Horst Trave (1918 – 2012), part of the group of artists known as the San Francisco School of Abstract Expressionists, led an adventurous life – both in terms of his artistic output and personal history – though he would be the last to describe it that way. Idealistic and always self-effacing, the German-born Trave painted thousands of works over some sixty years that also saw him in the roles of anti-fascist draft evader, US soldier in the Intelligence Department, fine arts student at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute), art education student at the California College of Arts and Crafts (now the California College of the Arts), Bay Area high school arts teacher, home builder and husband.
“His idealism for society is a big part of him,” remarked Gay Shelton, then director of the California Museum of Art, where a retrospective of Trave’s works was shown in 1997. “That optimism comes out in his paintings, and also in his avoidance of self-promotion. His philosophy is: ‘If it’s true, it will live. If it’s real, it will survive.’”
“One thing that I think makes Horst special is that he’s aligned with a very big movement in the history of West Coast art, and he live[d] here. Most of us know him, he’s influenced many painters here. He’s very accessible, and yet he has a very rich history,” Shelton continued.
Drafted into the Nazi army at the age of 19, Trave instead followed his father’s advice and fled to Sweden where he studied at the Swedish Royal Academy and participated in anti-Fascist activism. He eventually left Scandinavia for San Francisco where he enrolled in the US Army. He was sent to Berlin in 1944 where, amazingly, he was able to track down his father, a war prisoner, and bring him back to the States. After the war, he was employed by the (US) War Department in Germany for a year before returning to San Francisco. He spent the rest of his life studying and teaching art and building homes in California. He painted throughout it all.
Art for Horst was a heady brew of passion, talent, and renewal. While his talent and passion preceded World War II, his art took on purpose, direction and conviction after the war. He was deeply affected by it, described by some as one of the returning soldiers who really had to redefine themselves in relationship to society. The destruction, the sheer aggression and brutality, and the mass-scale death forced many vets to face the unspeakable. For Horst, he also had to face this as a German – one who opposed Nazism from the start and who returned to fight it, but as a man standing apart from his own culture. For Horst and so many others, art was somewhere for them to turn to be able to express themselves and what they felt as they re-entered society. Like the man, his art would prove to be unique.
Somehow, Horst’s art captured an affirmative and optimistic view, a testament to the human capacity to transcend and to be resilient. These two adjectives could also be used to describe the man himself. Choosing to continue to teach and build in order to avoid self-promotion and the “starving artist” life, Trave didn’t seek fame or fortune as an artist. As he put it: “I thought that sort of thing was going to be up to other people to decide … Essentially, I did the paintings for myself.”
This modesty just makes his output – both in terms of scale and quality – all the more impressive. And although he may have been painting mainly for himself and his mental well being, everyone who views one of his canvases gets to reap the rewards of unassuming posture and his brilliant work. Horst’s two portfolios on POBA present but a small offering of the bounty he left behind.