For some significant artists, despite lifetimes focused upon expressing innovative and compelling visions, the sad truth is that their life’s work of may never come to be widely appreciated. Some even enjoyed fame for brief periods before becoming de-railed and ultimately marginalized or forgotten. Just a few of the common reasons include drugs and alcohol, psychoses, personality disorders, and agoraphobia. So undeniable is the quality and historical significance of their works that rectification — illuminating and reassessing these lives in art — is a moral imperative.
The case of Stewart Hitch reveals one collection to be a puzzle that may never be put together again. Even though his works are in twenty museums, including the National Gallery of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Broad Museum, his estate collection of 100 works has never been recovered, instead resting submerged in the depths of tragedy and controversy. In 1990, New York Times art critic Roberta Smith described Hitch as “one of the best underknown painters around.” In 2002 she wrote his obituary for the Times, explaining that just before Hitch died of liver cancer his last struggle was a futile attempt to recover his life’s work from a con man who placed it all in storage for safe-keeping. Smith alluded to the root of the problem being Hitch’s rough and tumble lifestyle — one that so idolized fellow Nebraskan Jackson Pollock that it was steeped in “painting energetically, womanizing rapaciously, and drinking ferociously.” His behavior notwithstanding, in his thirty years in New York Hitch developed “an engaging style that merged modernist geometric abstraction with the saturated stained colors of Color Field painting and infused the hybrid with a light streetwise insouciance. His natural touch and distinctive sense of color earned him a strong underground reputation.”1
Leslie Kaufman, another writer for New York Times, revealed the most thorough investigative reporting in “The Lost Legacy of Stewart Hitch.” She described Hitch as one who virtually lived at Fanelli’s Cafe on Prince Street. He “was known as ‘Lord of Fanelli's’ and could be found tossing back his morning eye-opener as early as 10 a.m.” If alcohol was Hitch’s dénouement, the ultimate tragedy has been that the mystery surrounding the whereabouts of his paintings has persisted.2
Born in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1940, Hitch moved to New York in 1968, shortly after receiving his MFA from the University of Nebraska. He arrived in SoHo with its many artists struggling as squatters in abandoned run-down buildings bounded by the area’s cobblestone streets. “In worshiping the avatar of abstract expressionism and the ultimate rule-breaker, Mr. Hitch was not alone,” wrote Kaufman. “Pollock was a romanticized celebrity of art students across the nation during the period that evolved into the tumultuous 1960s. When these art students graduated, they often descended on New York, seeking a foothold in the new bohemia then emerging in Lower Manhattan. Unable to afford even Greenwich Village with its crumbling brownstones and tenements, many ended up in the industrial wasteland south of Houston Street. Mr. Hitch was among them.” For many years Hitch was a squatter at 85 Mercer Street, and his primary source of income came from his carpentry skills, needed by artists and galleries renovating SoHo’s lofts. His notoriety caught the attention of the writers of the 1971 film “The Panic in Needle Park,” starring Al Pacino as a drug dealer and con man. In the opening scene Hitch’s character is a hard-drinking painter played by Raúl Juliá.
Hitch’s first break came in 1975 with a solo exhibition at the Robert Freidus Gallery. Stylistically, Hitch’s spirit was rooted in Abstract Expressionism and Color Field, two movements that had peaked fifteen years earlier but continued to exert their force in the broader visual vocabulary of painters. Pop Art and Op Art were also among the succession of new movements that had just faded away, but geometric abstraction and Minimalism were still evolving in a dialogue that now included graffiti’s leading artists, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. It was in this environment that Hitch emerged with his signature style, greatly influenced by Rock ‘n Roll music, Color Field, and graffiti — a multi-pointed star. A unique shape-as-subject, the strongest of these star paintings reveal dense layers of oil stick in bright primary colors bursting from their backgrounds.
In 1979 Barbara Rose included Hitch’s star paintings in her seminal exhibition “American Painting: The Eighties” at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery. Soon after the Museum of Modern Art included his work in its exhibition, “New Art II: Surfaces/Textures” (1981) he was given a solo at the Harm Bouckaert Gallery (1983). This was followed by a solo at the Jack Shainman Gallery (1987). During this period Hitch garnered prestigious grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Tiffany Foundation, and the Gottlieb Foundation (twice).
Tragically, alcohol steadily increased its grip and by the mid 1980s Hitch had been married and divorced three times to artist-wives. During the 1990s alcohol was in such command that it displaced the flow of accolades, serious critical recognition, and awards. A bright light shined posthumously, in 2015, when a sound measure of reappraisal came from the inclusion of his paintings in the traveling exhibition, “The Dorothy & Herbert Vogel Collection: 50 Works for 50 States.” Renowned as collectors of New York’s avant-garde, the Vogels had developed a close relationship with Hitch in the 1970s when they acquired more than a dozen works.
We delight in bringing to the forefront another truly innovative painter for whom serious critical recognition was won, lost, and finally recovered. We also join that group of historians and collectors who, hoping to add an even greater measure of appreciation, remain on the lookout for his stolen collection.
— Peter Hastings Falk, January 2017