Excerpts from Conversations with the Artist

About three years ago I met Wilbur Niewald at the Albrecht-Kemper Museum. I was familiar with his work and liked it very much. We decided to meet at his studio so I could see his work and discuss his ideas about painting.

We decided then to make plans for a retrospective exhibition with the possibility of a catalogue which would include some of his ideas. Following are excerpts from conversations that we had over the past three years.

Terry Oldham
Albrecht Kemper Museum of Art

T.O- When did you first become interested in art?

W.N. One of my earliest childhood memories is drawing in pencil and crayon while sitting on the floor in front of the fireplace of the family home. It gave me great pleasure and I was encouraged by family and friends. When I was ten I received a scholarship to the Kansas City Art Institute to attend Saturday classes. We worked with a few colors of chalk on toned paper. The teacher, Ms. Polk, exuded her love of art, particularly impressionism, and encouraged simplicity of means with an emphasis on color. I knew I was to be a painter.

T.O. Where did you receive your art education?

W.N. After high school I received a four year scholarship to the Kansas City Art Institute in 1942. World War II was in progress and after the first year I enlisted in the Navy Air Corps, served three years and returned in 1946 to continue my studies. My most important influence was from Vincent Campanella who broadened my understanding of art and nature. In his class we worked from the model with an emphasis on abstraction and palette of yellow ochre, earth red, black and white. Gradually I began to have a deeper understanding of painting and the great art of the past. About this time I remember being deeply moved by the Cézanne Mont Sainte-Victoire in the Nelson Gallery. From that time on it has been a source of learning and a sustaining influence through the years. I also realized the significance of the simple statement of Cézanne that in nature we learn to see and in the museums we learn to think. At this time I also began teaching at the Kansas City Art Institute.

T.O. What were the influences to the development of your ideas in those early years?

W.N. A summer in Mexico in 1951 was enormously important to the development of my ideas of painting. It was a very study of nature. I traveled by car, staying mostly in smaller towns, painting the landscape in watercolor. It was an exotic new world for me - so strange and beautiful. In my work I carried the influence of my school studies but now began to see my personal ideas emerge.

T.O. And how did those ideas develop?

W.N. For some reason I became increasingly simpler in my drawing and painting, Working on the spot I felt the need for line (simple straight and Curve) and a close color harmony with the illusion of space. About this time there was a special exhibition at the Art Institute of work from the Museum of Modern Art in New York— as I recall it was titled "The City." There were paintings by Hopper, Birchfield, Marsh, Bishop and others. And there was a drawing in charcoal of a facade by Mondrian. This drawing had an immediate impact on me and it coincided with my own need for simplicity, frontality and oneness. It had an enormous influence on the direction of my work. I also remember finding a small reproduction of Mondiran’s Pier and Ocean which I would look at frequently – it meant so much to me. I don't know why.

T.O. And how did this experience affect your own work?

W.N. This need for simplicity and oneness determined the subject matter. I worked from a single source – either trees, rock bluffs or city-I suppose this need to work from a single element was a bridge to abstraction — which I seemed to want at that time. I made cursory drawings on the spot using broken vertical and horizontal lines (charcoal or crayon) and then developed the paintings in the studio. The color was close and I was concerned with the illusion of space. Perhaps this need for spatial illusion (contrary to Mondrian) could mean that I never really was an abstract painter. Anyway, this personal conception of nature would persist for two decades — the fifties and sixties.

TO. More specificly - talk about the evolution of the work of the 50s and 60s.

W.N. In the early 50s I worked with a low key palette of earth colors (yellow ochre, burnt sienna, ivory black and white). As I said earlier I worked from a single element (rocks, trees, city) and the paintings were abstract and contained within the format. Gradually I began to see the need of a foreground, the subject and an ending (the horizon). I also began to deal with on these paintings.

In the 60s my palette remained simple but changed to the primary colors (red, yellow, blue). The painting became larger and the handling was freer and more open. I also began to use the simple curve — perhaps a closer identification with the natural world.

A stay in Florence in 1965 stimulated this gradual return to recognizable imagery. The source of my paintings remained the landscape but by 1970 I also did several paintings from figures - bathers in the creek beds of southern Missouri and figures in the markets of New Mexico and Mexico. All of these paintings started from direct visual experience. I would do watercolors on the site and use them as a source for my painting in oil in the studio. I thought of the groups of figures in the same way as I did when looking at foliage on a hillside or a wall or a rock formation. The figures were realized as a total and not a composition of parts.

T.O. I know that after the 50s and 60s your work went through a change — talk about that change.

W.N. In 1970 after returning from a second trip to Mexico I looked out of the window of my studio and said to myself— why not just paint what I see. I did - and this was one of the most exhilarating and liberating experiences of my life. From that moment to the present I have worked entirely from direct visual experience of nature (in this context all things that are visible). I used the landscape, still life and figure and what I saw became the motivation to paint. I confronted nature and began dealing with the particular and not seeking the universal. The ideal was real.

T.O. Talk more about the influence of artists and your travels.

W.N. Although it was not by plan. I feel the influences of artists on my work are basically European. In early years also had a love of Italian painting — particularly Giotto and Masaccio. On our first trip to Europe we traveled by car through England, Germany, Holland, Belgium, France, Spain, Switzerland and finally settled in Florence, Italy. We visited museums and churches and took in the beautiful environment and way of life. It was one of the most memorable and influential experiences of my life. Giotto and Masaccio were rewarding as expected but in our travels I was also taken by the beauty and vigor of the Venetians - particularly Titian and Tintoretto.

In 1973 we spent six months in France. Chardin, Cézanne and Matisse were earlier influences but I began to see the importance of Giacometti. The singular focus, classical form and close color harmony was right for me at that time. And then there is always Rembrandt — the solitary, monumental figure. With all of these influences I never lost sight of my own conception of art through the study of nature.

T.O. What about the development of your painting over the past thirty years.

W.N. After I began working from direct visual experience my objectives have remained the same — to paint what I see. Through the years I began to understand more about seeing. I learned the importance of the field of vision, the visual size of things we see and I learned what we see is color—that is all we really see. I am not concerned with the narrative or conscious symbolism. For me, painting is a visual study but it is always a personal expression. I agree with Giacometti that all painting is subjective and that to "copy the cup" still means that it is your cup.

T.O. Talk about the subject matter you use in your painting.

W.N. I paint the landscape, still life and figure and essentially it is all the same. We see color and when we are painting from direct visual experience, it is all still life – we can only really see something that is still. There are differences of course. In landscape, we find the form (the motif) and in still life and figure, for me, it is set up. In landscape, I seem to be particularly attracted to wide vistas — views of the city. In still life and figure, I set up the motif using various draperies and objects as subject matter. It takes me considerable time to make these set ups and I constantly readjust. When the form is there in front of me. I try to paint what I see.

TO. Let's talk about your teaching.

W.N. I have been very fortunate to have taught at the Kansas City Art Institute for forty three years. It is a wonderful, unique institution that has attracted some extremely talented faculty and students throughout its history. There was a very close working relationship between the student and faculty and it helped me put together my thoughts and clarify my objectives.

My objectives in teaching evolved through the years and coincided with my own pursuits as a painter. In the early years I was concerned with abstraction and formal issues. In my later years it simply became "paint what you see." I did not feel that I was teaching art and not even teaching painting. I was helping the student to see and to realize a total in equilibrium. I also did help with the material and technical concerns and encouraged the study of the great art of the past. I always emphasized that their time in my studio was an experience of the moment and not an end. The direction and objectives in their work in the future were fine with me.

T.O. What are other influences in your daily life — not painters and works of art?

W.N. Of course all of us are influenced by many activities and events that happen in our lives. I do know that in my early years as a painter, I was influenced by classical literature - particularly Homer, Tolstoy and Camus.

Classical music is an important part of my life. I like Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Vivaldi - Bach has always been a constant source of inspiration. I listen to classical music some each day – for me it is rejuvenating.

I must add here that my wife, Gerry, has been at the heart of my life as a painter. Through the years she has given me support and encouragement - she is my best critic and loving companion.

TO. And what about the future?

W.N. I cannot imagine a major change in my objectives as a painter. I only want to realize more clearly what I see. I know there are always preconceptions inhibiting our ability to see — but nature is the teacher and a constant and infinite source of learning.

Each day I face the subject and try to visually understand what is before me. Accepting what I see as truth, I search and correct to conform to the subject — to understand it as a total in balance. I feel that I see more clearly each day and I am encouraged by the progress. I also know it is an endless learning process — I am grateful for this moment.