Speaking in Color:
The Art of Felrath Hines

Floyd Coleman, Ph.D
Howard University

Samuel Felrath Hines created works that had a compelling presence, achieved through exploration of complexities of color, space, composition, and design.  Like artists of his generation who used color and space as central elements to build their compositions, Hines, through his manipulations, achieved multiple levels of meaning that embodied modernist aesthetic qualities, privileged in architectural interiors and stained glass, allusions that are quite common in response to the abstract paintings of Hines. 1

Working primarily in an abstract manner from the mid-1950s forward, Hines created a body of work of extraordinary quality and originality. His abstractions synthesized a keen sensibility of an accomplished draughtsman with the poetry and inventive structure that linked his work to the American abstract tradition of Stuart Davis, Al Held, Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko.

Hines did not see abstract art as too personal, or too introspective, or too esoteric.  For him making art, crafting compositions that had the characteristics of complex 20th century modernist works occupied him totally.  He was committed to painting as a professional occupation.

From the mid-1950s forward, Hines produced a large body of abstract work.   Paintings such as Church (1950) show that his creativity was not limited by mimetic concerns.  Here he privileged an analytical-interpretative vision of the church, transforming the image of it into something that spoke more to the mind than to the eye.

In pieces like Midnight Garden (1991), it is clear that Hines had achieved a mastery of composition, color, space, and design.  The many times I visited Hines’s studio I never got tired of looking and re-looking at this work. I always felt that I was missing something, although I had carefully scrutinized this painting.  It is a construction of visual elegance that has a compelling narrative that never quite tells the end of the story.

In so many of his works, Hines takes what  appears to be  simple objects or subjects and produces works that speak to us in many ways.  They raise epistemological and axiological issues that reveal Hines’s strong intellectual interests as an artist.  For instance, in Image (1958) Hines brings us into the central part of the picture then presents equivocal shapes that suggest both proximate and distant space.  He uses a light, warm, neutral color to define the delimitations of the top and right sides of the painting.  He uses binary framing devices and also ambiguities with respect to the spatial definitions that are unique to him at this time in his career.

It is most revealing to compare Church (1950) with Grey Landscape (1965), both works have a mimetic basis, but the 1965 piece does so in a more poetic way. We see reference to landscape with the privileged horizontal axis of the painting, but, at the same time, he introduces within the visual field geometric shapes—particular the square—to show that this is artifice rather than nature.

Hines was fully aware of the expressive power of color.  He was so aware that color speaks to us in ways that only it can.  In so many of his works, Hines demonstrated this mastery.  He used color and space not in a routine manner, but with a heightened visual intelligence presented in works, such as the ones in this exhibition, that are completed with consummate skill. 

When asked if he was always a superb craftsman, Hines said: “I had this drive to do things well.” 2

Hines loved music.  He favored classical European music, particularly that of Gerhard Mahler, but he was also enamored with classical American music: jazz.  His favorite jazz musicians were Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis.  Hines responded to the freedom and creativity in their work, but also to the “consummate control” 3 in the compositions of these artists.

Hines was always concerned about ideas and how to express them.  Inherent in his thinking, his ruminations, no doubt were questions such as these: How can an artist organize and construct the space in ways to control how the viewer is to response to the composed image? How can color and space, composition, and design reveal an artist’s world view, his attitude toward the world? How can compositions reflect how an artist interrogates reality?  These questions and more are answered in the hundreds of works that Felrath Hines created from the time that he produced his most mature work of the 1950s until he died in 1993.


1 In 1984 at a conference in Washington, DC, E J Montgomery, then with Arts America, introduced me to Felrath Hines.  We talked briefly.  But after I moved to Washington in 1987 to chair the Howard University Department of Art, I had frequent contact with Hines. We often met on Saturdays in his studio in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland, we attended gallery and museum exhibitions, or he visited with me at Howard.  We met often until his unexpected passing in October of 1993.

2 May 12, 1993 interview with the artist.

3 Ibid.