An artist first and foremost, Felrath Hines, born in 1913, worked to create universal visual idioms from a place of complex personal experience. Though known to be “color blind” in his relationships with friends and acquaintances, Hines’s life in 20th-century American society was as vibrant as his ever-more-subtle works of art. Hines’s figurative and cubist-style artwork morphed into soft-edged organic abstracts as he grappled with hues in his chosen oil medium. The New York art world was small when he arrived there in the early 1960s, especially for African American artists, who were routinely marginalized by prestigious galleries and museums.
Hines’s fellow artist Romare Bearden invited him to join as a founding member of Spiral, a group of African American visual artists who initially met in response to the civil rights movement in the early 1960s. Several Spiral members attended the March on Washington and mounted their first and only group exhibition at their Christopher Street studio in 1965. Unconvinced that there existed styles or subjects that could be categorized as exclusively “black art,” Hines continued to pursue his abstract sensibility. His social life, including jazz clubs and art openings, led Hines to the 28th Street apartment of acquaintance Frank Neal, where such luminaries as James Baldwin, Harry Belafonte, Charles Sebree, and Billy Strayhorn gathered and discussed creative and social issues, as well as their careers and place in the dominant white world. In addition to his work as an artist, Hines became known for his impeccable conservation work and his accurate and sensitive in-painting, allowing him to open his own private conservation practice in 1964. His client list included the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and Miss Georgia O’Keeffe, who also became a loyal friend.
In 1972 he left NYC for Washington DC to become Chief Conservator of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery and, later, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, a job from which he retired in 1984. From that time to his death in 1993, he produced more paintings than during the rest of his career combined.