WILBUR NIEWALD
A Forty Year Retrospective 1951 - 1991, by Deborah Rosenthal.

If the word "retrospective" seems out of place when one thinks of the painter Wilbur Niewald, it is because his art, though contemplative, does not result from looking backward or even inward. As a mature artist Niewald has chosen instead to draw and paint from what he sees immediately around him. To an extraordinary degree, he has put his faith in the possibility of seeing more - understanding more - with his next look; his ouevre has taken shape from the silting up of many such small instances of comprehension. There is a remarkable optimism in such work, the optimism of an artistic personality at home in his world.

Niewald's artistic vision has a great deal to do with Kansas City, Missouri, where he was born in 1925 and has lived his whole life. Though in the history of American art Kansas City is often identified as Thomas Hart Benton's town, it is also, and more importantly for Niewald, a rather cosmopolitan city that supported first a well-known art school and then a major art museum as well. As a ten-year-old attending art classes at the school - Kansas City Art Institute - Niewald found his first artistic home. Those classes were the beginning of what has turned out to be a 56-year association with the school, from which he also received his undergraduate and graduate degrees in art. Kansas City's art museum - now known as the Nelson- Atkins Museum of Art - opened right across the street from the Art Institute in 1933. As a young man with traditionalist training behind him, Niewald was particularly struck by the museum's great Cezanne painting of Mont-St.-Victoire, and their Rembrandt, Portrait of a Young Man. It was at the Art Institute, by chance, that Niewald was first able to encounter an advanced modernist an built on those antecedents: in 1950, when he was a beginning instructor, he went to see an exhibi- tion on loan to the school from the Museum of Modern Art; the single Mondrian in the show was a revelation to him.

Niewald had started to teach at the Art Institute in 1949, even before finishing his MFA; by the late 1950's he was head of the painting department, which he led for twenty-six years. A celebrated teacher of painting, whose students attest to the valuable training he offered them, Niewald has had a career that has included invitations to guest-teach at many prestigious art schools over the years, as well as his receiving the College Art Association's Distinguished Teaching of Art Award in 1988. As a chairman at KCAI, Niewald built up his department on the foundation of singular artist-teachers rather than particular courses or curricula. This was based on his own pedagogy: Niewald's gentle but rigorous approach in the classroom had his students working from model or still life in a rapt silence broken, usually, only by his critiques. His department was designed to afford the possibility of just such intense exchanges between teacher and student. Each of the artist-teachers whom Niewald brought to the school through the years was simply to impart to a small group of students each year what he had learned in his own studio. Many of his faculty had their students work in one way or another from nature, and during Niewald's tenure as chairman, the department became renowned for teaching modernist figurative styles.

This emphasis in the school reflected Niewald's interests as a mature painter. In the 1950's, though, as a young painter just starting out, Niewald had found himself most deeply impressed by Mondrian. It was to this master's transitional pictures Facade and Pier and Ocean that Niewald paid homage in his series of tonally painted abstractions, called City I, and Trees. It is notable, however, that through the 1950's and 1960's, even those of his pictures which look influenced by Mondrian's strong verticals and horizontals were based on studies Niewald made on the spot from cityscapes and landscapes.

Reflecting on his painting career, Niewald points to what he calls a breakthrough in 1971; he describes it as a teacher would, in the form of a personal parable. He had just returned, he says, from a short vacation trip to Mexico, where he had as usual painted from life - watercolors of market scenes. He was back in his studio, painting again from preparatory studies, when he happened to look out his window. Although there was nothing new or unusual about the tree-framed house that Niewald saw there, he made what was for him a novel response. Turning his easel toward it, he started to paint the motif just as he saw it, then and there.

The story serves Niewald as prelude to his thoughts on his painting procedure. He is so absolutely convinced of the value of direct observation that he says he has never painted or drawn except directly from nature since beginning that 1971 painting, called The Pink House . "The motif is the painting," he says. "When you find it, you want to paint it. It's just to understand it - if it's beautiful you want to understand it." Niewald's procedure links him, as well, to artists he admires: while discussing his own work, he will frequently interrupt himself to express his wonder at the infinite modesty and honesty with which C├ęzanne regarded nature, or at Giacometti's humility before his motif.

In the easy, large rhythms and sensitively observed details of that pivotal 1971 landscape, The Pink House, one senses the pleasure, perhaps mixed with relief; that Niewald felt on realizing that modernist simplification did not preclude the pleasures of variety and individuation. What must first have caught the painter's eye as he looked out his studio window is shown to us as a central complementary contrast between the deep pink of the house and the various greens of the foliage. The surrounding trees are bent in a beautiful planar rhythm - they share a contour with the side of the house - and although they are highly simplified shapes, these trees evidently belong to different species.

In the decades since he perceived that first motif; Niewald has developed his own way of working from nature. He says now that he attempts as much as possible not to impose ideas of placement or composition on the work before he begins to draw or paint. Of course the artist must pose the model, or set up the still life objects in a spatial configuration - but ultimately Niewald puts his trust in whatever arises from his patient daily struggle with his own perceptions. inevitably, the evolution of the pictures is very slow, since Niewald's studio practice involves his stopping frequently in the middle of painting to rearrange things - the model's attitude, the position of a still life object - if only a bit, so as to enable himself to react afresh to a clearer motif.

Looking at the selection of pictures from life included in this retrospective, one is struck by Niewald's faithfulness not only to his procedure but also (through that procedure) to those objects, people, and places that have moved him to try to perceive and transform them on canvas. His still lifes contain rather ordinary objects, but we become aware that some of them have been regarded continually over a number of years. A small grey pitcher that Niewald first painted in the early 1980's may be seen here in at least three paintings spanning a decade. An unexceptionally patterned yellow cloth has been the backdrop for the same Mason jar, shiny black bottle, apples, onions again and again. This repetition is not evidence of a taste for abstraction, or generalization: Niewald would probably feel that the anonymity of Morandi's repeated bottles, for instance, is too far removed from the individual qualities of particular objects; he even says that his attempts to capture that fullness in the objects makes them 'human' to him. In a typical recent still life entitled Still Life with with Apples and White Cloth , only four objects - the black bottle and three apples - occupy the corner of a table covered with two cloths, one brownish green and the other brilliantly white. These things have been carefully, slowly, and seriously observed. We sense that their constant reappearances have had to do with allowing the painter time to get to know their contours better, and to see their relationships ever more acutely. As a result, the objects seem as if they are being looked at right now - we note the precise highlight on the bottle or the casual folds of the cloth - and also as if they stand a bit outside of time. This paradox is often felt in Niewald's still life paintings.

If it's the timeless particulars of his cloths, pitchers, and bottles that engage Niewald in the still lifes, then in his portraits the subject is the passage of time. Among the handful of people Niewald has depicted repeatedly over the decades, the faces of the painter himself and his wife Gerry (to whom he has been married since 1949) appear most often. In these pictures it seems that Niewald is making his response to the inevitable changes time wreaks on familiar faces and bodies. Set against stark walls softened by nothing more than the occasional patterned cloth, with no props other than an occasional brightly colored scarf, these bust and full-figure portraits are unforiving, even a bit severe. Is it odd, or telling, that the face of the artist himself; staring out from the 1991 Self Portrait seems not that different from the face in the Self Portrait with Red Scarf painted more than ten years before? Niewald's continual careful scrutiny of his own and others' faces is his way of getting at the truth of the moment - or rather, such an infinite set of truths and moments that we ultimately cannot distinguish them from immutability. (This seems the opposite of elegy.) Niewald's painting life is, like that of many a painter from nature, tied to the cycle of the seasons. He spends the extreme midwestern winters indoors painting still lifes and portraits, but at the first slightly warmer spell in the spring he goes outdoors to paint Cityscape at one of his favorite Kansas City sites. It was the world outside his window that first sparked Niewald's desire to paint from observation, and if, like most painters who work in all three of the traditional genres he has a favorite one, it might be landscape-cityscape. He draws or does watercolor wherever he goes - he brings a sketchbook even on short trips to other places and has done drawings of the view from a downtown hotel room as well as paintings in watercolor and oil on sojourns in Mexico and Paris.

Most of all, though, it is in the stretched-out, slightly rolling terrain of his own city that Niewald has discovered a sort of unwitting self-portrait over the years. The whole solitary process of painting out-of-doors - going with watercolors or oils and French easel to find the spot, and then enduring the vagaries of the weather - suits him well. And painting Kansas City is after all a reflection of his intimacy with it. He has a grasp of the city as a whole - its different neighborhoods, the changes over the decades - that allows us to see the cityscapes as backdrops to the thoughts and events of his life.

In four recent paintings, Niewald has perhaps tried to summarize his identification with his city. Seen separately, Kansas City, View of the River , Kansas City, View of Penn Valley Park, Kansas City, View of the West Bottoms, and Kansas City, View of Greystone Heights, seem like intense versions of their motifs; yet when considered together they are also striking in their sameness. In each, Niewald observes essentially the same elements as in the others - a group of buildings, a patch of trees, and sections of freeway circling around and in front of the buildings and trees. His insistence on these things is an insistence on the place itself- he does not wish to find the particulars of other landscapes - the Provencal countryside, the banks of the Seine - in his city. Niewald's pictures of Kansas City are full of plain truths about things - grey freeway, nondescript buildings, undistinguished roadside planting - that are unremarkable except for the emotion he invests in painting them.

The dignity and beauty of Niewald's cityscapes bespeak, too, his embrace of a painting tradition. His commitment to working from life, which he has passed on to generations of his students, situates him within the long and deep history of French painting. His passionate belief in responding directly to the world around him keeps him in the studio and outdoors, struggling to see more clearly what he has seen so often.

Though Niewald will no longer be teaching at Kansas City Art Institute, his authentic voice will continue to be heard through the pictures he paints. One may imagine these recent land- scapes - which, in a neat full circle, now belong to the Nelson- Atkins Museum of Art - as emblems of his twin worlds, Kansas City and art. At their intersection, Niewald stands on his hill, looking out at his city and finding in it what he can understand, and find beautiful, by painting it.


Deborah Rosenthal is a painter who teaches at Rider College; she was a guest artist at Kansas City Art Institute. Her writing on contemporary art have appeared in The New Criterion and various other magazines.