Margo Hoff (born 1910) died during the early morning hours of Sunday, August 17, 2008. She passed, in her sleep, in Manhattan. She was 98 years of age. In keeping with her wishes, she was cremated, and her ashes placed in Graceland Cemetery, in Chicago, Illinois. She also specified that there be no funeral service. Although those of us who knew her mourn her, more moving than her loss is the inspiring life she led. She was fearless, pursued her dreams, created great art and achieved great success. Hers was a long and amazing journey.
A memorial was held on the afternoon of January 17, 2009, in the Spartan 14th Street loft that served as her painting studio—and, in later years, her home—for many, many years. Her remembrance was well attended. Margo's daughter Mia Buehr was there, as was her son-in-law, Ken Vaughn. Also present were some of the many people whose lives she'd affected over the years, including colleagues, students, friends. Some of those present Margo had known for decades; some had known her more casually; some had never had the joy of meeting her in person, but nearly felt as though they had—through what they'd heard and read about her—and most of all, through her singular and astounding body of work.
Of course it would be impossible to capture here in words the energy and the heartfelt emotions of the memorial itself, but what follows are transcriptions of what various people came forward to say about Margo.
Margo's gallerist in Chicago, John Corbett (of Corbett vs. Dempsey gallery), had very much wanted to attend in person, but this proved impossible. He did provide the following overview of Margo-as-artist, which was read by Charles Hovland. John has graciously given permission for us to post his text on MargoHoff.com.
Margo Hoff—A Life in Art
by John Corbett (Copyright January, 2009; used by permission)
Margo Hoff was too expansive and bold a creative force to be adequately encapsulated. She was, from early in her life, a thoroughly international artist, both in reputation and in personal philosophy. Over the course of an astonishing seven decades of artistic production, Hoff was extremely well-traveled, exhibited extensively in many different kinds of contexts, and was celebrated in places far from her three most settled residences, Tulsa, Chicago, and Manhattan. And although her initial acclaim was earned as a painter, Hoff was in the most genuine sense a polyglot artist, working in a range of two-dimensional media including woodcut, lithography, casein, oil, watercolor, crayon, gouache, every variety of collage, textiles, and stained glass. To attempt a sweeping description of such a varied and multifarious person is certain to leave important things out, but the following biography touches on some of the key elements of Hoff’s life as an artist and the brilliant body of work she produced.
Perhaps the best way to understand Hoff’s artwork is to tie it directly to the unfolding of her personal life. After a youth spent as a member of a large family in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she was initially exposed to art, studied drawing, and began to imagine herself as an artist, Hoff settled in Chicago. It was in the Windy City that she came to artistic maturity and formulated an aesthetic identity. Indeed, for many of her collectors and friends, she remains a great Chicago artist, despite the fact that she eventually spent nearly half a century in New York. But her style as a figurative painter – and to some extent even her signature approach to abstraction – were formulated in the vibrant and highly stimulating environs of Chicago’s mid-century art scene, starting with her studies at the School of the Art Institute.
Hoff’s Chicago work was almost entirely figurative. Her approach to figuration was deeply influenced by the Mexican painters of the 1930s, whose work she encountered early and in person during trips to Mexico. Indeed, she and her husband George Buehr traveled south of the border numerous times, often together with artist colleagues Frank Vavruska, Eleanor Coen, and Max Kahn. In the early 1940s, when trips to Europe became increasingly difficult, many Chicago artists spent time gathering inspiration in South and Central America, and especially Mexico. The Mexican nationalists Rivera and Kahlo were important, but perhaps more key were the Mexican muralists, including Sigueros and Orozco. Unlike some of her contemporaries in Chicago, Hoff was not drawn to surrealism, preferring more prosaic subjects to the hysterical, off-beat and highly dramatic ones of Gertrude Abercrombie, Julia Thecla, Aaron Bohrod, Karl Priebe, and Ivan Albright. And where many of her generation – including Buehr – were influenced by the brushy expressionism promoted by Francis Chapin, Hoff preferred a clean, linear style. Where her earliest work was rich in volumes and modeling, she eventually began to incorporate more complex patterns and would develop a unique way of mixing flat, unmodulated areas, exchanging a naturalism more a more stylized kind of figuration. This may well have been impacted by her work as a printmaker, which was quite extensive in the ‘40s and ‘50s, especially in the tricky medium of woodblock, of which she was an absolute master. Some of her most emblematic images are her woodblock prints, often made in tiny editions, from this period.
At the transition point of this change from naturalism to stylization, in 1946, Hoff’s career experienced its first major boost when the Art Institute purchased her oil painting “Murder Mystery,” a glorious achievement in which the interplay of patterns on a blue rug and red blanket recall the influence of Matisse. This painting was hanging in the halls of the great museum for decades, and they still exhibit it from time to time; it remains in their permanent collection, along with several of Hoff’s works. (She was awarded four awards in the annual Chicago & Vicinity Exhibition alone, in ’45, ’46, ’50, and ’53, the latter being a first prize and “Logan award” for her panting “Stagefright,” which also came with a handsome $1000 cash award.) Hoff was extremely successful from this point on in her working life, cultivating a series of great relationships with galleries, exhibiting constantly in museums and galleries worldwide. The first, and most enduring, of her gallery relationships was with the young Chicago dealer Sally Fairweather and her Fairweather-Hardin Gallery, but over the years she would be represented by other important venues including Hadler Rodriguez and Betty Parsons.
With a move to New York in 1960, Hoff’s work changed significantly. More brightly colored and less earth-toned, the new work was also increasingly abstract, following a turn that had begun in Chicago with works like her triumphant “City Block,” a painting that strikes a remarkable balance between abstraction and representation in the form of an overhead view of a cityscape. She took the flatness of her patterned backgrounds and brought them forward, eliminating the figure and reveling in the interaction of hue, value and tone. The excitement of her new environment, and the increased opportunities offered by the higher-profile gallery world of New York, was a great stimulant to Hoff, and she was extremely prolific throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Evolving a highly personal version of post-cubist abstraction, in which the play of hyperactive color and geometric form creates energy and motion without relying on definite perspective, Hoff’s New York oeuvre is full of masterpieces, some giant and some miniscule. Her interest in the budding world of fiber arts drew her to use more disparate materials, including rubber and fabric, in her bright, magical collages. Just as her early works riffed on Matisse’s use of pattern, these pieces related to the French artist’s cut-outs. Her late works are radiant, joyous, sometimes decorative – although without any of the vapid connotations of that word – and completely enthralled with the power of the eye and the urgency of art. She was equally drawn to abstractions of nature and the man-made environment, creating equally memorable impressions of a winter path and excavation machines.
Although she was completely aware of the intricacies of the art world and current trends, Hoff was never interested in hopping the latest bandwagon and neither was she drawn to conceptual art or minimalism. She was always an image-maker, and she made work that vibrated, echoed, and expressed deep resonances. In this sense, she was a fearless and uninhibited artist, true only to her own vision. In a review of one of Hoff’s last Chicago exhibitions, in 1987, Ann Lee Morgan accurately wrote that her paintings and collages “implicitly rebuke a contentious art world that has no time to relish the life-affirming sensations of looking, seeing, and feeling.” Hoff’s work always took time for these activities, and it is best experienced with plenty of time for contemplation and enjoyment. We are fortunate to have Margo Hoff’s astonishing body of work as a testament to her continuous, emphatic affirmation of life.
Next, Elizabeth (Betts) Brown spoke, sharing from the oral history she with Margo in the mid-1990s (copyright 2009 by Elizabeth Brown, used by permission).
The following is a memorial tribute from an oral history of Margo Hoff. The excerpts were selected and arranged from interviews conducted by Betts Brown in 1997 over the space of several months. Betts Brown is the Director of Internships in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University.
Margo Hoff was born in Tulsa Oklahoma in 1910 and moved to Chicago after high school. Her career as an artist began with studies at the National Academy of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago. She also studied and taught at Hull House. She moved to NYC around 1960 where she lived until her death. Her impressive career spanned many decades, many galleries, and many museums. She showed at Fairweather Hardin Gallery in Chicago and Betty Parsons in New York, to name just two. Her paintings are owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago…. She did large scale murals for places like the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, to name just one. She had numerous visiting artist positions in the US: the Rhode Island School of Design, Drew University, St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana and many more. Outside the US, she was a visiting artist in Fort Portal, Uganda; Sao Paolo, Brazil; and in Changchun, Jilin, People's Republic of China.
I used to live one flight up across the hall and became friends with Margo. In 1997, I did an oral history with her, over several evenings and several glasses of wine. I’d like to read some of this. Like her paintings, it’s a collage. Only this is of fragments of a conversation that went on for months. She didn’t always like to talk about her life, her work or her influences and she never liked to talk about any dates whatsoever. But with enough time and wine we meandered through all of these.
I asked her if we should give the conversations a title and she said:
Margo: We could call it "A Stairwell Away. Where are you? A stairwell away."
Margo grew up in Tulsa Oklahoma and her first artistic endeavors were animals made out of the white clay.
Margo: [I started] Making lots of animals. I did animals best because that’s what was expected of me...running figures or eating figures or any other things...but they would recognize them and it was so important to do something that was approved of....That white clay was very much a part of the neighborhood and .I didn’t know how to play, … so I made these things to give them each one, each brother, each neighbor, each child, objects for them to play with… I was always fairly much outside, or I felt outside, under the house, under the steps, anyplace where I felt it was a better place.
I asked what inspired her to become an artist.
Margo: I have no idea... If I have to have a reason I would say that I wasn’t very socially inclined so to make a fence or a house or a flock of sheep for someone else gave me a kind of reason for making them. But I can’t remember the basic impulse. To get away from responsibility or to get into responsibility...I suppose a little of both...And then I met people, teachers first who understood me... Grade school and then high school. And they even sent me notes at home, wrote me notes to tell me things... Frank … [and] Giulietta Van der Lanken.…And she gave me a room to paint the wall .. whatever I wanted to paint and that was wonderful… she let me paint a mural around all the art rooms...
Her first job’s was at McGee’s Art Store in Tulsa, Oklahoma
Margo: Inid McGee, I owe her a lot, she took me to Chicago for the first time, first time I’d ever been away from home, from the family. [I was] fifteen or sixteen. Just finished [high school]. And then I was starting Tulsa University. But I was too restless, I’d been away from home once, I knew that it was out there somewhere...
… Jimmy James [was the framer at McGee’s Art Store] and yes, if they wanted colored mats or if they wanted special color on a frame I would always work with Jimmy James, he was always very nice to me, everyone else thought he was very rude and rough and alcoholic. Alcoholic he was...So [one night] he just stayed longer than usual, he had more to do [than usual] so when they have something that’s rolled up, [they open it with a knife] that’s the way they open it, there was nothing unusual about it. He didn’t tell me about it until the next morning when Inid came in because that was a very special order, so she wanted to see how it looked in its new frame and mat. He showed it to her, ooh, she was so furious… [The artist] was a well known [NY painter]…And there it was] In slices...I copied it... I even signed it, which I learned later was illegal, you can’t sign somebody else’s, but I signed it.
Betts: You could have gone to a jail. Margo Hoff began as a forger.
Margo left Tulsa and moving to Chicago with $70 of savings.
Margo: I got out of town fast enough... Inid went twice a year to the art fairs buying...[and we went to Chicago...And I was to go back [to Oklahoma]. But I really wanted to go to see what an art school was like, which I did….$70, that was a lot of money… Well the second day, I decided to look for a place to live. ... There was another school up there that interested me, it didn’t scare me so much as the Art Institute ….when I walked back... in the evening ... there was a club, a girls club. You could eat and sleep and I met other young people who were working, living...So I stayed there. I signed up and stayed there...[Edith] was on her way back...I found a small [art school] very near the club and I liked the head man so much. Hubert Ropp his name was… And he was directing it and he liked what I did…And he eventually became the head of the Chicago Art Institute… So I chose well.
She worked in a factory to support herself
Margo: And then I ran out of money...But it was interesting because within a few blocks of that area there were a lot of little hand-made factories. So I got a job... I made friends with a man named McAllister, Gordon McAllister... He liked me because he liked my drawings and I helped him because he couldn’t draw but he had wonderful ideas. McCallister...would get other jobs and he would always bring me in to do the drawing for it. I was the designer…They made little things.... Some screens, some small things….Well I started going to school at night... [At the] National Gallery. Then when I found out that Ropp was going to be the new head of the Art Institute, that’s when I started going there. I don’t know whether they have me listed on any [roster]...I don’t have any qualifications.
Margo also earned a living as part of a dance duo called Eduardo & Margo. They danced in small Hungarian clubs in Chicago.
Margo: Edward Svoren...He was Hungarian... Oh that was something McAllister did. ..There was a French girl who was in the same factory that I was telling you about. And Edward was…was going to ask her to be his dancing partner... so McAllister said, “Oh don’t do that, she’ll never succeed. There’s only one girl around here and that’s Hoff.” He used to call me Hoff. “So you better ask her, if you really want to work with somebody, she knows how to work.” So he did!.... He was Hungarian, and that’s where our connection was…. So we performed in small Hungarian clubs....[We danced] for several years, we did all of the foreign night clubs. I had a lot of beautiful costumes…We did tango.... and the waltz… we had two waltzes...and polka….and an Apache...Eduardo and Margo we [were] called... we would do different acts. I would jump, I would run...he would pick me up different ways and throw me....
Betts: Not too hard, I hope.
Margo: Oh! I still have a knee that doesn’t work…. The line of the stage wasn’t high enough and I said "Wait a minute, there must be a higher thing." So I climbed up [on the piano]... and turned around and jumped, and fell. I went farther than I thought I would, but it was a good leap, it’s just that it was a little longer and [I was] a little shorter, I was too short for the long leap so I hit one knee, I know, in winter I can tell if that’s the one that hurts first. So long ago! ...
She lived with her husband George Buehr and her daughter Mia near Hull House in Chicago.
Margo: I didn’t know [Jane Addams] well, everybody knew her... But she was interested in the art department, she thought it was a great language for that neighborhood,...which it was. Foreign neighborhood, Italian, Greek, I don’t know what else...George’s family was very elegant, they lived up in Roger’s Park. They had a big, big house, and we stayed there...looking for a place to live and decided on … a place over near Hull House and we found an apartment that was half …Italian, [and half] Greek and all kinds of restaurants in the neighborhood… they were all friendly and they could have been very rude, our invading their neighborhood, but they weren’t.
…[George and I ] lived in the Greek part of the house... And I would look out of my windows, it had a nice back porch… overlooking factories. Later I was glad to have chosen that because … Mia was born…I had a very elegant doctor who couldn’t believe we were living there. He was in Oak Park, not too far. Anyway when she was little she...had [a] little place out on the back porch where she would sleep or … where she would play …the Greek...neighbor had five children and they were all eager to take care of Mia because they would earn so much an hour and take her out playing in the vacant lot.
So that’s when I worked...at Hull House…And we did it for our own work. We were a little group. And then …we … taught the kids. First about … forming and working with the clay and then [glazing]...Neighborhood kids…they were quick, they learned quickly….
Margo was friends with Burr Tillstrom the creator of the puppet show “Kukla, Fran, and Ollie.”
Margo: many people didn’t know his name because he never appeared, except at the end when they took their bow. Fran was always visible, and chatty and…talked to the characters.
Betts: And you said that Burr used to try out the new acts with Mia, your daughter?...
Margo: Once he wanted to curl the witch’s hair. What was her name? Beulah Witch. The witch always wanted to be beautiful so ...He curled her hair. He and Mia were up in the bathroom and...Mia always wanted to have curly hair… So I remember the day that they made Beulah Witch’s curls. He used it. He used the idea.
Margo traveled all over the world long before it was easy or popular to do. For example she and George went to Europe 1939 and visited Holland, France, Italy, Greece and Yugoslavia where George did a study of Serbian frescos. She spent a summer painting in Mexico She and George lived an taught at the American University in Beirut, Lebanon. There were other extended stays as a visiting artist included Uganda, Brazil, and China as well as numerous places in the US.
Margo won a competition in Chicago and was awarded a show in Paris.
Margo: In Chicago there was an exhibition called Magnificent Mile so all of the artists put a work in, into the competition and then forgot about it and I went over [to Lebanon], not knowing until I got there that I had won the prize...-- a show at the Wildenstein Gallery in Paris... one of the men from Wildenstein...had been in Chicago as a juror in a show of some sort and he thought it was a more interesting place than people gave it credit for so he thought of the idea of... someone who worked in Chicago to have a show in Paris just to expand…Fairweather Hardin called me from Chicago to tell me that I had won the Paris Prize and there would be a big show in Chicago and would I come for that or there would be the one man show in Wildenstein in Paris would I go for that. And I had just gotten… [to Beirut] and was to start teaching the next week and I couldn’t very well walk out...So, I said I can’t come back… but I would go to Paris.
Betts:Oh what a difficult choice. (both laugh) Chicago or Paris?
Margo: I stayed in a little hotel in Paris and I went to the gallery every day… there was an opening, Sunday morning, morning opening, and it was a long day....
Betts: Wine in the morning would make the day go on and on.
Margo: [Laughter] We decided when the show was over, when the people went, we would go up to the top of Paris you know where the little church is? [Sacre Coeur]...we walked down, we had our fortunes told and we would stop for a snack or we would meet strange new people we liked the looks of and we’d go up and talk to them. It was a jumpy place [and] time...You can do that on Sunday morning after you’ve had so many wines to celebrate.
Betts:You can talk to anyone on any street, anywhere.
Margo: I was in [Beirut] for a year, George was there for two years...in the art department [at American University]... the most beautiful city I ever saw of all the cities I saw....we’d go to Egypt almost every weekend...it was that close. Get on a little plane pit ta...We’d take a trip down the river and go to some of the ruins, sphinx and other, stay over at little hotels…and then Sunday, take a little boat back to where we came from and then fly home…to work the next day...
Margo went by freighter to Haiti on her own to paint.
Margo: It was out of New York or out of Baltimore, Philadelphia, one of the places along here. Going to the island of Haiti. In a little cargo boat..., freighter....I’d never been there, I liked the things I’d heard about it, sounded like wonderful color. I met some nice people on the boat so we sort of knocked about together... in Cape Haitian, which is on the north and a little rooming house down by the sea for wet… lost people.
Margo was a visiting artist in Fort Portal, Uganda. She went with her two friends Sister Miriam and Sister Maria, both professors at St. Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Indiana.
Margo: It was the year... after I was artist in residence at St. Mary’s and I remember the day that they came down to talk to me about going to Uganda because sister Maria had received a letter about our going and they didn’t know whether to tell me that they’d already accepted…[in Uganda]… the students were so interested... At night we talked and read to them out of books and then they read it back to us…they learned a lot...Their homes were nearby but they lived at the school...[we would] Eat with them, sing with them. Maria would teach them musical instruments and they would teach her their songs. I wasn’t strong on the singing part….
It wasn’t easy teaching in Uganda with no art supplies.
Margo: I had to figure it out, a way to use whatever I could [to teach] them to their benefit...It took time...there was no paper, there was no canvas, the only things that were growing were banana trees and other kinds of trees. Did I say no paper?...First day I went, I couldn’t even give a description of the course … because I didn’t know it myself. So I went into the downtown market and figured out what to use and how to use it...we started with old newspapers and some kind of dye like shoe polish …and [a] white chalk kind of crayon...They loved it. They loved the art part of it...they never imagined they would be doing anything like that. And our studio was in an old building... [that had been in an earthquake] And cracked … all around...no one wanted to go into it...But it was the only place that we had where we could mix color, work on the floor, work on the wall, make a table...We said that it would give some notice if it were going to crash or [collapse]… So …we would work there until we had some evidence that it wasn’t safe. We worked outside too, on the grass, on the sand, clay, it was more clay than sand…
Margo: We went to the equator several times. We weren’t so far from there, actually.
[We would] take day trips mostly. Or several days and stay over in a little hotel.
Betts:Just for the fun of being on the equator?
Margo: Uh huh. And going to different villages.
Betts:And would you go to see particular sites you’d heard of...?
Margo: Oh just things like equators and there aren’t many of those…You throw yourself on the ground and somebody takes your picture when you’re [on] the equator but other than that it doesn’t have any meaning.
When she moved to New York she sublet Lenore Tawney’s space. They had been good friends in Chicago.
Margo: [Tawney] went into so many neighborhoods...before they...were artists neighborhoods...She discovered Spring Street..., she had a place there. I stayed there one summer… when she’d go to the country and I was living in a little hole somewhere....she was very generous, she let me work there when she was out of town...she was always a good friend.
Margo: Tawney and two or three other people had rented space on Coenties Slip… two stories, and the upper one, it had been a sail loft, they made sails there, which made a high balcony and that was where she worked...She was a weaver...she’s done so many things you can’t categorize her any longer…And then Agnes Martin who was a schoolteacher out west came to town and they all met somehow and she … became part of the group...
She spent a summer upstate and met Eleanor Roosevelt
Margo: Oh, great lady. Wonderful ideas…Very immense spirited, spiritual. I wonder how it would be if she were there now?
She had a long, fruitful, relationship with Fairweather Hardin Gallery in Chicago, they represented her for many decades and Sally Fairweather continued to represent her after the gallery closed.
Margo: Well you asked me a question how I went to Fairweather Hardin...Two people, one’s named Sally Fairweather and one is named Shirley Hardin. And they were partners...Thirty years. And they were wonderfully good, strong.
Margo: How did I go to Betty [Parsons]? Well, I always knew her gallery, we always knew each other socially... Yes, and she had a nice place, [on the North Shore of Long Island] square, glass, house, sort of tipped on one corner… she would invite me to come out which meant I got a ride which meant I would say yes and we’d take things out to eat, to drink and talk, just talk....Wonderful, simple kind of space.. and they would go out every weekend... But there she could see the land and the sea and she liked that …People loved her. She responds to almost everyone, you never know…
I asked her about artistic influences and quoted an article about her work, AHoff says she is influenced by almost anything except the work of other artists. >I’ve been influenced by rocks, weeds, views from airplanes, rivers, subways, forests, machines, sprouting corn, all kinds of light and almost anything red, to name a few.’@
Margo: It did. Not so much anymore. Getting more neutral or there just isn’t so much red in the world...Unless one wears it. But when he [a neighbor] asked to borrow a red paint when I said what kind he was so surprised...that there were lots of reds. So I went through and I didn’t have as many as I thought, four or five, purple into red, a lot of violet reds, and a lot of orange reds, red into orange, only its not called orange, its called vermillion...
Margo: I always had in my pocket a little book… on a street car ride or subway or anything, party. You get wonderful images just by a little action of a line, almost anyplace has images...
Betts:Its a way of taking what is special in a day and making note of it…a sort of visual diary...with a little seed of an idea and then the painting goes off in one direction.
Margo: Or reverse, or a little piece of the drawing becomes the whole big thing, reverse of what you said.
Her large scale murals included the Delaware East Building and Wylers Children’s Hospital in Chicago, the Mayo Clinic in Rochester Minnesota and the the New Government Building, Plattsburg, NY .
Margo: The [mural] up in [Plattsburgh]...was a competition [open to people living in New York]….The scale of the thing is the interesting part….I wasn’t afraid of it and that’s the part everybody thought, AOh they’re so big,@ …
… And I had to research that because I knew nothing about it… That’s the way with murals. You do have to find out more and more about the place it is, why is it there? Why did they have it in a state house?... One man who was interested in the whole thing, somehow a member of some group in NY State found out that I was going to do and he thought AOh you have to go up and fly over it, its wonderful, that.@and I thought that might be a good idea, so I did... Good man, good plan, little plane and then it came out. [in the mural] Just what was there came out. Not me, not him…And that’s all you could see, it was true, that was all you could see…They all exist but in a different plane, a different level, a different reality I suppose.
I said that her mural was like a combination of a view a plane and then from a microscope and then from outer space. If you take a real object and you look at it in these different ways it becomes almost abstract. Or even what it is to look at an object through a kaleidoscope...
Margo: The one in Chicago with all the houses…worked very well… each [painting] was a home, a house for living in...I put the highways around Chicago so it would join it all together...So each house was a separate entity…That was my idea...and I think it was right. It was true.
I asked her about her move toward abstraction.
Margo: That’s a hard one...But go ahead, lets see where it ends… So it is a grey day. Grey all day. Yesterday we had a half grey and half yellow day...I don’t know where to begin to answer an abstract question...Well you see, I don’t think I was aware of it. Of stopping figures or starting figures. I think a work has to become part of both...it doesn’t have to have figures in....Sometimes if I were drawing a baby in a crib, which I have a whole series of, which came first, there was the baby, it had to be put somewhere, or the baby was in the crib. I remember one of the first ones of Mia sleeping, she always slept like this, and then when she was asleep in her little bed, it was both, figure and almost an architectural thing. Rug, patterned rug…I would watch her and draw her. Or George would stand in a room talking on the telephone with this hand and his hand up like this against the part of the door he became part of the action of the work.
I made the mistake of asking her what she tried to capture in her paintings and the colors she used.
Margo: I can’t answer that. Color is an ingredient, I don’t think its something you go out and capture.
…I don’t think just color has an abstract message of itself. Each color you use has a reason for being there and it may be very different from the reason you used it last time...It goes with heat and cold….Sometimes [light] can have a great deal to do with it and sometimes it hasn’t. ..Movement isn’t always this way or this way. I don’t know what movement is...On grey days such as this you can’t be sure…At night when everything is dark, you turn off the...inside lights, and then you look and you can get so much action and just, see already we’re starting down there with, see the light goes on and off, it might be turning it, might be jumping, it might be identifying the bushes, or whatever they are, or it comes from one place and goes to one place. It has a life of its own. And this, out of this one window, you can see so many lights alive...It has a life of its own, it just has.
Margo: If that were trees out there, they don’t know why they’re going like this, they just do it.
Betts:Do you think that’s our lives?
Margo: One fragment after another...Put them all together you’ve got a life. ..Pieces of life.
Betts: Little bits, like a mosaic…Somehow its an image but if you get too close then it fades....
If you stand back they all fit together in an image.
Margo: You see the unity of it.
Gordon Wallace then spoke, from the perspective of Margo as friend, and what this singular friendship had meant to him.
When I called Margo’s friend Sister Miriam and told her Margo had died, one of the things she said was, “You know, this is the EASY part.”
I said, “What’s the HARD part?”
“MISSING her,” she said. And she was right.
Somehow, each time I sat down to write something about Margo, it seemed to end up being all about me. But I guess that makes sense, because things tend to come down to what impact a person had on one’s own life.
When I was 11, I went to live with a maiden aunt in Nebraska. This meant hellfire church services 4 times a week, plus revival meetings. Contrary to my Aunt’s hoped-for god-fearing results, what I took away from all this fundamentalist churching, was an everlasting distrust of all things religious. So when thinking about Margo—and a scripture came to mind—no one could have been more horrified than I.
This comes from the Authorized King James Bible of 1611, which my crackerbox church stubbornly clung to. Or as the old lady in the back pew said—with glistening eyes, “If the King James version of the Bible was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for me!”
The following text is from the book of John, Chapter 14, Verse 2. As is traditionally done when citing scriptures, I will take it OUT of context and use it entirely to suit my own purposes. It reads, in part: “In my father’s house are many mansions.”
Now, the longer I knew Margo, and the more I came to learn about her over the years, the more I kept rediscovering how LITTLE I’d known of her vast life, and how she’d made use of it. And to this very day, she continues to astound me.
I first met Margo in 1983. My then-boyfriend Rob and I had moved into the space immediately below this one. One afternoon I was unlocking my door when I sensed someone watching me. I turned to look, and halfway up the stairs to the next landing, this extraordinary person stood gripping the banister—and absolutely staring me down. It was like a moment in a play, when the stage directions call for the characters to stand frozen-in-time, for some dramatic effect. Neither of us smiled, neither of us said a word. Then, after a time, we silently turned back to what we’d been doing. I opened my door and she continued up the stairs. Years later I would say to people, “When Margo and I first met, we regarded each other skeptically.”
Somehow I learned my neighbor was an artist. “Oh, how nice,” I thought. “She paints things.” Then that Christmastime there was, by chance, an envelope in the mailbox from the Metropolitan Museum, promoting sales of their annual Christmas card. “You know, I kinda think maybe Margo’s the real deal,” Rob said, handing it to me. The front of the card was a painting from their collection, credited to Margo Hoff. Color me impressed. Many years later I shared this tender tale of discovery with Margo. Her eyes went stony. “They never gave me a DIME for that,” she said.
Margo started coming to our parties, and we got to know each other. She’d always turn up in something striking and original, with the most intricate, interesting jewelry. Her gray hair would be combed back simply, her eyes engaged and shining behind the heavy black-rimmed glasses she always wore, and her lipstick fabulously red.
Ten years into our friendship, I went to live in Moscow for a year, and returned alone. When Margo asked me what RUSSIA was like, I said, “It’s a wonderful place to get divorced.”
While I was away Betts had sublet my loft, and shortly after I returned she took a loft of her own on the 5th floor. The three of us became closer. We were always in each other’s lofts, talking, telling stories, laughing, having dinners and parties. But mainly just drinking shocking amounts of wine.
Then I met a boy—and fell in love. In that order. And after a respectable amount of time had passed, he moved in. John and Margo took to each other from the get-go. Betts adopted Anna Jing—a match made in heaven—and brought her home from China.
Here’s the thing. There’s the family you’re born to, and then there’s that additional family you build for yourself. I think this describes how we came to feel about each other.
Margo taught me a great deal. Sometimes through things she’d say, but mostly by who she was. She taught me a lot about living, and later about the journey one undertakes when growing old. And then in the wee hours of a summer Sunday morning, at the age of 98, she slipped away in her sleep.
That morning, I accompanied Margo down in the elevator, for the last time. I remember being grateful, that it was still so early on a Sunday, that the stores weren’t yet open, and there was no one on the street. And so—to the end—Margo kept the privacy she valued so dearly.
Now, at this point, I should backtrack and apologize—to Margo—for giving away her true age. Because she long ago reinvented her BIRTH date, and made herself 2 years younger. Unfortunately, the Department of State declined to reflect this adjustment when issuing her passports. So she left a paper trail.
Now I’ll tell you some things I know, and some things I think I know, about Margo.
She was what is politely called recalcitrant. Or use an old Nebraska expression: Margo was as independent as a hog on ice. (If anybody doesn’t know what that means, ask me later.) [Note: it means independent and ungovernable.]
My personal view is that Margo was born an artist. I don’t think it was within her power to be anything but. It was like some wonderful, inescapable compulsion, she was destined to act out. Beauty—and invention—flowed from her fingertips.
As a young woman, she took a job in a dress shop. Her boss realized Margo could look at a garment and sketch out its pattern. She took Margo on a trip to Chicago, where Margo did knock-offs of the latest fashions. When the time came to return to Tulsa—Margo said she wasn’t going. She wasn’t intimidated by the boss-lady’s rage—nor was she afraid to tackle the big city all on her own.
Margo worked in a factory; she danced in a restaurant; she earned money so she could study art. She married into a family of artists, and had a daughter—Mia. She achieved success in America—and abroad.
She often spoke fondly of her little brother Earl. I met Earl once—and he told me a story, from when he was a little kid. Margo had long moved away, and had come home on a visit. She was outside sketching, and Earl came up, and curiously peered at what she was drawing.
“WHAT’S THAT?” he asked.
“It’s that hill over there,” she said.
“It doesn’t LOOK like a hill,” he responded.
“Young man,” she said, looking him in the eye. “There IS a type of art that shows things EXACTLY how they are. It’s called PHOTOGRAPHY.”
Earl said he always got a kick out of remembering that.
She was good friends with Burr Tillstrom, the puppeteer who created the classic ‘50s children’s television show Kukla, Fran and Ollie. Margo said Burr once came to her house, to perform live for Mia and her young friends. She said the kids weren’t that into it. They didn’t want to see Kukla Fran and Ollie live—they wanted to watch them on TV!
Margo had such a wide circle of friends. Many in the arts—like Georgia O’Keefe; and Berenice Abbott, who she taught how to do linoleum cuts; and Betty Parsons, who was her gallerist and wrote a poem for one of her shows. But she’d also stop on the sidewalk to chat with the judo instructor two buildings down, and sweet-talked the battling old couple, who ran the corner grog shop, into cashing her checks.
Impressed by her wide-ranging acquaintanceships, one evening when we were sitting at my garden table, I asked, on a whim, “Did you ever meet Garbo?” She said yes, she’d met her once at Burr Tillstrom’s. Burr was Swedish, like Garbo, she said. “Was she fascinating?” I asked. “Not really,” Margo replied.
She studied and painted her way throughout the world: North and South America, Asia, Mexico, the Caribbean, Eastern and Western Europe, Africa. She taught in Beirut, Uganda, Brazil and China.
If I were to name one quality I most admired about Margo, it was her seeming fearlessness. It takes backbone to live the life you want to lead, and though I’m sure something must have scared the bejezus out of her along the way, nothing seemed to stop her. It was as if her life was saying, “Just because something is huge, or intimidating, it shouldn’t stop you from doing what you need to get done.” Or to put it another way, “If life gives you lemons—don’t make lemonade. Order champagne. And lots of it.”
Oh—and here’s the thing, about that first time I met Margo. It wasn’t until 20 years later that it suddenly dawned on me. That day on the stairs, Margo was not regarding me skeptically. She was exploring me visually as a composition of form and color. That’s how she saw things.
Here’s where that scripture I mentioned earlier comes in. “In my father’s house, are many mansions.” Somehow that came to me when I thought of the many things Margo had done—and done brilliantly. The more I learned about her, the more it was like one fabulous, palatial room opened into another—and that into another—and so on. For example, it wasn’t until I started working on Margo’s website that I learned that in addition to being this world-class artist, she was a gifted writer, with an ability to capture in words visual things, in a way that was simple, elegant, honest, and astounding.
Margo was a dancer, a painter, a teacher, an author, an illustrator, a speaker. She created mosaics. She designed for opera, dance and theater; designed rugs in Ethiopia; created and installed murals of heroic proportions in public spaces. She loved city life, and traveling, and reading the New York Times on a Sunday morning. She praised my cooking; she listened raptly to my stories. She was my true-blue friend.
And I have long realized how lucky was the day, Margo and I found our way, into each other’s lives.
Finally, Sister Miriam Cooney spoke, sharing memories and reading poems, including one she had written especially for Margo.
"Margo Hoff Memorial"
Fare infinitely well,
You who have valorously dared
This last, unshared,
Unending and all-perfect quest:
You who at length can tell
The things God has prepared
—Sister Madeleva Wolf csc
It may seem presumptuous of me, Margo's nun-mathematician friend, to speak of such an accomplished artist as Margo Hoff, before her artist peers. But my experience of Margo gives me a unique perspective--and my love for her runs deep.
We are all aware of Margo's dedicated work habits—she often said "My work is my life,"—her love of life expressed in light and color and curiosity, her love of people, and especially her students. These traits seem a kind of hospitality of heart. Not only was she available, her heart was open to old and new friendships.
Beginning in 1969 at Saint Mary's College, during three long terms as artist-in-residence, she became more than a colleague and instructor, but a friend, mentor and inspiration to many. After her long college day she often worked late into night and sometimes into the morning. Because she worked in isolation her gallery shows were a surprising delight to everyone. Several of those memorable paintings are now lovingly displayed at the college.
In 1972 Margo joined Sister Maria and myself as an educational team visiting three months in Uganda, living in a convent. Free spirit tho' she was, it would have been unsafe for her to live anywhere else in that country at that time. Our team taught at St. Maria Goretti Senior Secondary School in Fort Portal and at the training center for young Ugandan sisters.
On weekends we visited teacher training colleges and various other missions. Margo impressed and delighted her students by discovering materials in and on the earth with which they could create and express themselves. Although Fairweather-Hardin scarcely disguised their disapproval of Margo’s being away for long periods, they admitted afterward, that Margo was never more creative and productive than in the time following our trips—and her residencies at the college.
Two years later in 1974, our team spent a month in Sao Paolo, Brazil, teaching courses to local teachers who were required to upgrade their credentials, but who were unable to enter the crowded universities. Sister Maria brought the latest theories of schools-without-failure to enable the teachers to combine affective teaching styles, with effective class meetings, and shifting emphasis from teaching to learning. I taught many levels of math and Margo engaged them in creative enterprises. She also brought dozens of completed 15” canvasses which she displayed in a Sao Paolo bank for several weeks. Our return trip took us to Lima, Cuzco and Machu Picchu in Peru.
Our final trip was to Northeast Normal University in Changchun, China in 1985 where we worked with students and faculty of our respective departments. Our funniest memories of her come from that trip. At first Margo found the Chinese artists and teachers resistant and critical of what they termed "the decadence of America's abstract art." Margo, at the first opportunity, hurried to the library to find prints of early Chinese drawings. She told the assembled teachers, "I learned in school that the earliest people's art was known world-over to have come from China." Then picture after picture with comparative dates began to impress these gifted people with their own heritage. Our last evening at the university each department held a long dinner party for faculty, graduate students and guests. On Margo's joyous return to our quarters, she pulled off her famous black boots, flung them into the air and joyously exclaimed, "My mother never prepared me for success"—and laughed her deep hearty laugh.
From first knowing Margo we found in her a biblical spirituality, learned from her earliest years. Never 'churchy', Margo's kindness, integrity, and courage flowed from her awareness of the abiding Spirit of God. The simple injunction from Micah, to "Act justly, love tenderly, and walk humbly with your God," was enough for Margo—and for her God.
Margo was truly a sister to us on our journey. World-traveler that she was, one of her favorite poems of Sister Madeleva Wolf, Saint Mary's College poet president, is the Travel Song:
Know you the journey that I take? Know you the voyage that I make
The joy of it one's heart could break.
No jot of time have I to spare, Nor will to loiter anywhere,
So eager am I to be there.
For that the way is hard and long, For that gray fears upon it throng,
I set my journey to a song.
And it grows wondrous, happy so, Singing I hurry on, for oh!
It is to God, to God, I go.
—Miriam P. Cooney csc, January 2009
After Sister Miriam's moving words and verse, we opened the floor, so those in the audien wishing to share their thoughts about Margo could do so. Several people spoke, and their words will be added, as they become available.
Margo Hoff's obituary appeared in the September 14, 2008 New York Times (see clipping below). The identical obituary can be seen in the Times on-line edition, where one can view/sign the guestbook; go to: https://www.legacy.com/NYTimes/DeathNotices.asp?Page=Lifestory&PersonId=117398266.
A brief article about Ms. Hoff's death appears in the August 21, 2008 Chicago Tribune. To see it, go to: https://www.chicagotribune.com/features/lifestyle/chi-art-0821aug21,0,6685943.story and scroll to the bottom of the page.