Michael Hafftka’s Human Universe
By George Franklin

Hafftka’s work speaks to us directly, without words or “concepts”, both viscerally and spiritually. The work embodies subtle moral values born of sensitivity to human suffering or joy, yet is free of easy propaganda, provocation, or political cant. In his thirty years as a painter and printmaker, Michael Hafftka has produced a powerful body of work that, keeping faith with the tradition of Western art in surprising and innovative ways, reflects vital human concerns. Hafftka’s work is represented in the permanent collections of The Metropolitan Museum, The Museum Of Modern Art, The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Brooklyn Museum, and other museums. He has had one-man shows at numerous galleries in the U.S and abroad.

Many of Hafftka’s paintings portray figures in isolation, while many others depict figures in relation to each other or in the process of forming rudimentary communities. While frequently conveying the feeling and texture of suffering, they can also be humorous and playful. They can be tender and touching or frightening and overwhelming. Always, however, they employ a unique painterly skill, a skill that has become increasingly evident over the years.

In much of the work executed over the last year, themes of violence and spirituality, fragmentation and community, pain and the possibility of an ennobling response to pain are subtly counterpointed. Hafftka is a lifelong New Yorker, and was of course powerfully affected by last year’s events. His work is a response, though never merely a literal response, to what has moved him. “Battlefield”, for example, is a wrenching painting in which a mythic bull erupts into a dense and turbulent space that engulfs two human figures. The painting is an ambitious orchestration of complex contrasts. “Prayer”, on the other hand, is a quiet, harmonious painting, deploying a masterful use of color, in which a maternal figure with a delicately suggested cityscape at her back prays over a small group of citizens. The painting evokes an ideal sense of community that is an antidote to the disruption depicted in “Battlefield”.  In “Crouching Boy” a whorl of protective color seems to surround the solitary troubled figure of the boy. It is as though the artist himself felt instinctively moved to protect his creation, who could stand for any child or youth, and we, as viewers, are touched with a sense of human vulnerability and our need to care for one another. This painting seems poised midway between the threatening world of “Battlefield” and the restored community of “Prayer”. In these and other works in the show Hafftka’s commitment to affirm what the American poet Charles Olson has called “the human universe” are fully on display.

© George Franklin 2002

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