RISD professor’s posthumous exhibit full of color and mastery

Irving B. Haynes, former professor of Foundation Studies at the Rhode Island School of Design, epitomized the term “Renaissance man.” He was a war veteran, an architect, a talented athlete, a photographer and a jazz pianist. But first and foremost he was a painter.

Some of his last works before his death in August – grids of interlocking geometric shapes painted in a rainbow-shower of colors – are on display at RISD’s Industrial Design Department Gallery, in a new exhibition called “Irving B. Haynes: Paintings, 2001-2005″ sponsored by the Division of Foundation Studies.

Haynes studied light, texture, shape and line all his life, and was renowned for his color sense. This skill with color is immediately apparent in the exhibition’s paintings, which at first glance resemble Technicolor patchwork quilts. Upon looking closer, however, one can appreciate the subtle interplay between a rectangle painted the deep blue of a whirlpool and another painted as warmly maroon as a bull’s blood, or the way crimson and green triangles clash against each other in “Riot.”

As a painter, “Irving admired other painters whose idealistic search for precision often was a difficult one,” said Professor Thomas Lyon Mills, a faculty member at the RISD Division of Foundation Studies and a friend of Haynes’ for 20 years. “He loved Cezanne. … Cezanne’s color and rock-solid compositions that were at once flat and spatial are reminiscent of another favorite … the 14th-century Florentine Giotto.”

Haynes graduated from RISD in 1951 with a degree in painting. He established his own architectural firm, Haynes/De Boer Associates, in 1968 – a firm that, among other things, renovated the Maddock Alumni Center at Brown. He went on to have a distinguished career as a painter and architect for nearly half a century.

He began his career at RISD in 1973, teaching two- and three-dimensional design classes until his retirement in the spring of 2005. Plans for this exhibition began a few months before Haynes’ death Aug. 27.

Haynes’ interest in architecture is reflected in these paintings. Long brushstrokes enclosed in boxes slant from one side to the other, evoking buildings under construction, still cocooned in their scaffolding. The shapes on Haynes’ canvases reflect the gallery space itself, a room that seems to be an angular blueprint of an edifice waiting to be built. The gallery’s austere white walls effectively set off the spots of concentrated color hanging on them.

Just as Haynes’ interest in architecture manifests itself in his paintings, his work as a painter is apparent in his architectural endeavors. Many of these projects focused on restoration and preservation, where his most lasting legacy is his contribution of color.

Nightingale House on Benefit Street, Providence City Hall and Trinity Church in Newport all bear his firm’s thumbprint. Although Haynes’ choices were initially unpopular – a local newspaper described the palette selected for Trinity Church as resembling “rancid eggnog” – the color schemes he used for his buildings have stood the test of time.

At a reception held at the gallery, where friends and relations shared their memories of Haynes, a common thread uniting their accounts emerged: He was a man impossible to define simply. He had too many ideas, too many experiences, altogether too much to say.

Painting was a pursuit, however, that Haynes devoted himself to above everything else, and his devotion is a common thread through his works from his studies in Maine that reflect his love of nature to the work he produced shortly before his death. In this medium he managed to capture a few facets of his kaleidoscopic personality and fascinating life.

Haynes wrote in a statement for the exhibition’s catalogue that “a painting then, is a visual language which mediates between our experience in the real world (nature) and the synthetic world of two-dimensional illusion … (That) a painting is able to express and convey powerful emotions and thoughts remains a source of wonder to me, for which I shall be forever grateful.”

“Irving B. Haynes: Paintings, 2001-2005″ is on view through Oct. 21 at RISD’s Industrial Design Department Gallery.