Menil retrospective puts ‘stateless’ artist under microscope
Who is Wols?
It is poor journalism to begin a story with a question, especially, as in this case, if one does not intend — or, indeed, is unable — to offer a suitable answer.
But Wols — a retrospective of whose work is on display at the Menil Collection through Jan. 24 — defies easy answers.
Wols, born Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze, was an artist’s artist, but he did not seek to be a “professional” artist, in the sense that he was not concerned with the business side of the art market. He chose to focus on the nature of art.
Wols (pronounced voles) has been largely neglected by art historians and critics because he doesn’t fall into an easily defined “label.” Wols is clearly influenced by — or influenced — the art movements of the early to mid 20th century, but he does not fall into any particular movement. In this sense, he reflects one of his artistic heroes, Paul Klee — an exhibition of whose work Wols saw in Dresden in 1926 — another artist who is hard to pigeonhole.
Wols’ work reflects his love of nature. The shapes echo plants and seeds, as well as microscopic forms. Wols believed that the truth of existence could be found in the microscopic rather than the larger world.
His work rewards careful and repeated looking. It is rich with texture and color, the multiple layers revealing themselves, drawing the studious viewer deeper into the image.
Wols’ paintings are at once both expansive and minutely detailed. They force the viewer to stop and explore the delicate and the visceral.
Wols believed the small things are important, and it is the large things — politics, money governments — that are insignificant.
In the small gallery that houses his watercolors from 1948, one finds delicate pieces that are fluid and organic. Even though they are not large, they evoke the “scale” of much larger pieces. Yet they also are microbial, reminiscent of viewing bacteria and other organisms on slides seen through a powerful microscope. The fine detail draws one in and forces a slow contemplation.
The small hatch marks found in many of the pieces are the strongest examples of Klee’s influence. “Suppository” reflects Klee’s style with a brilliant shock of white thrown in. The title, and the composition, speak to Wols’ sense of humor.
The “organisms” in the watercolors are both familiar and other worldly. Wols’ is a world of suggestion, of prodding to consider the infinite in the infinitesimal. If the whole room was passed off as illustrations to an early medical text book, one would not be surprised.
These organisms could also just as easily be poised to make their way out of the primordial ooze or some alien life form.
“Rotating Details” reminds one of a joyful dancer — fragmented yet full of joie de vivre. One gets the sense that Wols really does have a sense of wonder at the essence of our existence within the natural world.
The Klee influence is at its most pronounced in the early watercolors from around 1940. They are also the most obviously Surreal, especially the distorted figures in “Le Musician” and “The Circus.”
In 1946, he started painting with oils. He made 40 in his first year. He had a show in 1947, which, while it was a sensation for other artists, was not a huge success among the public. However, Dominique de Menil saw the show and became a keen collector of his work.
Working in oils helped Wols see things differently. He was able to break away from the controlled nature of watercolors and become free to be more fluid and textured. It is in his oils that one really sees Wols’ attention to detail and sheer exuberance at the nature of existence.
In “Oiseu (Bird),” one sees an explosion of lines, that may represent feathers. The piece echoes Chaim Soutine’s images of flayed meat, or even reflects Francis Bacon’s twisted and distorted portraits.
“Manhattan” incorporates a pattern of drips that are reminiscent of the island’s grid of avenues and streets.
It is important to remember that the titles were given to the pieces by other people. Wols did not care to explain his work with a title.
There are critics who liken his abstracts to Jackson Pollock, but where “Jack the Dripper” used his entire body to paint large canvases, Wols’ pieces are much smaller and he was very much a wrist painter, controlling the drips — yet another contradiction that permeates his work.
Born in 1913 in Dresden, Germany, young Alfred was exposed to the arts from an early age by his upper-class family. Although an inquisitive child, he was not a strong student. He began his artistic career, if it can really be called a career, by doing photographs.
In the 1930s he received a telegram where his name was mistakenly changed to “Wols.” He chose to become two people. He was the citizen Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze, but he was also the artist Wols.
In 1938, he visited a Surrealism exhibition. There he came to understand that one could use fragments of reality to uncover a deeper meaning and truth of existence.
He lived in Paris with his wife Gréty, and during World War II, as he was German, he was briefly interred in a camp in Aix en Provence. Although citizen Schulze was born in Germany and lived in France, Wols, the artist, declared himself to be a stateless person.
He returned to Paris after the war and exhibited a show of watercolors on Sept. 22, 1945 — it was not a success.
Wols spent most of WWII trying, unsuccessfully, to emigrate to the United States. Although he never made it across the Atlantic, his work echoes the Abstract Expressionism that was taking root there.
A pioneer of lyrical abstraction, Wols built his images through layers of drips, stains, scratches and bold brushstrokes. He rejected geometric abstraction — rarely using conscious lines — and sought a feeling of connection to the natural world.
Wols was fascinated by nature. He kept exotic fish and was always collecting objects, from stones to frogs. He said that, “The nature is the art,” and sought to reveal what is “hidden” in nature.
He did not like to give his pieces titles, as he preferred to see the world on its own merits and expected the viewer to see his art the same way.
He was a rebel, often refusing to title or date his work. He even boycotted the opening of an exhibition of his work, returning later with his dog, to whom he carefully explained each piece.
Wols did not have formal training as an artist — he enrolled in the Bauhaus but never actually attended — although clearly, he is not a primitive, folk painter, but carefully self-taught — although he was inspired by African and other “primitive” art.
With careful study and a rudimentary knowledge of 20th century art, one can gather, in his work, an overview of multiple movements.
Wols’ work is both derivative and unique. Much of his work reminds one of something — Gorky, Klee, Dubuffet and the Abstract Expressionists — yet it is more forward thinking than referential. He is like many things, yet also not really like anything else.
It is reasonable to say that Wols is everything and nothing. Like the title of one of the pieces in the Menil Collection, is work is “All Over,” and full of dichotomy — visceral yet controlled. His work is easy to relate to, yet also elusive and hard to define.
While that is the key to his work, it contributes to his largely being overlooked — until now. For the critic, or even the reviewer, it is like trying to explain the unexplainable, to put a label on work that defies definition.
If ever there was a time to draw on the old maxim, “I don’t know anything about art, but I know what I like,” it is with Wols. He offers something for everyone, both the artist and the uninitiated, on multiple levels.
Just keep looking, and all may be revealed — or not.
The Menil Collection is located at 1515 Sul Ross in Houston.
For information, visit www.menil.org.