Hirsche commands cultural rainbow in ‘Purple Pop’

“Purple Pop” is an exhibition that seems to dance with brightness. Painter H. Lee Hirsche’s works pour out of their frames and correspond to one another, transcending stationary limits through bright, dominating colors, psychedelic patterns and strong, distinct lines that seem to cross and interact with one another throughout the entire space of the exhibition. The arrangement of the paintings in this space in the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) is charmingly deliberate: the portraits seem to look into one another like one big, idiosyncratic family that wishes to talk, move and perhaps even yell or sing a little bit.

“Blue Necklace,” a portrait of an African-American woman wearing a white shirt and large blue beads, faces a multi-colored “Double Still Life,” where pearl necklaces are juxtaposed with bright pink shades and other objects that seem to be the cross-section of multiple realities crossing in a dynamic, whirlpooling hallucination. Next to the “still life” is a photo-realist portrait called “Ostendorp Family.” The heads of all family members are painted next to one another with almost no space in between, as if they are not human beings, but merely series of faces that live a life of their own. At the same time, the realistic depiction of these faces almost makes one look down beyond the lower frame of the portrait and look for the bodies of the Ostendrops or at least envision them as extensions of their brightly-colored or black, somber heads.

On the opposite wall is “Winnie Huston,” a portrait of a black athlete dressed in a bright white and red T-shirt with a large number 11. Winnie had raised her arms above her head in triumph, and one can notice the dark spots under her armpits where sweat has soaked through the T-shirt. Next to her is another black woman, who looks anything but athletic: she is dressed in an elegant yellow robe and is sitting on a tall bar stool, in a portrait entitled “Yellow Slicker.” The portrait’s color is not just any yellow, but the brightest, densest yellow – the kind that emits more than light, but a fulsome, delicious sense of extravagance and confidence.

One could view the woman in yellow, the athlete Winnie and the woman with the blue necklace as three different but not disparate representations of womanhood, since the three women have the same hairstyles and similar facial features. Or, one can even be bolder and picture them sitting in a café and chattering away, each with the liveliness and the character of the basic color she wears: stylish enigmatic blue, extravagant yellow and energetic, triumphant red all on one wall.

The authoritative presence of basic colors is tamed by the abundance of white and black lines in the paintings on the neighboring wall, where the painting “Slacks” shows several bodies, dressed in black-and white striped pants with electric bright belts. The bodies are shown only up to the belt and the positions of the legs reveal that they are dancing. The curves of the thin black and white lines harmonize with another painting on the same wall, “Mrs. Linda Andre,” a portrait of a woman cycling into a space of bending black and yellow lines. The curves on the cyclist’s lavish pink dress enhance the intense sense of motion created by the background. These and other paintings interact with the exhibition’s space corners and lines and dominate it with the power of bright colors, intensifying a sense of whirling movement.

But where is the purple in the exhibition called “Purple Pop”? While Hirsche did not use much purple in these pieces, his connection with Williams College and the Purple Valley dates all the way back to 1956, when he came here to teach, laying the foundation of the College’s art department. Hirsche organized “Kite Day,” a day on which Williams students were supposed to design a kite and then fly it, watching it break or survive. Michael Glier, assistant professor of art and class of ’75, happens to be a former student of Hirsche’s, and was in charge of organizing “Purple Pop.” This collection of portraits painted in the late ’60s and the early ’70s functions as a nod to the photo-realist Vargas, who worked for “Playboy” magazine.

The portraits are a product of skillful and bold play with the language of color and line to produce images that seem astonishingly realistic and yet soaked with lively strangeness. Only with great difficulty could the viewers identify themselves with the men and women that smile at one another and at the world from these paintings. The brightness of their clothes and the inexorable dynamics of their gestures speak with the kind of sincerity that can only exist within the realm of art. Yet, the photographic realism of these images is demanding the same kind of sincerity on behalf of all viewers. Perhaps we all crave dressing in blue and yellow and riding bicycles through a space that molds and twists to fit nothing more than us.