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exhibitions


2014
Naives, Seers, Lone Wolves and World Savers XVII

Casting Bread: Wafaa Bilal

Teacher of Us All: Laurence Rathsack and a Few of His Students

Discardedly Yours: Art Made from New York City Junk

Likely Stories

Bruce Nauman on Paper

The 2006 Outsider Art Fair in Soho

Wisconsin Moderns: Works by Six Prominent Modernist Artists with Wisconsin Ties

I Sing Reds in the Blues

exhibition information

Exhibition Dates: October 15 - November 27, 2010
Opening Reception: Friday, October 15, 6-9 p.m.

about the show

Sixty-five years ago, while hurrying through the halls of the old Milwaukee State Teachers College to reach his studio art class before the bell rang, Fred Berman regularly passed before a large canvas that is now on view in the "Wisconsin Moderns" exhibition, Carl Holty's Untitled (1933). Berman was 18. His nearly daily encounters with the Holty may not have been life-changing, but the work did have an impact on him.

"It was," Berman recalls today in his 83rd year, "the first abstract painting I ever saw."

Like Holty and each of the other artists in "Wisconsin Moderns," Berman would become a figure of some distinction in the ranks of American modernist painters. In 1956, along with such lions as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, he was one of 36 artists chosen to represent the United States in the American pavilion of the Venice Biennale, the most important international survey of contemporary art. In the years ahead, his work would also be shown in many of country's major art institutions, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., and the San Francisco Museum of Art.

For the organizers of this exhibition, there is an exquisite circularity in presenting a group of Berman's paintings in the same space with the first abstract painting he ever encountered. The subject Holty may fall somewhat short of being the artist's greatest work, but it probably deserves a hallowed place in Wisconsin's art history for another reason. It may have been just about the only truly modernist painting to be seen anywhere in the state at the time.

The Wisconsin art scene of the middle-forties was quite a different place than it is today. The state's few art museums, including the smallish Milwaukee Art Institute and the Layton Gallery of Art in Milwaukee, predecessors of today's Milwaukee Art Museum, existed largely as sepulchers for Old World European paintings of grazing sheep and beer-drinking burghers and carved marble sculptures of dying, battle-wounded centurions. Nowhere on the walls was there a van Gogh, Picasso or Georgia O'Keeffe (coincidentally another Wisconsin-born artist). Moreover, the state's art schools might just as well have posted signs declaring "Modernism Not Spoken Here." The boldest art issuing from the state's art schools tended to be of two strains -- regionalist a la John Steuart Curry, or surrealist, a la Grant Wood meets Giorgio De Chirico. Both modes were already considered retardataire in art precincts outside Wisconsin.

Well before the middle forties, certainly, a growing legion of American artists was already producing art that turned its back on academic realism. Among them were four included in "Wisconsin Moderns"-Mark Tobey (1890-1976), Holty (1900-1976), Karl Knaths (1891-1971) and Lucia Stern (1895-1987).

Tobey was born in the hamlet of Centerville in Manitowoc County. About the time he was three, he moved with family to the village of Trempealeau along the Mississippi River, and remained there until about his 16th year when the clan moved again, this time near Chicago. After a couple of years at the Art Institute of Chicago, Tobey moved to New York where he began his career in art as a fashion illustrator. By the time he was 27, he had a one-man show at New York's M. Knoedler Gallery, the oldest, and, at the time, most prestigious gallery in the country. Tobey did not take his cues from inventions of Europe's modernists. His paintings were unlike any that preceded them. A convert to Baha'i faith, his paintings were meditations on the interconnectedness of all time and man's place in it. His "all-over" canvases, always modest in size, were important precursors for abstract expressionism, most notably Pollock's grandly-scaled canvases. Except for O'Keeffe, no other Wisconsin-born artist gathered as much recognition as Tobey. Among his many achievements were retrospective exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

There were parallels in the lives of Holty, who was born in Germany, but grew up in Milwaukee, and Knaths, who was born in Eau Claire. Both attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Holty after dropping out of pre-med classes at Marquette University. By the twenties, each was experimenting with cubism, looking to the models of Cezanne, Picasso, and Matisse. Both artists began enjoying success soon after leaving the Art Institute, and neither looked back to Wisconsin. Knaths moved to the artistic community of Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he remained the rest of his life. Holty became something of a citizen of the world, continuously hopscotching between New York and the great cities of Europe.

Lucia Stern should be more widely remembered today. Still, considering the period in which she grew up, one with fewer opportunities for women, and the place - she was a lifelong resident of Milwaukee - she crafted a remarkable life. Her formal studies were in music and literature, but after graduating from the old Milwaukee-Downer College, she was drawn increasingly to progressive art, first as an aesthete, then a practicing artist. Along with her husband Erich Stern, a local politician, she began making nearly annual trips abroad after 1930, and became close to leading artists of the Bauhaus, especially Laszlo Moholy Nagy. Another of her close associates was Hilla Rebay, one of the first female abstract painters, and director New York's Museum of Non-Objective Art Museum (later the Guggenheim) where Stern often exhibited. Stern was a tireless champion of advanced art, lecturing and publishing on the subject, and, even when she was in her eighth decade, still challenging the directors of art institutions to be more daring in programming and acquisitions. Left undervalued in all her lobbying, though, was her own art. How many American paintings that were produced sixty, seventy years ago, maintain quite the brio and contemporaneity of her brightly hued non-objective creations from the same period?

No single artist so radically revised thinking about advanced art as Pollock when, beginning around 1948, he produced the earliest of what came to be called "abstract expressionist" or "action" paintings, creations on which he poured and dripped paint directly from buckets directly onto expanses of canvases. To employ Harold Rosenberg's still useful phrase in describing the work: "What was to go on the canvas was not a picture, but an event."

Such members of the New York avant garde as Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko and de Kooning immediately intuited the implications of Pollock's astounding breakthrough in reconceiving the canvas as an "arena" in which the artist performs, not a mere support for reproducing a picture, whether realistic or abstract. And so did two Milwaukee-born artists - Jon Schueler (1916-92) and Fred Berman (born 1926).

In 1949, Schueler enrolled at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco, and started studies with Still, his principal mentor, along with Rothko , Richard Diebenkorn and David Park. By 1951, he moved to New York, taking over Still's studio. Almost immediately his paintings began appearing at the Stable Gallery, an important outpost for new art whose roster included Franz Kline, Phillip Guston, and, now and then, Pollock. Schueler was given his first one-man show there in 1954, and then, in 1957, another at the Leo Castelli Gallery. In 1975, he was honored with a one-man exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

There appears to be a certain commonness in emotional temper and seeing and feeling the world in the paintings of Schueler and Berman, particularly in their later works. This strikes one as curious, even amazing, especially since Berman has remained a resident of Milwaukee all his life, and Schueler lived out many of his later years in a tiny coastal village in Scotland. Could it be the alikeness of their visions has something to do with the air they breathed, the water they drank, growing up in Milwaukee?

--Dean Jensen