Ralph Wickiser: The Abstract Stream and Covered Apple Tree Paintings

David Adams Cleveland
Apr 5, 2014 3:27PM

(Fifteenth in a series of posts on the Art of Collecting)


      What places Ralph Wickiser amongst the finest of America's post-War artists was his ability to constantly re-invent himself decade after decade.  A trick he managed in the last years of his life by reverse-engineering his style yet again with a return to his vital roots in fifties abstraction.  This final achievement completed a breathtaking arc of visual exploration that began in a representational mode in the 1930s, moved into Abstract-Expressionism in the 1950s, segued into Abstract-Representation in the 1970s, only to push new boundaries with his purified and simplified Analytical Abstractions of the late 1980s to his death in 1998.

      How many aging artists in their seventies have the chutzpah much less the energy to move on from a sumptuous and dazzling signature style—the Reflected Stream paintings of 1975 to 1985—and further extend that vision into the often treacherous arena of two-dimensional flat abstraction.  One is reminded of the aging Monet and his obsession with capturing the essence of light and form in the floating world of his lily pad ponds.  Wickiser, a nature poet at heart, with a visual acuity only surpassed by Thoreau in his journals, managed in his last period to capture the scintillating evanescent light forms found on the surface of a tiny stream in Woodstock, and transform that experience into works at once symphonic and exquisitely intimate.  These transfixing paintings depict a world both interior and exterior, a place of the spirit as much as the mind, where floating sumptuous fields of symbolic natural forms tantalize the beholder.  Time is crystallized.  Patterns of color beguile and challenge the viewer.  Only a consummate craftsman in the handling and manipulation of paint could make such meticulous dissections of nature sing on the canvas.

      In work such as Green and Red, 1986 Wickiser has extended the capacity of the human eye to delve into the metamorphic quiddity of the natural world.  By emphasizing the flattened two dimensional color planes of mobile reflections and hard edged natural objects, shapes at once familiar and not, the artist opened up fresh ways of seeing and experiencing the interaction of translucent light and the physical world that contains that light.  This ephemeral aqueous realm of positive and negative images, where light and physical objects seem to interpenetrate, is Wickiser’s true subject.  These are things of ambiguity, of mystery and dream: the unseen world of the poet and shaman.  

      In old age, with camera in hand, Wickiser would carefully make his way to a stream near his Woodstock home and spend hours watching and photographing and taking field notes.  The artist was, in effect, bringing us news of a visionary world ever in the making, carefully mapping out a journey into time and space that physicists delving into string theory might well find bracing if not confounding.  Back in the studio, Wickiser’s real genius presented itself when, by giving us less visual information on canvas in terms of a third dimension—forgoing even heavy gestural pigment, he actually provided more information to the eye by impelling the viewer to decipher and makes sense of the organic pattern-structures of interacting light and form.  This delicate minuet of reflected-refracted light and the highlighted patterns that define objects in space invites the imagination to engage with the work, not unlike how a metaphor on the page unites disparate imagery into a hybrid sensation.  Wickiser, spinning webs of chromatic filigree, is a poet in paint.

       Color and tone is yet another strategy employed by the artist to elucidate these departures into the realm of aesthetic wonder.  In In Red, 1990, the dominant pink, purple, gray, and delft blue tonalities unify and further transform the scene into a spellbinding image of the familiar and strange.  One detects in the flattened planes of color-forms elements of early modernists like August Vincent Tack and Milton Avery (a longtime friend of Wickiser) but here extrapolated and extended by the way in which the tones of the various shapes play off one another, seeming to move forward and back on the canvas surface, and so hint at yet undiscovered dimensions.  Likewise, the formal dynamic of lighter and darker hues jitterbugging in close proximity keeps the canvas energized and alive to repeated viewings.  Nothing remains the same…all is aswirl with frozen motion.  Similarly, Shadows on the Apple Trees, 1990 the soothing dominant blue tonalities evoke a sylvan moment, but one of such kaleidoscopic complexity that the viewer is compelled to juggle feelings of dreamy rest with rapt fascination to solve a delightful mystery.

       Ralph Wickiser’s Abstract Stream and Covered Apple Tree paintings sing of the final chapter of an artist’s life; they are the epiphany of a lifetime’s devotion to the splendors of the natural world.  Although photography provided a tool for conceptualizing these works, the deft gestural skill of this master artist was the crucial ingredient to their successful execution.  In the acuity of observation and the deep subjectivity of translating lived experience to canvas and paint, Ralph Wickiser taps into and extends the transcendentalist tradition of Emerson and Thoreau in ways that very few artists of his generation, or any generation, even dreamed possible.

David Adams Cleveland