-traveled Kaufmann, who has visited, and captured on canvas, a great many wondrous locales, still maintains a deep and reverential bond with Bermuda and its shoreline, and it is this enduring love for the island, as well as the instrumental role he played in the creation of the National Gallery, that forever casts these retrospectives as two of the most special and pride-inducing events of his career.
In recent years Kaufmann’s work has been exhibited in the “Springtime in Bermuda” shows at the Windjammer ll Gallery, with the notable Groundswell ll appearing in 2011 and the warmly-praised Beauty of the Lilies displayed in 2012. In 2013, the Kaufmanns, whose quiet work on behalf of the communities in which they live often goes unpublicized, were honored in Colebrook, New Hampshire, for their tireless efforts on behalf of the Tillotson Center, a community arts center and theater providing vital cultural services to the local population. In front of an unadvertised gathering that was hastily assembled so that it could take place while the Kaufmanns were in the area, the president of the Center’s Board of Directors, Rick Tillotson, said: “Besides volunteering his services for the long development period of the center, John, and his wife, Roxy, have made significant financial and time contributions to the development of the theater. With sincere appreciation for the inspiration, dedication, hard work and hard cash committed to making this a reality, the Tillotson Center Board of Directors voted to name this the Kaufmann Theater at the Tillotson Center.” As the audience appreciatively applauded their humble benefactors, Tillotson presented the couple with a temporary commemorative plaque, and added, “I am very proud to have the Kaufmann name forever associated with the Tillotson Center.”
It was in 2015 that Kaufmann’s much-anticipated recent work was next available for public view, in a two-man show at Bermuda’s Masterworks Museum with his friend and fellow artist, Dr. Peter Perinchief. The exhibition, titled “Different Strokes,” included Kaufmann’s paintings Nonesuch and Sunset at Breezes. Presently, Kaufmann’s work can be found in many important corporate and private collections, as well as at Camden House, which is the official residence of Bermuda’s Premier, and at Government House in Hamilton, the official residence of the Governor and of the Bermudian Head of State (currently Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth ll) when visiting Bermuda. Asked recently about what his plans for the future held, Kaufmann replied, “I am still on that same road and still exploring, trying to reach out to that infinite ‘something.’ ” Further queried as to what he hopes his artistic legacy will be, he responded: “I think the most important thing I have done is I sort of re-introduced painting to Bermuda in the sense of painters painting as opposed to ‘chocolate-box’ painters; Charles Zuill hit the nail on the head when he called me the ‘doyen’ of Bermudian painters, the ‘old man’ who brought a fresh look to collectors. People started to say ‘Do you have a Kaufmann?’ They wanted to have a Kaufmann because they felt it looked good in their living room or their dining room or whatever. . . . It was a major thing which hadn’t been the case in Bermuda for some time. I was not ‘touristy’; they were real serious paintings about the island. Ultimately, I would like to think that I have achieved my goal of having paintings that are recognized for the fact that they create an atmosphere and an emotional reaction to the viewer without shock.”
While recuperating from a serious medical condition in 2000, with his mind on the future and the possibility of his death, Kaufmann recalls “hearing snatches of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly and Robert Frost’s poem Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” the latter work containing the enduringly famous stanza: ‘the woods are lovely, dark and deep. / But I have promises to keep, / And miles to go before I sleep, / and miles to go before I sleep.’ Though Frost’s poetic landscape is fraught with uncertainty, this much is clear: John Hollis Kaufmann, a man who keeps his promises, will continue to unflinchingly tread down the road to infinity.
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