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  1. Visual Arts

Discovering Ralph Wickiser in exhibition at Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art

Ralph Wickiser, White Streak, 1984, oil on linen.
Published Dec. 16, 2015

TARPON SPRINGS

The book on 20th century art is still being written, though there are names — Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, for example — that are givens. I'm interested in the less commonly acknowledged artists, the Ralph Wickisers of the art world.

Ralph Wickiser, you ask? So did I.

A retrospective at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art curated by Lynn Whitelaw is a fine introduction.

Wickiser (1910-1998) was far from obscure. He had a distinguished academic career, including as art department head at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where he founded a graduate program and oversaw a faculty that included Jacob Lawrence, Philip Pearlstein, Franz Kline and Roy Lichtenstein. He wrote textbooks on art education that were widely used. He had numerous gallery exhibitions and writeups in arts publications. The New York Times wrote his obituary when he died.

Though his paintings continue to be exhibited, he isn't nearly as well-known as the colleagues listed above.

Time will tell.

In the meantime, enjoy getting to know him. The show begins with three watercolors in black and white, sketches really, created in marketplaces while he was visiting Mexico in 1934. They're representative in style, probably snapshots for a memory book.

We're thrust 15 years forward to his evolution into abstraction. Wickiser liked to work in series, and one he named "Compassion" is a fuguelike contemplation of the crucifixion inspired by a visceral 16th century altarpiece whose image is reproduced nearby. Hands and feet and the suggestion of a head and body are evident amid the interlocking abstract shapes in several works from the series, but the most interesting element is the use of color. Wickiser's palette was wonderfully modulated and became more refined as he aged, and he loved what I call slightly off-whack hues. Yellow ochre and avocado green in Box Lid (1956) prefigure the populist love of them for kitchen appliances by years.

As he moved into the 1960s, the artist explored textural abstractions and bolder color combinations that we see in Rising (1965), with its magenta background dotted with flat swipes of colors such as salmon and turquoise that, as they rise, become more defined, heavily painted areas done in a layering technique called impasto.

Abruptly, we face a triptych of nudes painted between 1970 and 1975 when artists were moving away from the dominance of abstract expressionism. Wickiser was an art historian, and these are homages to Venus of Urbino, Titian's great 16th century painting that features a woman reclining on a red coverlet. Wickiser replaces it with a red shawl on which the model lounges. We might also make a connection to the famous nudes of Pearlstein, who was a Pratt faculty member when Wickiser headed the art program. They're fine paintings but seem more like academic exercises than genuine expressions of intent. That genuine commitment is seen immediately when we reach his landscapes, which he began in 1975 and continued for more than 20 years.

They, too, are part of various series, and in them he achieves a soul-satisfying blend of abstraction and realism with a sometimes fantastical color palette. Winter Stream (1975) leads us into this phase with a recognizable stream with rocks and snow that still are more about shape and form than verisimilitude. Compare it to Dark Stream (1997), which looks at the reflective qualities of water using a black background on which pastels float.

Wickiser lived in Woodstock, N.Y., for years, and he was enchanted with its natural surroundings. He like to photograph them, especially a nearby stream, then use the images as inspiration. He considered them studies, and two of them are hung with the paintings they inspired.

Among his final series is "Covered Apple Tree," and to my mind his finest work. The subject is the apple tree in his back yard, which he covered with cheesecloth to keep birds and squirrels from decimating the harvest. He uses unconventional colors, of course, beautiful combinations such as cool pink, turquoise and purple in one and warm yellows in another. In them all, the tree is dappled with sunlight and shadow within its shroud.

The promising news is that Wickiser is indeed receiving more attention. And the late, distinguished critic Arthur Danto reminds us of an important history lesson: "The really interesting question is, Who's remembered and who's not? Piero della Francesca was forgotten until the 19th century. Chardin and Botticelli were also once forgotten. Caravaggio was only rediscovered after he'd been forgotten for centuries. They were never underrated, just forgotten."

I, for one, will remember Ralph Wickiser.

Contact Lennie Bennett at lbennett@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8293.

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