Shadows on the Grass 1996-1998
Few of the late 20th century artists have escaped the snitch-driven critics’ propensity to assimilate and categorize artists’ works. Wickiser did. Not by accident or design, but rather by the sheer force and mastery of the many dynamic phases of his life-long works of art. Abstract Expressionist, Analytical Abstraction, Abstract Representative, Figurative Painting, Semi-Figurative: terms all valid and true at some point in the 70-year span of Wickiser’s paintings. But how do you categorize Wickiser’s paintings, or the poetic soul and unshared visions that surpass the depths of mind-constrained contemporary words? You don’t. It is sheer Wickiser!
A renowned author and art educator, Wickiser’s painting career is a visual odyssey that began in the 1930s with works exploring both figurative and abstraction, then turned to pure Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s, Abstract-Representation in the 1970s, only to expand the scope of his works in the 1980s, producing a plethora of jewels in The Reflected Stream Series, which he continued to redefine and paint until his death in 1998.
At the age of 78, retired from all distractions and living in the much-beloved hillside house he and Jane had built 40 years earlier, Wickiser would embark on his final journey into works of his immediate and cherished environ: the land, trees, earth, grassy knolls and trodden path to his studio and beyond. The Covered Apple Tree and Shadows on the Grass is a collection of brilliantly executed paintings, gem-like sonatas that sparkle and resonate with the magnitude and force that was Wickiser.
His radiant and lyrical images portray the kindred spirit Wickiser shared with nature, it’s endless beauty, joy and sorrow, sounds, touch and senses. He was fascinated with the changing light patterns and shapes of the apple tree. Nurtured from seedling to fruit-bearing harvest, he covered the tree with cheesecloth to deter birds from stealing its fruit. Veiled in cheesecloth, limbs bowed heavy with fruit, shadows flickering on the ground below, Wickiser again and again transformed the canvas into motion-charged forms and colors that intoxicate the viewer.
In the magnificent Beige Net (1988), summer’s hot, bullish splash of colors dazzles the viewer. Shades of reds, beige and ochre’s collide and merge in abstract forms. Reflected leaves and limbs, barely recognizable, floating, stretching, grace the canvas to create a symphonic masterpiece of mind and palette.
In Covered Tree II (1992), one is immediately struck by the stark modulation of contrasting colors and intricate shapes that first draw the viewer into its core, then shift the eye outward to be reabsorbed by its total infinite beauty and intrigue.
Flurries (1996), is a triumphant eclogue of poetry and motion. Reflected light and shadows peer through the apple tree’s draped canopy to reveal its leaves and branches, twisting, rising upward, in syncopated dance, above the ground’s earthen tones below to delight and entice the beholder.
An expert photographer, Wickiser used the lens to capture his subject matter, its varied light patterns, colors and shapes during different times of the day and seasons. But it was his acute mind’s-eye that took palette in hand and transformed nature’s treasures into the magical splendor and enchanting drama of his works. He loved poetry, classical music, the land and its environ. The studio was his sanctuary, where embryos of paintings took birth, often to the music of magnificent classics such as Beethoven and Mozart.
At times almost mystical, Purple Net (1994-96) is one of Wickiser’s most poetic works of art. The luminous colors emit a brilliant glow in perfect harmony with images that float and shimmer in prismatic rapture. Here, the artist’s unspoken words are born naked in resounding effigy, shared only by the beholder.
In the final years before his death in 1998, Wickiser returned to a more refined, halcyon and simplified canvas. The colors are less translucent, more subdued. Shapes and forms yield to a more abstract motif. In the breathtaking Shadows on the Grass (1997), light and shadow cast somber hues of green and umber patches on the grassy earth. Whether by design or subconscious thought, two of Wickiser’s last works: Purple Stripe (1998) and The Winding Stripe (1998) are haunting images of the path to his studio. For nearly five decades, Wickiser had traversed the worn-trodden path, stopping momentarily to gaze at the mist rising over the valley, mountains, reflected light and shadows of natural forms that stirred him, or to tend to his beloved fruit trees and blueberry bushes.
The natural beauty of the paintings created by Wickiser in The Covered Apple Tree and Shadows on the Grass embodies both the mysteries of the physical world and depths of inner mind and spirit. The simplicity of their appeal and timeless potency will remain a living force to move freely, as on an axis, in this generation, and generations to come of all that can be achieved in modern art.
--Lydia Wickiser Tortora
REFLECTED STREAMS ABSTRACT YEARS, 1985 - 1998
Ralph Wickiser made his reputation as an arts administrator and educator, and not until 1978 did he give all of his time to painting. Since then, the octogenarian has passed through many stages,beginning as a realist and eventually turning almost entirely to abstraction. This recent show included 16 appealing works that focus on the stream behind Wickiser's home in rural Woodstock,New York. In the past, he showed us rocks, leaves, snowy terrain, the reflections of trees and sky. Now, all definition between objects has disappeared. These abstractions capture nature's spirit, not he details. In the delicacy of their mood, they show a strong Asian influence,but in execution a boldness prevails-like that of Milton Avery and Mark Rothko, who were Wickiser's friends. Colors also make these works distinctive. In the beautiful Dark River Bottom, he uses deep brown, two shades of violet, purple, red, orange-brown, and pale blue in strips of varying widths to create haunting landscape, set off by jagged Matisse-like cutouts. In other paintings, such as Oriental, he uses the same motifs but comes up with entirely different effects, combining many shades of brown and just a tough of blue.
ARTNEWS, OCTOBER 1997
REFLECTED STREAM EARLRY YEARS, 1975 - 1985
This show, “The Reflected Stream: The Early Years 1975 - 1985,” offered a beguiling look at landscape abstractionist Ralph Wickiser (1910-98). Wickiser’s near-obsessive focus on reflected patterns of images in the brook near his Woodstock, New York, home and studio resulted in paintings that pulse with concentrated energy. At a distance, these idyllic scenes push and pull the eye between illusion and abstraction. In the haunting Cow Tracks (1980) light and shadow flicker on the water’s surface, and a floating leaf provides a momentary rest for the eye, only to yield to reflected tree forms that are dematerialized by prismatic blotches of refracted lilac from indentations of cow hooves. All is metamorphosis. Layers of kaleidoscopic subtlety emerge. Although Wickiser used photographs as notes, the feel of his paintings is not of photorealism but of something organic evolving from the joyful application of pigment. Yellow Reflections(1983) is a tour de force of transformation and dazzle. What appears to be a stony streamed strewn with fall leaves dissolves and reconstitutes itself into a mosaic of gemlike lozenges and patches of pure abstraction. Emersonian metaphors abound in these works: there is an under-lying belief in the radical correspondence between visual things and human thoughts. In the late paintings, Wickiser returns to a purer abstraction, flattening his opaque forms to obtain a simple lyricism, reminiscent of the early abstractionist Augustus Vincent Tack, who also turned mountains and clouds into sumptuous dramas of design.
ARTNEWS, OCTOBER 2003
FOUR SEASONS, 1957 - 1965
Ralph Wickiser, father of New York galleriest Walter Wickiser, died in 1998, at the age of 88. Wickiser sure had no small reputation in New York art circles, especially those that swirled around later-century figurationists like George McNeil and Stephen Pace. From 1959 to ‘78, Wickiser was head of Pratt Institute’s undergraduate and graduate schools of art and design and its art education department.
Wickiser spent nearly 20 years of his long artistic career as a more-or-less pure abstractionist. That had all changed by the 1970s, when the artist gave up Brooklyn and Pratt to free settle into his home and own private Hermitage in rustic Woodstock, New York, built in 1949. The peace and solitude gave the artist the freedom to paint to his heart’s- and eye’s - content, and develop, brilliantly and unflinchingly, some of his new pet theories, not the least of which was that the nature around him - and, indeed, all nature - was abstract, in essence and in being.
Such a stringent anthropomorphism informed especially Wickiser’s feelings about rocks and streams. Indeed, Wickiser maintained that only the camera eye could see - if not entirely picture - the intricate motions of light patterns on water, and deployed his trusty lens repeatedly to that end.
The results were near-phantasmagorical renderings of perfectly plain bodies of water; the stream paintings fully crystallize - or crystallize as fully as Wickiser felt appropriate to divulge - the eternal modernist struggle between the “push” of illusionism and the “pull” of abstractionism (and vice-versa). The outlook is calm and ordered; the “inscape,” to quote Gerard Manley Hopkins, is almost bacchic.
In a typical Wickiser stream painting, we are presented with a brief snatch of water with leaves both on the surface of the stream and sunk to the bottom, Wickiser’s romantic realism was also a non-objective one, as sticks, rocks, earth, and reflections - both of trees and further passages of water - accumulate into “abstract” motifs and designs. However illusory, Wickiser seems to be saying, we are still dealing with a two-dimensional canvas space, eternally flat, eternally crying out for figurative definition- human eye and brain just seem to covet same. Still, the painting is harmonious in its disjunctions, proving its author not only a master of figurative abstraction, but a kind of latter-day 20th-century titan of ecstatic painterly practice.
If it seems premature to throw around words like “master” and “titan” in Wickiser’s case, we must remember that he was a man steeped - through his own teachings and the teaching of others - not in the egotistic vanities that surrounded him in his Action Painting (and beyond) peers, but in centuries of Western art and thought, whose book An Introduction to Art Activities remains a standard.
A beautifully broken equipoise, then, is the story here: yes, all nature is abstract, just as you can never fully look at the sun. As he drew fertilely into himself in Woodstock in the years of rock and stream, an effulgence of vision set in, rather than any eccentricity of sensibility. Thankfully, the years since Wickiser’s death are bringing to light, especially, the mature nature paintings. They are better than discoveries; they are aesthetic depth charges in the sea of today’s troubled aesthetic waters. Ralph Wickiser, gone some yeas now, is increasingly here to stay.
Originally published in Art in America, DECEMBER 1999
Brant Art Media, Inc.
NUDE SERIES, 1970 1975
In the mid 60s, Wickiser became interested in the figure again when he began regularly attending studio sessions with other faculty members. Some of the faculty members who regularly attended were George McNeil, Stephen Pace, and Philip Pearlstein. At that point, Wickiser left seventeen years of painting abstractly and went back to his semi-realistic roots from the Chicago Art Institute pre-Depression days. However, in the figurative work, there was still abstraction. This series was based on photographs of the figure that he had taken, and the main theme was vanity and the apple, probably relating to the Garden of Eden. Many of the paintings were triptychs and involved the relationship between the figure and its reflection in the mirror.This was probably the beginning of his interest in reflections, and would remain a constant theme in his paintings, using different subject matter, for the rest of his life. He coninued to paint this series for aproximately seven years until 1972.
--Ralph L. Wickiser: The Reflected Stream, The Early Years 1975-1985, Copyright C 2009, WWG Publishing, Inc., New York, NY
COMPASSION II, 1957 - 1965
Wickiser always wanted to live in New York City, and after a brief stint at SUNY, New Paltz, he left to Chair the Undergraduate Art Department at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. In 1959, his works were included in exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum, Long Island University, and the Momentum Institute of Design in Chicago. In 1962, he became the Director of the Division of Graduate Programs in Art and Design at Pratt Institute. The Master of Fine Arts Program offered at Pratt Institute was one of a few of its kind in the United States at that time. During that time, faculty members included Ernie Briggs, Herman Cherry, Edward Dougmore, Franze Klein, Jacob Lawrence, George McNeil, Stephen Pace, and Philip Pearlstein. Wickiser formed close friendships with Jacob Lawrence, George McNeil, and Stephen Pace. In a series consisting mostly of 8' by 6' paintings entitled Compassion II, he continued to paint in pure abstraction; however, the work now took on more of an expressionist feeling. Exhibitions continued at the Woodstock Artists Association in 1960, 1961, 1963, and 1969 and there were exhbitions at the Main Gallery, at Pratt, in 1960, 1966, and 1968 through 1971.
--Ralph L. Wickiser: The Reflected Stream, The Early Years 1975-1985, Copyright C 2009, WWG Publishing, Inc., New York, NY.
COMPASSION I, 1951 - 1956
Ralph Wickiser's abstract paintings from the 1950's are exemplary of that period of modernist American art; yet they also look astonishingly fresh. His great love of both materials and the act of painting is evident in the meticulously considered treatment of his surfaces, in their textures, in the balance, range and subtle modulation of colors - the elegant blues, reds sahding to rose, greens, yellows, the orange burnished gold - and in many layers of glazes that give his colors their intensity and resonace, their depths. His handling of the paint alternates between thin, translucent passages which the light can penetrate and rich, heavy impaso; in some instances, the paint has been fashioned into rosette-like shapes, and abstract flowing into bas-relief. He also affixes nails, paint tubes and other painting paraphernalia to the surfaces as if to include all aspects for painting within itself. Surface, space color, light , brushwork are all subjects, as are the grid and the band which are the dominant structuring devices though more evident in some paintings than in others. Yet despite this phenomenological approach, the surface seems to dissolve into illusion, shimmering at the edges like a mirage. Some of these canvases were inspired by Grunewald's Isenheim Altarpiece, whose mysterious, difficult colors and sharply expressive figures in the extraordinary central panel echo the sorrow and pity of the crucifixion with particular passion, particular poignancy; they then shift to more triumphant tones in other sections, juxtaposing the tragic and the joyous, the beautiful and the grotesque, the hateful and the compassionate, Ralph Wickiser's paintings would still those emotions in color and through color, share the spirit of that profoundly human drama.
New York City, January 1996
--Ralph L. Wickiser: The Reflected Stream, The Early Years 1975-1985, Copyright C 2009, WWG Publishing, Inc., New York, NY.
EARLY WORKS, 1930 - 1950
In the summer of 1940, Ralph and Jane drove from Lousiana to Guadaloajara and Tosco in Mexico, where they spent time with Diego Rivera. As Jane recalls, "He was so ugly he was beautiful." The summer yielded a series of watercolors created outdoors in the marketplaces of Guadalajara and Tosco.
--Ralph L. Wickiser: The Reflected Stream, The Early Years 1975-1985, New York, NY: WWG Publishing, Inc., 2009, p. 13