Robin Holder

Lisa E. Farrington, Ph.D.

Robin Holder
Robin Holder in her studio in West Milford, New Jersey, 2008
Chicago-born and New York City raised Robin Holder (b. 1952) has distinguished herself as an artist whose work seamlessly fuses leitmotifs of the personal and the universal. In large part, her innate ability to draw parallels between the microcosm of her very personal experiences and the macrocosm of shared human experiences stems from the artist's identity as a woman of myriad ethnic, sociopolitical, and spiritual influences. The offspring of an African American Christian father and a white Russian American Jewish mother, Holder was raised as a socialist and an agnostic. Her family lineage includes a maternal great-grandmother who was a suffragette; a grand-uncle who was co-founder of the American Communist Party; and brothers who were members of the Black Panther Party.1 Holder's weltanschauung is atypical, to say the least; and not surprisingly, much of her art speaks to this exceptional worldview. As Holder herself confirms, "My work is motivated by my multi-cultural background, in which layers upon layers of various racial, economic, and spiritual worlds exist within one family." Throughout her three-decade-long career as an artist, Holder has consistently sought to collage the myriad elements of her world "into images of power and integrity." 2

Holder and her two brothers, Mark and Kim, were raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan by her mother, an attractive brunette named Marcia Millard Holder who taught at the 23rd Street School for the Deaf. Holder's parents—New Yorkers who met at the University of Chicago—divorced when Holder was seven years old. The Upper West Side was, and still is, demographically populated by working and middle-class liberals and intellectuals; as such, the neighborhood provided a hospitable atmosphere for Holder's sociopolitical and creative development. However, the artist's mother—a resolutely radical thinker—was single-handedly responsible for shaping the youthful Holder into a precocious self- and other-aware social activist. Holder was exposed daily to scholarly and socialist discourses on culture, education, ethics, and all manner of human injustices, including global race and class inequities, the dangers of religious dogma, labor abuses, slavery, and women's rights. All of these subjects would eventually become integral to Holder's art.

As early as age six or seven, Holder had come to understand society through her mother's eyes, with unwavering clarity. The youngster believed that the world was populated by "good guys" and "bad guys." The former included "Paul Robeson, The United Nations, Harriet Tubman, American Indians, Gandhi, and Eleanor Roosevelt...;" the latter comprised the Ku Klux Klan, Nazis, slave traders, the CIA, and the FBI.3 Sophisticated far beyond her years, by 1965, at the age of thirteen, Holder had made the decision to seek a creative outlet for her ruminations about the world and became one of a select group of students to attend New York's famed High School of Music and Art. Graduating in 1969 after four years of fine arts study, she furthered her creative growth at the Art Students League on 57th Street. This prestigious atelier which, founded in 1875, boasted an impressive array of influential faculty and student members, including Helen Frankenthaler, Georgia O'Keeffe, Norman Rockwell, Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Louise Nevelson, Romare Bearden, and Jacob Lawrence, among countless others.4 At the League, Holder studied with renowned American, African American, and European Modernists, including Marshall Glasier, Richard Mayhew, Vaclav Vytlacil and Rudolf Baranik. She also met African American painter Norman Lewis and became aware of Romare Bearden, Ernest Crichlow, and the activities of the gallery, Cinque, which the three had founded in 1969.