In December 1934 the young American artist Harry Holtzman traveled to France and, uninvited, popped by the studio of Dutch abstract artist Piet Mondrian to introduce himself. Instead of sending him away, Mondrian talked to him, beginning a lifelong friendship.
Four years later, with the war heating up, Holtzman helped Mondrian emigrate to New York City, bringing his groundbreaking abstractionism to America.
The exhibit of abstract, defiantly non-representational art is an unexpected choice for the place that is proud of its status as the "home of American impressionism." But curator Amy Kurtz Lansing said Holtzman fits right in at the museum.
"He had a home in Lyme. In the later stages of his career, when he tried to marry art and nature, he got the rocks that were the bases of his works from his home in Lyme," Kurtz Lansing said. "We see him very much a part of what was happening here creatively."
Holtzman not only created art, the exhibit explains, but also was a pioneer in the exhibition of abstract art in America.
"In 1936, he helped found American Abstract Artists, which was focused on how to exhibit abstract art in this country. Now, we think of contemporary art as abstract, but back then, contemporary art was thought of as American scene art, regionalist art. Abstract art was something people did in Europe," Kurtz Lansing said. "They were interested in identity validation. We wouldn't have had Jackson Pollock without this group, because it primed Americans to accept Americans doing this art."
The exhibit shows how Holtzman started and was influenced by his teachers and colleagues at the Art Students Leauge in New York, then moved toward the neoplasticism Mondrian pioneered: stark geometrical delineated boldly in black and colored with red, blue and yellow only.
"Neoplasticism was interested in the relationship of lines and colors, and black, white and gray, which were considered noncolors, and how they suggest space," Kurtz Lansing said. "The aim of neoplasticism was to reform the plastic arts, painting, sculpture and drawing, and make them more in keeping with modern life, without representation or sentiment."
Eventually Holtzman went his own way with neoplasticism, doing something Mondrian abhorred: using secondary colors, including orange and green.
"Mondrian didn't like green," Kurtz-Lansins said. "It was suggestive of nature."
About a one-minute drive down Lyme Street from the Florence Griswold is another assemblage of art that is dedicated, mostly, to abstraction.
Sculptor Gilbert Boro lives on a beautifully landscaped four-and-a-half-acre lot bordering the Lieutenant River. Boro has surrounded his home and studio with 78 sculptures, 57 of them by him and the rest by 14 visiting artists. Although the property is Boro's private home, where he lives with his wife, guests are welcome six days a week to park at the Lyme Academy next door and wander around the property to look at the artwork. Picnickers are welcome, too.
"I must have been a socialist when I was a child, because I have been fortunate to have earned money in my life, and I want to do this," Boro said. "I don't feel I have to do it, but I want to do it."
Boro studied sculpture at Duke University, then got an M.A. in architecture at Columbia. For decades, he worked as an architect in the Boston area. All the while, in his spare time, he made art.
In 2004, the Boros moved to Old Lyme. Boro designed his own house and set up the sculpture grounds and now makes art full-time.
"Wave forms are very instrumental in what I do. I've been sailing since I was a child," Boro said. "I want to show the experience of the wind and the ocean."
Boro said unlike the operators of many art spaces, he wants people to touch the work. He even wants children to climb on it. "The work is 3D. I get a kick out of it," he said.
The grounds are updated annually. Right now, other artists represented on the grounds are Richard Warrington, Gabriel Warren, Alvin Sher, David Smalley, Nick Santoro, Virgil Oertle, Bryan Gorneau, Conrad Levenson, Robert Meyer, Bo Gehring, Bill Harby, Fred and Judith Osborne and Gwen Basilica.
"HARRY HOLTZMAN AND AMERICAN ABSTRACTION" will be at the Florence Griswold Museum, 96 Lyme St. in Old Lyme, until Sunday, Jan. 26. Special hours and pricing apply during the run of the outdoor installation of "Wee Faerie Village in the Land of Oz." Until Sunday, Nov. 3, museum hours are Tuesday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $15, $14 seniors, $13 students, free to members and children younger than 12. Details: www.flogris.org.
GILBERT A. BORO SCULPTURE GROUNDS are at 80-1 Lyme St. in Old Lyme. Admission is free. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday. The indoor studio is open by appointment only, for safety reasons. Park at the Lyme Academy next door. Details: www.gilbertboro.com.