By Emily J. Weitz
The watercolors of the late Claus Hoie have captured the essence of East End life. From whaling and farming to quintessential scenes of East Hampton village, his work has been shown in museums in New York and around the world.
Closer to home, Hoie has a permanent exhibition at the East Hampton Historical Society’s Marine Museum in Amagansett, and several of his whaling pieces will be part of the John Jermain Memorial Library here in Sag Harbor when renovation and expansion of the historic library building is completed.
But for the last 30 years of his life, Hoie became more and more fascinated by a much smaller muse — the insect. For the first time ever, beginning this weekend a collection of his insect paintings will be on display at the East Hampton Historical Society’s Clinton Academy Museum on Main Street in East Hampton Village.
“This is a subject that first intrigued Claus in the 1970s,” explains Phyllis Braff, curator of the exhibit and a close friend of the late artist. “It was particularly intriguing to me that this was the theme he concentrated on in his last career years.”
She notes Hoie was always interested in scientific observation. As he observed whaling, he focused on details like logs and instruments on the ships. But the science he dove into with the insect series stemmed in a fascination with the Scandinavian entomologist Carolus Linneas.
“Linneas was the naturalist who codified all these species of insects,” says Braff. “Hoie was intrigued with the scientific approach and the codification. He was inspired by the Latin names, to turn them into a beautiful visual line with calligraphy.”
He also incorporated these words and names into the work in an artful way.
“Sometimes he’ll let the line drift off and describe a bee excreting wax,” says Braff. “It’s delightful to see these curving rhythms. The art has its origin in science.”
Perhaps the most immediately striking thing about Hoie’s works in this exhibition is the artist’s use of color. Sometimes the pieces are completely true to nature, and other times a fantastical color will evoke a totally different world.
“He approached the color with a sense of excitement, dread, anxiety, and torture,” says Braff. “He thought hard about what color would best express the fanciful mood he was seeking. Many of these were experiments, variations with the same color. Or you’ll see certain favorite insects repeated with different colors.”
Hoie also played with the background colors, sometimes using one or two shades to create a whole mood, and a whole setting. Perhaps a dark grey and a light grey meet to form a horizon, or an inky blue backdrop with a small white circle depicts a nighttime scene. At other times, the insect seems to be suspended in space, without any context.
“The background color can establish a whole environment for the creature,” says Braff, “a setting that the creature acts out on a stage… There are so many innuendos and gradations. Sometimes the color is solid, sometimes transparent.”
Some of the pieces on display show a technique where he used color blots: they almost look accidental, and he would transform these watery masses of color into characters.
“He used the liquidity of the color and let it have this sense of suggesting an insect,” says Braff. “There was a sensitivity to form — he would put down a bit of color as if he was going to discover a whole new world.”
Whether he was creating authentic representations of insects or inventing completely fabricated creatures, Hoie’s imagination was an integral part of his art.
“He would look at something and see other possibilities,” says Braff. “He might start with the real image, but he would see other things. He would see transformations.”
This ability to capture the possibility for change may be what made him a great artist.
“That’s a root of what artists do: seeing transformations,” says Braff. “Even at 95, he had this sense of childlike whimsy. He would whistle and sing and dance while he worked. There was this kind of ‘What if?’ All creative people ask that.”
The exhibition Claus Hoie: Real and Imaginary will be on view at the East Hampton Historical Society’s Clinton Academy, located at 151 Main Street in East Hampton, from June 1 through June 30. The opening reception will be this Saturday, June 1 from 4 to 6 pm. For more information please call 324-6850.