Steve Wheeler at The Montclair Art Museum & Thomas Nozkowski at The Corcoran Gallery of Art

 Steve Wheeler, Little Joe Picking His NoseSteve Wheeler, Little Joe Picking His Nose (1950-1975), oil on canvas, 27″ x 21″; courtesy David Findlay Jr. Fine Art

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In 1947 the painter Steve Wheeler (1912– 1992) published Hello Steve, a book of his own silk-screen prints. Writing under the pseudonym “Adam Gates,” Wheeler contributed an essay on the work that, once read, is not easily forgotten. Although there is plenty to learn about his art from the essay “Face to Face,” it is less significant for what it says than for how it is said. Jargon like “dura-spatial” and axioms like “assertion bows to soliloquy” make it tough reading; Wheeler’s chip-on-the-shoulder tone doesn’t help either. Yet “Face to Face” is a vivid transcription of the work. Wheeler’s prose is simultaneously portentous and slangy, irritable and joyous, well-reasoned and over-the-top. And it is driven: “A square of cement, twenty thousand buildings, sixty thousand windows, nine hundred and ninety zillion bricks, one I-beam, a figure, everything is here, NOW!” What’s remarkable is not how rarely Wheeler achieved this manic density in his art, but that he achieved it at all.

Steve Wheeler: The Oracle Visiting the Twentieth Century is the first museum exhibition of this little known artist.  In an era of museological overkill, Wheeler’s retrospective is refreshing in its propriety. While the show’s title–based, in fact, on a Wheeler watercolor from 1943–sounds exorbitant, the co-curators, Gail Stavitsky and Twig Johnson, are nothing if not level-headed. They know that most artists can’t withstand a blockbuster. They also know that there are–how does one put it?–just plain good artists whose work is undervalued. So it is with Wheeler. In their presentation of Wheeler’s paintings, watercolors, and prints, Stavitsky and Johnson give us his development, context, influences, and achievement neatly and with zero malarkey. They show us what makes him special. That is all any artist could ask for.

Whether Wheeler would have thought this the case is open to question. A control freak before the term was coined, Wheeler insisted on the absolute uniqueness of his art. He disavowed having been influenced by Native American art–a claim that tells us much about Wheeler’s capacity for self-denial–and when lumped with the Indian Space painters group objected vociferously. (Writing as “Adam Gates” was but one of several attempts at thwarting such “misconception.”) His erratic behavior made him the bane of friends, artists, critics, and dealers. By the time Abstract Expressionism–or, as Wheeler dubbed it, “Hack-tion painting”–established itself as a cultural force, Wheeler became increasingly bitter at his lack of exposure. He painted less, bet on the horses more, and turned into something of a recluse. As his paintings were being rediscovered in the Eighties and Nineties, Wheeler’s irascibility rendered him, as one dealer had it, “impossible to deal with.” History has its own slights, but Wheeler’s obscurity was, one feels, largely of his own making.

What makes Wheeler an appealing figure for rediscovery is his standing as an underdog and outsider. He can be seen as such in his relationship (or lack of one) with the New York School, as well as in the cloistered intensity of his paintings which can be reminiscent of folk art. While he may have been a peripheral figure in the art world of the Forties and Fifties, he was no rube. He studied at the Art Students League and with Hans Hofmann. (Four Hofmannesque studies in space and structure were on view this fall in Steve Wheeler: The Formative Years (1938–1942) at Snyder Fine Art, New York.) One sees in his work the longing for a distinctively American art that also typifies early Ab Ex painting. Certainly, his fascination with the primordial, the mythic, and the art of “primitive” societies—as well as an esteem for European modernism—is related to the work of, for example, Adolph Gottlieb.

Looking at the craggy biomorphs that populate his small tempera pieces circa 1942, one sees Wheeler working through Cubism, Surrealism, Klee, Miró, and American Indian art in a manner that is almost poignant in its ambition. It was not until the mid-Forties, however, that Wheeler pushed his art beyond pastiche. Up until then, his melding of figuration and abstraction had been jerry-rigged; one can all but see the seams patching together his disparate influences in The Gold Cord (c. 1943). Wheeler’s breakthrough painting, as seen at Montclair, was the Whitney’s Laughing Boy Rolling (1946). Here all the typical Wheeler elements–masklike faces, chunky all-over rhythms, and a feverish attention to detail–cohere, whereas previously they were flabby. Wheeler may have quit his studies with Hofmann because he wanted to be “an artist rather than a good painter,” but Laughing Boy Rolling succeeds precisely because of its dynamism as painting. It is anchored by a shifting, Cubist space which tightens (and heightens) the now-you-see-it- now-you-don’t play of Wheeler’s totems and their puzzlelike environment. At this point, the exhibition ceased to be about a sophisticated enthusiast rather than the hyperactive–and sometimes psychedelic–life of art.

Wheeler’s mature paintings never completely transcend their recondite nature. They lack the expansiveness of Miró or the iconic surety of the designs found on an object included in the exhibition: a storage box (c. 1890) made by the Tlingit Chilkat tribe. The cranky insularity of Wheeler’s kaleidoscopic universe is both its chief asset and its liability. Yet his best paintings–Laughing Boy (1949), Young Man Not Afraid to Talk to his Mother-in-law (c. 1950s), Arkansas Traveler (c. 1950–75), and Little Joe Picking His Nose (c. 1950–75)–are buoyant and funny. They pull us into their pressurized worlds, and we delight in their conundrums. Their compacted space and mechanized involution may mark them as urban paintings, but they have the inevitability of a folk tale. “Who has painted it before?” Wheeler once asked. He answered himself in talking about Northwest Coast Indian art: “God damn, these guys have already done what I’ve been doing … you recreate the experience of the ages all over again without really knowing it… .” I once wrongly dismissed Wheeler as “little more than a gifted amateur.” He is more than that. With The Oracle Visiting the Twentieth Century,Stavitsky and Johnson have done well by this feisty artist.

The Montclair Art Museum must be commended for mounting an exhibition that neither lends itself to the mandates of the box office or the vagaries of fashion— Wheeler’s multicultural propensities, for instance, are too universal to have much pull for ideologues. The Oracle Visiting the Twentieth Century is the kind of offbeat, even risky, exhibition that seems increasingly to occur outside of the Manhattan museum loop. (The galleries have a better record in this respect.)

Thomaz Nozkowski, Untitled (7-72) (1995), oil on linen on panel, 16″ x 20″; courtesy Pace Gallery

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The same might be said of the beautiful show of Thomas Nozkowski’s abstractions, “Twenty-Four Paintings,” seen this fall at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.  Unlike Wheeler, Nozkowski is a known quantity in the art world with an ardent, if inconspicuous, coterie of fans. He has had regular gallery exhibitions over the past eighteen years and been written about in the art magazines. While not an art star, Nozkowski is, as Peter Schjeldahl writes in the catalogue, “right in the flow.” So why wasn’t this show seen in New York City? That New Yorkers had to travel to the nation’s capital to see the first major museum exhibition of one of their finest painters is an altogether unsurprising irony.

Less a mid-career retrospective than a retrospective of the artist’s mid-career, Twenty-Four Paintings was just that: two dozen works created over the last nine years. The show consisted of Nozkowski’s signature sixteen-by-twenty-inch horizontally oriented paintings. His stubborn insistence on this format has always seemed innately practical–particularly in terms of storage space. It is interesting to learn that it has a democratic mien as well. The paintings are scaled, as the artist has it, “for people’s rooms.” (Whether they are priced at the scale of their pocketbooks is another matter.) I admire this nod to the realities of how most people live–and live with art. I also agree with the assertion that it is a “mistaken idea” that the only good–or, rather, major–painting is a large one. This may be an obvious truth, but “bigness” is insidiously pervasive. Given the acres of canvas wasted in the service of bad painting, all I can say is, Amen.

Nozkowski’s format suits the quirkiness of his formal vocabulary and impels us to come close to its surface. His paintings, with their bumptious biomorphs and off-kilter geometries, reward such scrutiny. Each one is the result of months, and sometimes years, of working and reworking an image. Shapes, colors, and spaces are stated, altered, tweaked, and forsaken. Throughout this process Nozkowski scrapes, sands, or washes down his surfaces, sometimes to the weave of the canvas. In doing so, the various states of the painting are obscured and excavated; they also intermingle. Nozkowski continues working until the basics of a painting reveal themselves. They are then delineated on a ground that is, so to speak, its own history. At times, one can almost follow the step-by-step procedure Nozkowski has taken to arrive at a given result. We see how forms and spaces have been spliced and tucked together. In his best paintings, however, the image mutates right before our eyes. Their malleability is uncanny. Nozkowski’s paintings are as resolute as they are elastic.

Each painting offers an image, often heraldic in nature, wherein an event or object fits inside another. In one painting–all of them are untitled–it is a series of rectangles scuttling through a tube; in another, curving green stripes lace through a torsolike form. Nozkowski’s shapes have been pushed, pinched, and pulled. He thrives on the contradictions of pictorial facture. The dialogue between positive and negative space is not just a formal exercise for Nozkowski, but an occasion for complicating an already elusive game. So, as much as one of his blips has been nudged into shape, it nudges right back. While these forms recall William Baziotes’ stylish glyphs–there’s a smidgen of de Kooning in the mix as well–they don’t have much personality as such. They do, however, have a peculiar pictorial drive and are a source of comedy, albeit of a deadpan variety. On first glance, Nozkowski’s work can seem tasteful and aloof; on repeated viewing, its rigor and wit unfold. The paintings don’t stop. Isn’t that what we expect from art?

An artist of my acquaintance wonders whether Nozkowski’s abraded surfaces are too good to be true; whether they are manipulated, in the manner of a faux-finish house painter, rather than arrived at. I have my suspicions as well. Nozkowski’s use of the unifying wash of paint, as in an orange, black, and white canvas from 1990, can seem pat. Yet that same piece, an abrupt encounter between disparate geometries, is a stunner. When he’s on, Nozkowski makes such complaints trivial. The choice paintings here were, one feels, genuinely surprising to the artist, and that sense of discovery engages us. Nozkowski’s gift is making this hard-won surprise as natural as breathing. Of the two dozen works at the Corcoran, only six or so really held up. But the cumulative impact of all twenty-four made a persuasive case for Nozkowski’s singular vision. Besides, one out of four ain’t bad. In his own understated way, Thomas Nozkowski has been painting some of the most satisfying–and satisfyingly curious paintings of our time.

© 1997 Mario Naves

Originally published in the December 1997 edition of The New York Observer.

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