‘Quirks and Bumps’ on a Painter’s Path

Virva Hinnemo adopted cardboard as her primary material last summer
Virva Hinnemo with “Two Things,” one of her recent large-scale paintings on cardboard Morgan McGivern

“Early on I worked from life,” Virva Hinnemo said in her Springs studio, surrounded by decidedly abstract works executed with acrylic paint on cardboard. “I still use a sketchbook and draw from life when I have a chance because I enjoy it. But even though the work has become abstract, it’s really rooted in spatial issues. I think life and the outdoors, whether the woods or the ocean, all of that seeps in.”

Her paintings from 15 years ago contain mundane, domestic images such as a tape measure, spilled liquid, newspapers, and diapers on the floor. The less referential forms in her subsequent work sometimes suggest the world — a horizon or a branch, for example — but, perhaps more important, insist, as did the early work, on the material qualities of paint and surface. 

Ms. Hinnemo’s life has taken some unusual turns and in a few instances been shaped by chance. She was born in Finland to a Swedish father and Finnish mother. “He wanted to try to live in Finland originally, but they have a very different language, very different cultures, and the Finns, because they were under Swedish rule for so long, carry grudges.” The family moved to Stockholm when she was 1, and she grew up there until she was 14, when her father, a journalist, took a job as a Moscow correspondent for a Swedish newspaper.

“We got there when it was the Soviet Union, and then it became Russia. It was extremely interesting. From that time I carry a huge love for Russia, for the people and their genuineness. Before I came to the U.S., I thought I might go back there to live.”

Her twin loves as a child were drawing and music, and when she returned from Russia she attended the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm. A one-year program at the Nyckelviks School of Art followed. “It was a very general program, a couple of months of printmaking, a couple of months of woodworking, some welding, some metalwork. I had a friend there who had gone to the Parsons School of Design and kept saying what a great art program it had.”

After graduating, she was invited by an American teacher couple she had met in Russia to spend the summer baby-sitting their daughter in the Catskills. “The Frost County Y.M.C.A., where I was counseling 15-year-old girls from all over the metropolitan area, was my introduction to this country. It was very intense and kind of fantastic. We took occasional trips into the city, and on one of them I just happened to walk by Parsons and said, ‘I’m sorry, I have to go in and apply.’ I got all the papers, and when I went back to Sweden in the fall, I applied immediately and came over.”

She not only earned a B.F.A. at Parsons, she met her husband, George Negroponte, also an artist, there. They have been together 17 years and have three sons, John, 16, Mikko, 12, and Viggo, 9. John is a sophomore at East Hampton High School, while the other boys are at the Springs School.

In addition to teaching at Parsons — “when we got together he left the job just to not complicate things” — Mr. Negroponte was involved with the Drawing Center in SoHo since its inception in 1977, serving as a board member, co-chairman, and the institution’s first president. “At the end he was heading up the campaign to move it to Ground Zero, and when that didn’t pan out he decided to leave.”

At the same time they were outgrowing the loft they were renting in TriBeCa. “A lot of things were shifting,” Ms. Hinnemo recalled, “so I said, ‘Why don’t we try it in Sweden?’ I raised the boys speaking in Swedish, so they knew the language, but I really wanted them to have a chance to live there and get to know their grandparents and my brother and sister. So we just kind of picked up and moved.”

They spent five years there but never felt settled, despite having studios and continuing to make art. “I miss Sweden, but I’m more comfortable living here than there.” Once back in New York, with three children, they decided to look for a place to move outside of the city. Over the years, they had visited friends in the East Hampton area. One was Sydney Albertini, an artist who had also been a student of Mr. Negroponte.

“When I contacted her to ask if she knew of anything in East Hampton, she said she was about to break her lease because she was buying a house. She said we could take over her lease, and we did.” Four years later, they are still comfortably settled in the roomy house in the woods off Accabonac Road, “but I don’t know if it will ever be for sale.”

Ms. Hinnemo adopted cardboard as her primary material last summer. “I was ready to scale up, and I have a lot of cardboard boxes from when we moved here. It’s a surface I love to work on. Because of the imperfections, whether it’s print or folds or weird edges and creases, it almost has a kind of grit. And it provides organizing principles, such the grid it makes when it’s unfolded or the holes meant for carrying it.”

The cardboard she uses often contains images or words. For example, the first large-scale cardboard work, “Twin Thought,” from 2015, was painted on the flattened box in which her son John’s guitar was packaged, with “Gibson” and “fragile” and other words visible along with an image of a headstock and tuning keys.

Cardboard functions as both surface and object, asserting itself in ways canvas does not. “Canvas also has a formal aspect that bugs me a little. I like shows of artists’ doodles, there’s an intimacy when their guard is down, they just let loose. I think cardboard does that for me.”

She works with a big brush and has recently started using rollers. “House- painting tools enable me to cover more surface. I can use the roller more like a brush, sliding it over the surface. But I never make a decision in advance about what I’m going to use on a particular day.”

Her broad swaths of paint, while not thickly applied, have a blunt, material presence. Mr. Negroponte has astutely written about her work: “Her off-centered forms don’t dance; they trudge or traipse by you as in some social encounter. . . . Their quirks and bumps are never smoothed over; their scumbled surfaces allow the world to keep seeping in.”

In addition to exhibiting on the South Fork at Ille Arts, Halsey Mckay, and in the Parrish Art Museum’s 2013 “Artists Choose Artists” exhibition, Ms. Hinnemo has done a number of visiting artist gigs through Project Most with students from the Springs and John M. Marshall Schools. “I love doing them, and the kids make beautiful things.”

Her recent work will be on view at the Anita Rogers Gallery, a new venue at 77 Mercer Street in SoHo, from May 12 through June 18, with an opening reception on May 12 from 6 to 8 p.m. 

Virva Hinnemo’s application of broad, sweeping brushstrokes to found cardboard is highlighted in “Giant.”
Virva Hinnemo's "Twin Thought" makes use of a guitar box.