The Freewheelin’ Steve Wheeler: David Brody and Drew Lowenstein in Conversation
David Brody and Drew Lowenstein, painters and frequent contributors to artcritical, got together to discuss their shared enthusiasm for the mystical modernism of Steve Wheeler (1912-1992), the subject of a recent group exhibition at David Findlay Jr. Gallery. The two friends also consider Wheeler’s influence on contemporary abstract painting, the legacies of Native American culture, and the surprising psychedelia of a certain Walt Disney film.
David Brody: I find myself drawn to Steve Wheeler’s work with reliable fascination, purely on visual terms. But the backstory is interesting. First, there’s his problematic identification as one of the Indian Space Painters (ISP), an association he sometimes rejected –– even asserting his independence from the group with fisticuffs late in life; by this time he seems to have descended into a bitter alcoholic hermitage, and at the opening of an ISP show in which he had been included against his will he caused a ruckus.
Indian Space Painters, by the way, is a great band name; as the name for an art movement, though, it’s almost too descriptive, or proscriptive, which is presumably why Wheeler scorned it. But also, he had been hanging with the big boys at the Cedar Tavern, and he may have wished to be seen as part of that crowd, many of whom had shared Wheeler’s interest in biomorphic tribal exotica and mystical archetypes. But legitimately, while Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, Jackson Pollock, et al., went beyond the literalism of that early interest, Wheeler’s superdense, hyperdimensional substrate never fully relinquishes Tlingit eagles and Aztec glyphs.
Putting aside the issue of Wheeler’s imagery for now, his paintings were retardetaire on grounds of technique alone. He eschews drips and tornadoes of gestural fury; instead, he designs impregnable fortresses of interlocking color planes from careful preparatory drawings. Philip Guston cited Paolo Uccello as an influence, which is apparent in his ‘40s friezes of warplay, but Wheeler’s work is much closer in technique, and maybe spirit, to the space-packing battles of Uccello.
In any case, he missed the art history boat; while his old Cedar Tavern friends were ascending the mountaintop, Wheeler was dying in splenetic obscurity. He always had fans –– the work’s sheer persistent quality keeps it alive. As the wheel of poetic injustice turns, Wheeler now begins to seem, to many contemporary artists, more directly relevant than the canonical New York School artists. Art history pinches back on itself all the time –– particularly American art history, in which, for example, the dogged conservatism of Albert Pinkham Ryder, Charles Burchfield, or Edward Hopper becomes avant-garde in retrospect. So was Wheeler just ahead of his time? Certainly he must have believed that, or he couldn’t have packed so much heat into the paintings. They just burn and burn as you look at them.
Drew Lowenstein: Yeah David, there is, as you say, alotta heat in Wheeler’s paintings. Given how well these paintings grab and hold our attention, it’s easy to understand why he was thrust into the position of front-man for the Indian Space Painting group. He seems to have been a true believer in the extraordinary and in his capacity to harness and merge it into his own art. Moving from the Mayan to Kwakiutl to Modernist sources, he was no intellectual slouch either. The work pulses. It’s evident how informed he was. He put what interested him through a sieve. Although he achieved a synthesis of these complex pictorial languages, did he ever move past these influences, and does that matter anymore, and if not, why?
In Wheeler’s hands, such material is symbolic, psychological, ecstatic, perhaps even religious. The passion behind his multi-pronged approach, and the single-minded obsession to get it down on paper or canvas elevates the work to the level of a document of belief. This may be why he continued to mine this abandoned and rarefied area while the Abstract Expressionists moved on and sucked up all the oxygen in the room. In today’s culture, Wheeler’s small-scale, eccentric, tightly wound paintings aren’t retardataire anymore, but instead may appear as agreeably quirky.
DB: Let’s talk about Steve Wheeler: The Oracle Visiting the 21st Century, the show we saw together in January at David Findlay Jr. Gallery, which hangs a selection of his paintings and drawings alongside some work by ISP artists and also a number of contemporary artists who, it is claimed, have affinities, such as Tom Burckhardt and the late Elizabeth Murray. Even if one doesn’t agree with every choice, I applaud the acknowledgment of Wheeler’s relationship with the present. Some of the selected artists, like Burckhardt and Luke Gray, have been directly impacted by Wheeler –– as you and I have been, along with Bruce Pearson, Fred Tomaselli, James Siena and many others I’ve talked to. I think Wheeler particularly appeals to those who seek a kind of psychedelic intensity that is obsessively under control.
DL: This show is a lively mix. The curators have made inclusions, such as Keith Haring, that broaden the interpretation of Wheeler’s aesthetic. Luke Gray, whose work I’m seeing for the first time, and Tom Burckhardt look particularly good here. The paintings of Wheeler’s contemporaries Robert Barrell and Peter Busa also stand out. I agree there is an intergenerational affinity in the Findlay show, and it’s great that some people feel that they have been impacted. It’s worth noting that Luke Gray exhibited at Gary Snyder gallery when they were showing Wheeler’s paintings, so in that case there is a clear connection. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I do think sometimes it’s hard to determine direct impact versus rapport. I feel like my interest in dense composition came from Wheeler’s contemporary, Maurice Golubov, whose retrospective at the Jewish Museum in 1981 affected me so strongly that I contacted him directly. I was surprised and appreciative when I first saw Wheeler’s paintings at Gary Synder’s gallery in the early ‘90s. And perhaps Bruce Pearson feels differently, but my recollection is that we schlepped to the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey in1997 to see the Wheeler retrospective because we developed through related aesthetics, liked his eccentric compositions, and were interested in his marginal status.
I wonder why some recent American abstraction has recoiled into tight, early modernist formations? Some of it often resembles what George L.K. Morris or John Ferren were doing in the ‘40s when they were playing catch-up with Wassily Kandinsky or Paul Klee. The contemporary version is usually small scale, with a labor-intensive commitment – a kind of industrious Protestant work ethic that says this is serious busywork. Perhaps this is part of the psychedelic intensity wrought from obsessive control that you mentioned earlier. Tripped out and buttoned up – a strange mix, no? Isn’t the psychedelic experience also about losing control and being subsumed, or are we currently really locked into the age of Adderall as we recycle Stuart Davis? I think in some ways Howard Hodgkin can be psychedelic and Fred Tomaselli may not be. The psychedelia-in-art-is-cool consensus can also be troubling.
DB: Well, what is truly “psychedelic” is an interesting question. Though for the record, I’m a fan of Tomaselli and indifferent to Hodgkin. And you’re right, there’s a fashionability/marketing factor attaching to the term, which can be annoying and juvenile; it often has nothing to do with the kind of uncanny visual alertness combined with an experience of sublimity –– of the terrifyingly beautiful –– that I think of as psychedelic. All good art is psychedelic, in a sense. And losing control can be psychedelic too, as you point out, but in my view only if the chaos leads to hallucination, as with a Victor Hugo ink spill that becomes a castle in the air –– only when loss of control is allied with extreme precision. Chance is still very active in American abstraction, but maybe more for its Duchamp/Cage lineage than for its let-it-all-hang-out expressionism –– a drip is not enough, it has to be a “drip.” Wheeler’s Montclair show got featured sympathetically in the New York Times, and became a must–see art event. Having to make a pilgrimage across the Hudson may have contributed to the impact, but what I saw immediately was that Wheeler doesn’t rely on pattern, symmetry, and repetition for his psychedelic intensity; there are no algorithms, no grids, no top-down organizing rules. Thus your eye is on its own trying to sort things out, but you don’t mind at all because the color is plain gorgeous –– impeccable really –– and the shapes are never wimpy; yes, rather like Stuart Davis. But while Davis is always cool and in balance, however angular, like ‘40s Bop, Wheeler makes me think, jazzwise, of an eccentric novelty act perfectionist like Raymond Scott.
DL: David, that’s a great point about Raymond Scott, who I just listened to on your prompt. The Wheeler/Davis contrast is a useful one. In a sense Wheeler stands on Davis’s shoulders, enabling him to bypass Henri Matisse and Neo-Plasticism so he can plumb deeper depths. Of course Wheeler is twenty years younger. Putting his considerable formal talent aside, is Wheeler’s resonance also due to a drive to express his belief in the universal mind? Or dare we ask, does a bit of content that he found contain some kind of “truth” that resonates, no matter how much we try to push past that paradigm? Working in the mines of Pennsylvania, below the surface, must have left Wheeler partial to ideas about interiority, mapping and psychological theories of the sub/unconscious mind. He also helped to point out that Northwest Native American art can be as powerful a source for Modern artists as African Art.
In some of the more open and decorative pieces, such as Portrait (1941), and Julius Mayer Sonia (1950), I can’t help wondering how aware Wheeler was of the Transcendentalist Painting Group in Taos, New Mexico, during the ‘30s and ‘40s, particularly the paintings of Emil Bisttram and Raymond Jonson, who also held mystical beliefs. And although I’m excited to see Inventing Abstraction at MoMA, I also wish they would do a show of American Abstraction from 1925-50 that included Indian Space Painting, Transcendental Painting Group, American Abstract Artists, etc. A couple of shows at the Whitney lately have nibbled around the edges of this period, so that’s good. Fortunately, Findlay and D. Wigmore Fine Art each exhibit this neglected yet essential chapter of our history regularly.
DB: Yes, these old-school galleries do a great job of keeping the work on view, and seem better informed about the interstices of American abstraction than museums. In general, well-constructed, earnestly transcendent abstractions, including the kind that were made in Taos –– Thunderbird meets Kandinsky –– have been relegated to the historically tangential. Perhaps they get associated with western-themed landscapists of an earlier generation like Ernest L. Blumenschein, an excellent painter who few take seriously due to a certain touristy quality –– a credulous skin-deepness. I’ll venture that the better done these Taos paintings are, figurative or abstract, the less they have tended to resonate. Georgia O’Keeffe’s reputation sometimes seems to rise above, sometimes sink below, her widespread popularity. She remains a feminist icon, a fearless perfectionist, a visionary, yet gets tarred by this same brush of the literal, the romanticized, the too-conventionally polished. On the other hand, Marsden Hartley passed through Taos, and his early abstractions, and in most cases his expressionist landscapes as well, remain a touchstone for every serious American painter I know.
Another interesting case linking both sides of the landscape/abstraction divide is that of Lawren Harris, the biting poet of the frozen North, a Canadian landscapist worthy of comparison with the best of Hartley and Rockwell Kent; he got hypnotized by Theosophy, left his proper Protestant family in Toronto and spent the years 1937-40 in New Mexico, where he embarked on some pretty far-out planar abstractions –– awful really, and hard to understand without the naïve earnestness of the Transcendentalist milieu.
Artists like Harris, Bisttram and Jonson or the non-Wheeler ISPs do seem too well-behaved for contemporary taste (and I’ll note here that Harris proudly declared his “marriage” with his Theosophist lover –– they had absconded to the States one step ahead of bigamy charges –– to be spiritual, and entirely celibate). But I’m pretty sure the same taste would go gaga over these paintings’ trippy visual pyrotechnics were they known to be in service to maniacal partying, à la Haring or Kenny Scharf; or outsider mysticism à la Alex Grey; or the resplendent punk-sacred à la Tomaselli. If these Taos artists were taking peyote with D.H. Lawrence and Mabel Dodge, in other words, dancing naked around the bonfire, presumably this would make the work cool again, right?
DL: Ha! Sure, spectacle is a hot marketing device, so throwing some nakedness or drugs into the story always provides a hook. We all agree that the sacred has impacted images throughout history. Back in the ‘40s, it’s likely that Gordon Onslow-Ford, a painter also interested in the visionary, was aware of the impact of hallucinogens. Originally from England, Onslow-Ford came to New York and wound up in Mexico for seven years. Wheeler might have attended Ford’s lectures at the New School in Manhattan; a lot of artists did. Ford eventually headed to northern California, where his associates were Wolfgang Paalen and Lee Mullican (the artist Matt Mulican’s father), also brilliant, original abstractionists investigating energetic imagery. As a whole, they are a tremendously interesting group too.
As you point out, there is something of the well-behaved in Jonson and Bisttram. I’m partial to Jonson anyway, despite the fact that he never loses sight of decorative design values. Perhaps this is why these painters are often overlooked or even lumped in, as you suggest, with landscapists like Harris who used exaggeration to simplify and visually heighten form. This stuff must have been everywhere. I was watching Cover Girl (1944), with Rita Hayworth, the other day and noticed that the set design for her dance scene was one of these symbolic/abstract landscapes, complete with the misty cloud via fog machine. The simplify-and-exaggerate formula used by these landscape painters may also have been the fine art version that the designers, stylists and animators of Disney films like Snow White (1937) favored – a romantic, brooding, central European illustration sensibility that still pops up today in Hallmark cards, or even Inka Essenhigh paintings. Strangely, though Mickey Mouse culture has been bashed for its conservative values, Disney’s romantic themes, animistic nature worship and visual splendor sensitized many children to idealism and counter-cultural issues like environmental conservation and even class inequity. And then there was the stoned-out vibe at revival houses in the mid ‘70s when Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1940) would re-run. No little kids at those shows.
DB: A weirdly self-conscious compendium of styles, Fantasia still amazes stone cold sober. The “Rite of Spring” section, in my book, is great cinema, and convincingly painterly at that, even though it makes hash of Stravinsky. On the other hand, Fantasia makes a farce of the high idealism of abstract Visual Music in the opening Bach Toccata and Fugue section –– I find the experience fascinating yet excruciating. For either extreme, I look at classic animation backgrounds all the time. There’s a lot to unpack in the way fairy tales, fantasy, and sci-fi preserved western art traditions below the radar of modernism, including, as you point out, certain “improving” moral values. Though Paul McCarthy and the late Mike Kelley put those moral values pretty thoroughly in their place.
Maybe you are suggesting that Wheeler’s approach, as with cartooning, begins to seem more and more contemporary. Some of his titles support this view: Wheeler’s street-savvy Woman Eating a Hot Dog (1950) or his Introducing Miss America (1945) vs. Willem de Kooning’s categorical Woman IV (1952) and Pollock’s mythic Pasiphaë (1943). Wheeler doesn’t fling paint around in search of a subject.
DL: Regardless of Wheeler’s contemporary appeal, for me he stands out because he resists polish and sometimes pushes composition to the edge of comprehension. Unlike the Transcendental Group in Taos, or the modernists in New York who floated politely assembled geometries, Wheeler’s compositions seem to build volcanic pressure internally. Though he made preparatory drawings, when we look at Wheeler’s paintings he seems to be wrestling with energetic forces that he can barely keep a lid on. He willingly stepped into treacherous territory. I guess this is also why we like him, he really means it…he is a believer.
DB: He packs signs into a resolute, atomic-age aesthetic crush, then works the variables of color and linear hierarchy into critical mass. A plurality of contemporary painters have used a similar strategy, for example Pearson, Burckhardt, and Murray; they get to abstraction by submitting found objects, or found fragments of style, to enormous pressure. This additive, sign-saturated version of abstraction, not invented by Wheeler but pushed to a limit case by him, allows many contemporary painters to manifest, like Wheeler, a quality of true belief in painting, above and beyond artistic ideology. Yes, we respond to Wheeler because he is a believer, and more than that –– something close to a prophet.
DL: High praise indeed.