Perhaps the first thing that comes to mind when I think about John Heliker is Jack—as everybody called him—standing on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Jack and I would go there to look at paintings, and he almost always arrived before me. So as I hurried over from the 96th Street cross-town bus he would already be there on the steps overlooking Fifth Avenue in the morning sun, with that jaunty-elegant look of his. Of course he was smoking a cigarette. His long, handsome face, which brought to mind some cross between a Dutch seaman and a Chinese sage; the clear, light eyes; the almost boyish shock of hair; the goatee; the tweed overcoat; the scarf or bow tie—all of this made an impression that was both easy and strong, both playful and intense. Jack’s charm had depths, edges, angles. He was a man who obviously enjoyed his good looks, but he was not armored in them, he seemed instead to regard his looks as a stroke of luck that he could depend on to balance all the dark moods, all the crazy anxieties that he accepted as part of the artist’s life.
Jack was a man who believed that appearances have resonances. I felt that in his own face, I felt that in the way he regarded people, and I felt that in the way he kept coming back, year after year, to the Rembrandts and Corots in the Metropolitan. The room full of Corots in the European nineteenth-century paintings galleries was where Jack and I often ended up. Of course Jack shared Corot’s love of Italy; but it is not the Italian Corots that dominate at the Metropolitan, and what held Jack was how much Corot could do with so little—with a single figure or with a few houses and trees and a glimpse of water. Rembrandt, Corot, and Bonnard—artists who proceed intuitively, who explode the quotidian without violating its logic, and whose grand structures feel like unpredictable discoveries—they were the painters who meant the most to Jack.
Jack was a romantic in the old, hard-won, true sense of the term. Jack had the romantic’s sense of preparing oneself for the unforeseen. He believed in the will and the imagination, and that the will was what gave reality to the imagination—that, in other words, you could will into reality things that you had just barely imagined. This was not just an artistic principle with Jack, it was also a life principle. The life that he and Robert La Hotan shared and that so many of us were lucky to be a small part of, the wide circle of Jack’s friends, the support he gave to so many young artists—all of this was animated by the romantic idea of elective affinities, the idea that a person can invent the world that he lives in, that he can shape a community of sympathetic spirits. Jack was an only child, and perhaps elective affinities are something that only children have to believe in if they are going to be happy.
Jack and Bob La Hotan would always give a party after one or the other of them had an opening at the Kraushaar Gallery, and these parties were special events for everybody who came to their apartment on West End Avenue. Everybody was always so surprised and delighted at the variety of people and the sense that you had, even with people you barely knew, that we were all joined together in some broad, remarkable community. You felt that you were a part of some fascinating puzzle or collage, and that Jack and Bob’s parties were occasions when that puzzle or collage was being assembled. That sense of unexpected juxtapositions and unforeseen affinities made those parties very much New York events—the kind of events that you come to New York expecting but which the city does not necessarily supply all that often, for New York is not always the New York that we hoped it would be. Jack was very much a New Yorker in that he delighted in both the artistic solitude and the artistic solidarity that the city affords. But of course Maine was every bit as important to him, and much of the poetic essence of his work came from the summers that he and Bob spent in their house on Cranberry Isle.
I first met Jack in 1971, when, during my last year at Columbia College, I studied painting with him; he was, I believe, in his last year of teaching there. He had been born in Yonkers in 1909, so he was 62. He’d been exhibiting with the Kraushaar Gallery for decades and had had, in 1968, a retrospective at the Whitney. In the catalogue of the Whitney retrospective I read that “he dropped out of Gorton High School, Yonkers, in his third year to pursue his interest in art.” Although what I most remember from studying painting with Jack at Columbia were the stories that he’d tell, I am not sure that I knew that he had dropped out of high school, although I was aware that at a relatively young age he went to the Metropolitan every day to look at paintings. Certainly, one sensed that Jack, like many artists of his generation, had little use for academic degrees, and that has to have appealed to a lot of us when we came to know him in those tune-in-turn-on-drop-out days of the sixties and seventies. Here was a man who had dropped out of high school and turned on to art and look how well things had worked out for him.
At the Metropolitan in the twenties he had gotten to know Arshile Gorky, and they had apparently talked a great deal about Cezanne, Gauguin, and Manet. Jack studied at the Art Students League, with Kimon Nicolaides, Thomas Hart Benton, Boardman Robinson, and Kenneth Hayes Miller. Later, after World War II, there was the experience of Italy, where he spent some years and many, many summers. For an artist who had been young when modern art was hitting New York with full force, one of the great revelations of Italy was Baroque art.
Decades after he had first seen the Berninis in Rome Jack still registered a kind of joyous amazement at his being so profoundly moved by something that, at least initially, seemed to violate every high modern rule about form and function. But Jack was also a great admirer of the plainspoken power of early Christian and Romanesque art and architecture. He was rarely as passionate as when he described visiting some of the oldest churches in Rome. Jack’s qualities as a teacher were unusual, and those who studied with him at one of the many places he taught—which included, in addition to Columbia, the New York Studio School, the Art Students League, and the Parsons School of Design—still often these people that studied with him seem almost bemused by the at-an-angle impact that he could have. Of course there were things that he taught students about color and composition; he questioned you about how you handled a brush, or the size of your palette (he believed in big palettes—a large sheet of glass, with a wide variety of colors squeezed out all around its edges). But the essential thing that Jack communicated to students was something both strangely ineffable and absolutely matter-of-fact. As he told you stories about his early years or the people he had known or talked about the paintings and poems and places he loved, he gave you the sense of what it felt like to be an artist. This is a rare gift—rarer than one would imagine. Jack was an individualist who believed in a community of individualists.
To people who knew Jack casually he could seem airy and vague—a charmer whose feet were not really planted on the ground. But for anybody who got to know him better, he was the dreamer who had made the dream work for him—and who trusted that it could work for you, too. Of course Jack did practical things for his students; he found us our first jobs and wrote letters of recommendation. But there was something in the way that Jack lent a hand that made you feel that you were not networking or career building so much as you were finding your way into the life that you must live. Jack saw the life in art as a sort of experiment, and he loved it when others became a part of the experiment. The experiment was open-ended, it had many directions, which is probably why when I gave up painting to devote myself full time to writing, Jack did not feel that I had made a break with my past.
Jack’s painting was the center, the core, the essence of his experimental spirit. In his painting the complicated romantic union of the imagination and the will was expressed by giving sensibility a structure. Sensibility was imagination, structure was will, and in Jack’s paintings these competing forces maintain a restless, exciting, stirring union. Jack’s least interesting canvases are the ones that resolve all too neatly. His finest canvases are enigmatic and elusive. These paintings are studies in the almost-seen, the not-quite comprehended. They bewitch with their powers of suggestion. The edges of objects give out. Faces are often blurred. Jack does not make the non-specific specific so much as he finds the hidden logic of the non-specific. The not-quite there holds right there. Jack’s purest achievements have the quality of having been happened upon, but of course such surprises only come to those who are prepared to receive them.
The paintings of Jack’s that I love the most are a number of interiors in which the figures seem to be exhaled by an all-encompassing, blue-green atmosphere. Sometimes the figures are young men, sometimes the room is a studio, and these paintings, which were sometimes inspired by Jack’s friendships with artists a third his age are also in some way autobiographical. You look and you wonder. Who is this person? Who are these people? What is this place? You may even find yourself wondering: Who am I? Where am I? These are of course the questions that Rilke asks in the Duino Elegies, those poems that Jack loved. They are the questions that Jack kept asking of himself and of his friends, and like anybody who asks such questions, Jack could at times find himself to be a man in torment. But of course the questions also gave rise to the wonderful questioning images that are Jack’s paintings, and all the wondering brought Jack great joy, the joy that you felt when you spent a few hours with him—looking at the new paintings in his studio, or sitting among the Corots at the Metropolitan, or walking back from the Metropolitan through Central Park on an afternoon in early spring, when the delicate greens of new foliage seemed, like the thin washes of color on his canvases, a grammar full of possibilities.