Allen Hart's "Bestiary' at Dalet Art Gallery

Jesters, skeletons and mad queens

His animal studies are interesting, sometimes bizarre.
His animal studies are interesting, sometimes bizarre.

Allen M. Hart is a New York artist who deserves to be better known by Philadelphians. He exhibits here every few years, and this year he has a show at the Dalet Gallery through January 19th. It's called "Bestiary" because it mostly depicts animals. Ten large pieces appear the front of the gallery, done in a riot of reds, greens and blues.

Hart has been a working artist for as many years as I've been alive, so he's been around. He's an unreconstructed Expressionist, not because he likes the visual language of that school but because his emotions force him to be one. You can't look at Hart's fierce depiction of an owl about to pounce and not recognize an emotional link to the subject. Hart is that owl. That owl is Hart.

His animal studies are interesting, sometimes bizarre, but the real gems are kept in the gallery's back office. There you'll find a selection of Hart's artist's books. (I'm almost tempted to call them his sketchbooks, but Hart dislikes that term because each is a finished work.)

Each piece has a theme, and if we were able to see all of them together— an impossibility, since many are already lodged in museums and private collections— we would experience the artist's life, or at least the life of the artist's mind.

It's hard to describe these books without actually seeing one. They're handmade, and most are in unique bindings. I think they begin as pen-and-ink drawings with a running commentary, but then Hart works over the drawing in colors, producing a rather phantasmagoric stage for his jesters, skeletons and mad queens to romp on.

Hart's books testify to the power of Expressionist art. If they could be viewed as a whole and seen by a wider audience, they would be recognized as one of the great accomplishments of 20th Century American Art.♦

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