He wrapped landmarks in fabric. Years later, his art turned up in a dumpster.

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He wrapped landmarks in fabric. Years later, his art turned up in a dumpster.
Francis Hines with one of his installations at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York, in 1981. Hundreds of paintings by Hines were found in a dumpster in 2017 and will now be on display in an exhibition. Keith Meyers/The New York Times.

by Amanda Holpuch

NEW YORK, NY.- The gauze-wrapped building towered over New York City's East Village like a bandaged wound. It was May 1979 and the artist, Francis Hines, had covered an abandoned five-story tenement with 3,500 yards of white fabric, loosely sealing inside the littered drug needles and crumbled walls.

At the time, a friend of Hines said, the soft, billowing installation brought “life, beauty and possibility” to the East Village, then an emblem of civic neglect.

Hines earned a pinch of critical acclaim for wrapping this and other New York City structures, including the Washington Arch, in fabric, before he disappeared from the art world. He died in 2016 at 96.

His work was rediscovered a year later by Jared Whipple, a Connecticut man who found hundreds of Hines' paintings in a dumpster and who has since made it his mission to get Hines the attention he thinks the artist deserves.

In the past five years, Whipple, 40, has pored over Hines' journals, corresponded with the artist’s friends and relatives and dug up archival footage. His work as a self-taught Hines scholar will reach a milestone this week when some of the paintings found in the dumpster are exhibited for sale.

The solo exhibition opens Thursday at the Hollis Taggart gallery in Southport, Connecticut, and will be accompanied by a smaller presentation in New York City.

Hines' escape from obscurity began in September 2017, when Whipple was invited to a rundown barn by a friend who had been hired to clear it out and knew Whipple liked to salvage discarded material.

In a dumpster outside he found neat stacks of hundreds of canvases wrapped in heavy plastic and assumed it was the work of a hobbyist.

“As we started opening them up, that’s when we realized there might be something more to it,” Whipple said.

Whipple, a mechanic who also does building maintenance for churches, said he was drawn to the brightly colored depictions of smashed cars and car parts. He decided to haul the collection to his warehouse, where he spent more than a decade building an indoor skateboarding park.

Whipple learned the identity of the artist after finding one of the paintings signed with his full name, Francis Mattson Hines. An online search led Whipple to a book that Hines' wife, Sondra Hines, self-published about her husband’s most recognized work: the Washington Arch installation. In 1980, he used 8,000 yards of white polyester to wrap the arch as part of a fundraising campaign by New York University to restore the monument.

In a video that Whipple provided, a former New York Times arts reporter and critic, Grace Glueck, praised the installation.

“Well I think it’s very handsome and as I’ve said to you before, anything that covers up Washington Square Arch, which I’ve always thought was spectacularly ugly, I find attractive,” Glueck said.

Francis Hines, who worked as a commercial illustrator, continued to sculpt, paint and sketch after the momentous installation but failed to attract significant attention from gallerists.

For decades, he would ship his finished work to a barn in Watertown, Connecticut, that he rented for storage and had used as his main studio in the 1970s, Whipple said.

In the past decade or so, the owners of the barn repeatedly asked Hines to move the art because they wanted to sell the property.

He never did. Instead, he let the protected art pile up under dirt, grime and animal feces, leaving the project for another day — or another person. After Hines died, his family took the things that meant the most to them, leaving behind the trove that Whipple found.

Whipple has an insatiable appetite for information about the artist and has contacted his friends and associates, who have shared photos, video and letters. Whipple spent two years searching for a photographer, Ken Hellberg, who let him search his basement for 35 mm slides of Hines' work.

Rev. Alan Johnson, 78, who knew Hines for decades and considered him one of his closest friends, said that he was grateful for Whipple’s discovery and persistence.

Johnson was an official of the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries, which sponsored the East Village project in 1979, and was interviewed by the Times about it in 1979:

“Francis Hines has chosen a place of the city that’s in trouble and brought something of life, beauty and possibility to it,” Johnson said.

He and Hines would share their successes and sorrows over single malt scotch at the White Horse Tavern and take trips to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which Johnson said was one of the few places Hines would visit north of 14th Street in Manhattan. The artist always insisted that they visit only the African art wing.

“He would go down, look at artifacts, at these beautiful bowls and pictures and he would say ‘people with their hands made this and they made something that would be functional and useful,’” Johnson said.

Johnson said Sondra Hines, who died in 2013, would have appreciated that her husband’s work was gaining new recognition. In one catalog of his work, Francis Hines wrote a dedication to her: “Without her talents and devoted work much of what I am about would never see the light of day.”

Johnson said Whipple was an ideal guardian of his friend’s art because he approaches projects with a practical, hands-on style in keeping with Hines' philosophy that “art is solving problems.”

Jonathan Hines, Hines' son, said in a statement provided by Whipple that it was “fate” that a figure outside the art world discovered his father’s art and that it would not have happened if he had decided to keep the art, instead of throwing it away.

“The bottom line is that my father receive the recognition that he deserves,” Jonathan Hines said.

The new attention to Francis Hines' art has drawn comparisons to the works of Christo, the Bulgarian-born artist, who with his wife and collaborator, Jeanne-Claude, used fabric to cover and create structures including the Arc de Triomphe. Christo — who used only his first name — died in 2020.

The Connecticut gallery that will be exhibiting Hines' work starting this week specializes in bringing attention to lost and forgotten art. The gallery’s owner, Hollis Taggart, was introduced to the Hines collection by art historian Peter Hastings Falk.

Taggart said he was struck by how Hines used pastels on board, then wrapped the paintings with fabric, something he had not seen before.

“In today’s contemporary market, there is a big interest in alternative mediums, you see a lot of works that are made out of fabrics, ceramics, installations, wall hangings, things like that,” Taggart said. “What he was doing with fabric on paintings kind of fits what a lot of artists are doing today with using alternative mediums.”

Taggart said about 30 of Hines' pieces, including paintings, drawings and a sculpture, will be exhibited. He said prices would start at $5,000 to $8,000 for works on paper, $20,000 to $35,000 for the wrapped paintings and $55,000 for the sculpture.

The profit from the sales will go to Whipple, who said he planned to use most of the money to upgrade his warehouse in Waterbury, Connecticut, where he exhibits work by Hines and local artists.

The exhibition may look like the culmination of the Francis Hines project, but Whipple said it is just one more step forward in his mission to get recognition for the artist.

He is also working on a documentary about Hines and hopes to see the artist’s work exhibited in a major New York City museum.

Whipple and Johnson conceded that Hines had been a man of the moment and did not share concerns about his legacy.

In an interview with the Times in 1979, Hines made clear that he was not precious about his work, after someone set fire to the East Village installation, eating away a swath of the gauzy fabric.

“Whatever happens, happens,” Hines said. “It’s almost part of the process. Your work becomes subject to all kinds of things, including weather and vandalism.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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