Christopher Martin Hoff Remembered, the exhibition curated by Beth Sellars to honor the late Seattle painter who died suddenly at age 36 this spring, will be a treasure chest of paintings. Paintings of places you recognize: local alleys and intersections and construction cranes and graffiti and warehouses and trees and libraries halfway built. Paintings overlooking the destroyed World Trade Center site in 2003, where the artist got permission to work for a few months. Most of the paintings are majestic and mature. A few are early and unresolved, reaching. Some, sorrowfully, are only halfway finished. After Hoff died, his friends went to the Decorative Metal Arts building on Marginal Way where his uncompleted paintings were waiting for him to come back. The iron workers were devastated that the artist who had become like a coworker, hunched at his own station alongside them, was gone.
There will be 65 paintings in all at Bumbershoot, borrowed from 18 different collectors—the culmination of a massive gathering effort undertaken by Sellars along with the late artist's many friends and patrons. At all times during the weekend, rotating teams of the artist's friends will stand guard over the exhibition, protecting his objects and pallbearing his legacy—because this isn't just any painting exhibition. It's a memorial.
"I feel it's really important for people to get to know him and his work, and there are so many people who don't because he was too young," Sellars says.
Sellars lost her own husband when he was just 38. She was honored when Chris Weber of Bumbershoot invited her to organize the biggest planned retrospective for Hoff. (Linda Hodges Gallery hosted a show last month; Fountainhead Gallery in Queen Anne, where Hoff first exhibited in Seattle, will feature his early works starting September 6.)
In the summer of 2011, both Sellars and Hoff happened to take the four-day artist-led Long Walk across 40 miles of King County trails. Sellars found herself walking and talking with the friendly artist whose shows she'd attended and liked over the years. Hoff had moved to Seattle from his home state of Georgia in 2000. For a little while, he made his living painting concrete dioramas for the animals at the Woodland Park Zoo, but soon he lived on his painting alone.
"On the Long Walk, when we spent the night on the river in Duvall, after everybody had put their tents together, I walked down to the river just to see it," Sellars says. "There really wasn't anybody down there, everybody was up on the depot. I looked toward this beautiful sunset, and there was Christopher, sitting on this little tiny fold-up stool that he had, and he was doing a watercolor painting of the river with the bridge crossing over. It was such a neat image, and I had my camera with me, but I thought, 'No, that's a real invasion of privacy, I'm not going to take a picture of that'—but I kick myself now for not taking that image."
Written remembrances, an installation of the easels and palette and brushes he carried in his backpack, and photographs of him out in the urban environment flesh out the Bumbershoot exhibition. On the street, he'd stop to talk to anyone who came by, never complaining about being interrupted or losing the light, even though the conditions he was recording were constantly changing.
His paintings are plein air, realistic, precise, but they're warm and embodied, too, like they're speaking.
"It isn't just replicating what you see," Sellars explains. "I can only say it's edgy—it's not just ho-hum plein-air painting; we have lots of that. There was just something there that I feel engages you a whole lot more, and I think it's because he has put so much more of himself into it."
In a statement for his last exhibition at Linda Hodges in 2011, Hoff wrote:
When I was younger, I wanted to be an architect. As a boy, I spent hours creating drawings of fictional structures and sometimes even entire cities... According to the painter Hans Hofmann, the first line an artist puts on a surface isn't really the first, but the fifth. This is because the edges of the canvas are actually the first four. In a sense, the entire linear system of a work is predetermined before one even picks up a pencil or a brush.
...Buildings, roads, entire cities, though grid-like by design, are in fact fluid networks of overlapping aesthetic forms which redefine themselves as we experience them... The subtle curve of the water's edge echoed by a highway, the deep crimsons of rusting steel, the vibrations of violet and orange where a crane pierces the blanket of a dense gray sky, moments like these break through the burdensome mandates of utility and function. For me, the discovery of one of these elusive moments is like finding a piece of discarded, crumpled-up paper that when unfolded reveals a poem that concisely articulates what is most elemental about a location.
On a stormy day in 2001, a couple walking through Myrtle Edwards Park saw Hoff, introduced themselves, and struck up a conversation about the granary structures he was painting out across Elliott Bay. They returned to visit him a few times until one day he was gone. The weather had gotten better—it turned out he was staying away to wait for another turbulent sky so he could finish the scene. He eventually titled the piece Waiting, and the couple finally bought it. Later, the husband died. Now the wife is lending her dark, moody, beloved Waiting—and her story, of an image that tied her to her city and her family, and of the artist who brought them together—to Christopher Martin Hoff Remembered.