Illuminating the Fourth Dimension:
Henry Hillman, Jr.'s Glass

a catalogue essay by Richard Speer
Elizabeth Leach Gallery, Portland, OR


I know what the caged bird feels, alas...
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass
And the river flows like a stream of glass...

--from "Sympathy" by Paul Laurence Dunbar


             Since the early 1980s, Henry Hillman, Jr., has created glass sculptures that activate the senses and the imagination, exploiting glass’ polar capacities for limpid organicism and architectonic structure.  The works follow in the lineage of late 1960s/early 1970s minimalism, their highly reductivist geometries tempered by a voluptuous sense of color.  Fecund in their invention, impeccable in their execution, Hillman’s sculptures are united by an overarching preoccupation with verticality and the containment of luxuriant internal miasmas within unyielding external forms.  Paradoxically, what these works so readily yield in the bold immediacy of their presence, they conversely withhold in thematic content.  For all their solidity, they are wraiths, enigmas that do not readily give up their secrets—nor do we find clues in their pointedly matter-of-fact titles:  Green Wedge with Blue Middle...  Multicolored Ingot Spiral...  Amber, Blue Sections...  The artist himself is inclined to leave interpretive matters to the viewer rather than prescribe and delimit the works’ deeper meanings, an attitude that simultaneously liberates and stymies the viewer’s curiosity.  A look at the artist’s life and and artistic evolution are in order if we are to better understand where this body of work is coming from and where it has the ability to take us.

            The third of four children, Henry L. Hillman, Jr., was born in 1951 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  As a boy he loved to make things with his hands:  model cars, Erector Sets, sundry projects out of wood and other materials.  At the age of eight he was given a Kodak photo developing kit, which he immediately took a liking to, and from that tender age forward began shooting an average of a roll a day.  The passion for photography continued—he was lead photographer at his high school and later went on to shoot portraits, figure studies, fashion work, and abstract imagery in black and white.  Hillman hails from a family with a long-standing dedication to the arts.  For many years his father was on the board of the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh.  His mother is a devotee of art and antiques.  Both parents are avid collectors and have been active in arts philanthropy.  They exposed their children to visual art early on, toting them along to museums and giving them small paintings as Christmas and birthday presents.  Hillman’s youngest brother, William Talbot Hillman, went on to become a painter and photographer.  One of his sisters, Juliet Lea Hillman Simonds, has been active as a trustee of several important museums.  His other sister, Audrey Hillman Fisher, was for many years a fashion designer.  All four children have been active on numerous boards of directors that support the creative and performing arts.

For his part, Hillman branched out from his early interest in photography to an exploration of woodworking and metal work.  In college at the University of Vermont, as he recalls today, “I was studying business administration, but I spent more time in the wood shop!”  He also apprenticed at architecture and landscape architecture firms, concentrating on conceptual sketching and drafting.  After graduation he began designing commercial and residential buildings as principal of his real estate development company, which was to be his “day job” for the better part of a decade.

In the early 1970s, Hillman met a young glass artist just beginning to make a name for himself.  His name was Dale Chihuly.  Hillman was drawn to Chihuly’s work, and as the burgeoning studio glass movement took root, he began collecting the artist’s work and learning more about glass.  In 1975 Hillman moved to Oregon, and it was there, seven years later, that he met Bullseye Glass co-founder Dan Schwoerer, who taught Hillman how to blow glass.  Energized by the possibilities of the medium, Hillman opened a studio across the street from Bullseye’s Southeast Portland factory.

Of his shift from woodworking to glass, Hillman says:  “To me, going from wood to glass is a natural progression.  With wood you’re measuring things out, doing a lot of drawing and cutting things up.  With glass, it’s more immediate.  It either happens and works out, or it doesn’t, and then you start over.  Woodworking is intellectual and precise; glass feels like a dance.”

Through his association with Bullseye, the artist studied with and made art alongside renowned artists including Chihuly, Lino Tagliapietra, Dante Marioni, and Klaus Moje.  He enjoyed glass blowing but preferred casting, a technique he transitioned into during the mid-1980s.  “My mind works with bigger, more geometric images,” he says.  “I like the inside of the glass as well as the outside shape.  I think of casting as something that brings out another dimension.”  Indeed, in 1994, when he moved his studio to its current location in Northwest Portland, he christened the the space “Fourth Dimension Studios.”

            From the outset of his mature period as a glass caster, Hillman’s sculptures have exuded a confidence derived from equal parts rigor and glamour.  The artist’s history in architecture and building, as well as his love of flying (he has flown planes since his teens) inform the verticality of his cast-glass columns, which he sees as odes to the Greco-Roman post and lintel.  The works often spiral, with ingots gradually twisting as they ascend.  Sometimes the components are beveled, alternating directionality; sometimes they juxtapose colored and clear sections, or alternate colors in unanticipated patterns, or “paint” the glass’ interior with drizzled chromatic strings.  There are inserts and wedges, moon crater-like passages of chipped glass, and inclusions that refract to fantastical effect when seen through a bevel’s edge.

It is not insignificant that one of Hillman’s favorite 20th Century artists is the late painter and printmaker Sam Francis, whose exuberance with color knew no equal.  A born colorist, Hillman knows when to go for broke and when to hold back.  When he troops out a bracing cranberry, he is apt to counterbalance it with a calmative forest green; when he deploys a particularly brilliant blue, he is wont to deploy it monochromatically throughout the composition, granting the hue the autonomy to speak for itself.  On occasion he pulls out all the stops, capping a canary yellow column with thrilling cobalt or using scrumptious fucsia as an exclamation point atop a faceted emerald post.  The works live in the light:  Shades blanch and deepen, bubbles shimmer, inclusions glisten like cells under an electron microscope.  In their light play, they evoke the cool glamour of Dan Flavin; in their linearity, the stripe paintings of Gene Davis or Bridget Riley; in their inherent sense of engineering, the sculptures of Donald Judd or Sol LeWitt.  And yet the richly nuanced interior life of Hillman’s études saves them from minimalism’s noncommital flatness.  “I treat glass as a liquid,” he states.  “Keeping form on the outside allows the inside to flow and have a more organic movement.”

            In Hillman’s themes and variations on eternal forms we intuit many things:  the interaction of pristine exterior and chthonic interior, of perfection and happy accident.  We see the modus operandi of a photographer coming through in a different medium:  the freezing of a fluid moment in time and space—whether a photographic subject or the bubbles in a glass casting—via an artform that is ultimately static.  We see Hillman’s lifelong love of the water seeping through in the undulatory, undersea-like interiors of his works.  We see his passion for flying—an activity that allows one to break free from planar, Euclidean space and access a higher dimension—in the restless upward movement of his towers and the cloud-like strata that characterize opaque passages.

There is something else in the work, too, something beyond, which draws us back, finally, to Sam Francis, who during the Second World War was a pilot with the Army Air Corps.  In 1944, at the age of 21, Francis was conducting a routine training flight when a malfunction forced him to crash-land.  The impact caused severe spinal injuries, activated a case of spinal tuberculosis, and left him hospitalized for three years, some of that period in a full-body cast.  The art that Francis went on to make, with its gestural and chromatic freedom, may well have been some manner of defiance against the immobility of his long convalescence.  It is worth noting that at the age of 19, Henry Hillman was in a major automobile accident that left him with 75 broken bones and confined him to a wheelchair for a year.  Hillman and Francis, then—both aviators, both survivors of accidents at young ages that impaired mobility and left prodigious recuperative time for solitary reflection—share a restless energy in their treatments of space, as well as a compulsion to illuminate hidden inner worlds.  Francis was deeply involved in Jungian analysis, and while his abstractions extrovert themselves brightly on the surface, they harbor psychosexual symbols discernable only upon deeper inspection.  Likewise, Hillman’s immaculately smooth surfaces often give way on closer view to visceral kernels, granulomas, and yolks—arcane, perhaps archetypal, and above all opulently, sinisterly beautiful.  This is the contemporary quandary:  how to finesse the line between the gleaming 21st Century infrastructure around us and the seething animal drives within us.  Henry Hillman’s glass works offer no solutions, but they frame the dilemma with potency and elegance.


—Richard Speer is the author of the biography Matt Lamb: The Art of Success (John Wiley & Sons). He is a contributing critic at ARTnews, a contributing editor at Art Ltd., and visual arts critic at Willamette Week, the Pulitzer Prize-winning alternative weekly in Portland, Oregon.  He has written about cultural matters for Newsweek, The Los Angeles Times, Salon, and Opera News.