Niewald's embrace of realism on exhibit, 
By Alice Thorson  The Kansas City Star, May 30, 2004

Wilbur Niewald is a Kansas City icon.

Standing on the bluffs overlooking Quality Hill or Penn Valley Park, easel before him and paint brush in hand, his favorite straw hat crowning a shock of white hair, the artist has long been a magnet for television cameras and a source of fascination for casual passers-by.

The paintings created during these forays, however, are more than props in a charming vignette.

Niewald's renderings of old brick buildings in the West Bottoms speak to Kansas City's love of history and embrace of the familiar, as surely as his depictions of stately trees and sun-washed bluffs tap the citizenry's pride in the natural beauty of its campuses and parks.

It is perhaps no wonder that Niewald's landscapes and cityscapes are so closely aligned with the character and ethic of Kansas City - a native son, he has been painting here for more than 50 years.

An exhibit on view at the Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art provides a long view of this veteran painter's accomplishments. "Wilbur Niewald: A Retrospective 1951-2004," organized by the museum's director, Terry Oldham, with ample input from Niewald himself, features more than 60 paintings, drawings and watercolors. Their subjects are landscapes, abstractions, still lifes, portraits and nudes.

The show makes clear that the 79-year-old artist is as on top of his game as ever. More than one-third of the works in this show were completed in the last three years, including a series of soulful new still lifes. Niewald's story and artistic evolution will be familiar to many from his 40-year retrospective at the Kansas City Art Institute's Charlotte Crosby Kemper Gallery in 1992. That occasion marked his retirement from the school after 43 years of teaching there.

Niewald also earned his graduate and undergraduate degrees at the Art Institute, with time out to serve in the U.S. Naval Corps from 1943 to 1947. He is now professor emeritus of painting at the institution where he began taking his first art classes at the age of 10.

The school's retrospective, like the current one, began in the early 1950s when Niewald was seeking to absorb the lessons of early modernist abstraction. It traced his artistic journey to the mature body of work that came from his 1971 commitment to paint from direct observation, a course he has not wavered from for more than three decades.

"My one motivation," Niewald said during a walk through the exhibit in St. Joe, "(is) to get what I see."

Oldham finds this shift from abstraction to realism to be "atypical." "Think of (Jackson) Pollock coming out as a Benton student and becoming an abstract expressionist," he said in a recent interview. "Niewald went the other way." And he has collected plenty of kudos as a result, many in the last decade.

In 1994 Niewald was invited to become a member of the venerable National Academy of Design in New York. Since then he has exhibited regularly in its biennial show of members.

In 1995 the Metropolitan Museum of New York purchased his painting "Elizabeth" from a one-person show at the New York Studio School. In 1999 he was recognized with a lifetime achievement award from the Kansas City-based Charlotte Street Foundation. Now comes the honor of a 50-year retrospective. Oldham was introduced to the artist several years ago. What spurred him to undertake the retrospective, he said, was Niewald's "work ethic" and his "intensity."

"I was just fascinated by him as a man and his work ethic," Oldham said. "I've watched him paint and how intense he is as he's painting. We were talking in the studio and he was doing the inside lip of a pitcher. He was working on that inside shadow of the pitcher for that whole hour."

Niewald's earliest paintings - pared-back abstractions of trees with a hint of mystery and the Mondrian-influenced "City Three" (1953) - are somber, stable, frontally oriented compositions executed in a palette of blacks, ochres and grays. His concern at the time, the artist has said, was with "the illusion of space." These paintings portend the passion for structure that is Niewald's hallmark, as well as his career-long interest in nature and architecture.

In the 1960s Niewald experimented with a bright primary palette, as seen in a series of landscape abstractions employing blocklike strokes of bright color. With their looser brushwork and shifting, contrasting hues, these works look positively jumpy compared to the calm, descriptive works of his later paintings.

The artist continues to indulge a lighter, quicker touch in his watercolors, however, of which a dozen are included in this exhibition along with several drawings. Presaging Niewald's turn to an art based on observation are a series of paintings, including "Florence, Yellow House" (1965) and "Bathers II" (1969), in which, the artist says, "color wasn't just space, it became description." Slowly, representation began to gain the upper hand over abstraction.

Niewald's watershed moment occurred in 1971, when he looked out the window of his studio and thought, "Why not just paint what I see?"

"The Pink House" (1971) marks the beginning of this new chapter.

"I began dealing with the particular and not seeking the universal. The ideal was the real," the artist explained in an interview with Oldham in the exhibit's accompanying catalog.

The earliest still life in the exhibit, "Still Life With Pewter Pot" (1972), dates from this period, as does the rocky landscape "Yaki Point West" (1972). Both works establish important constants in the artist's treatment of subject matter.

Niewald typically takes great care in arranging his still life elements, effectively composing his motif. For all his emphasis on observation, the resulting compositions evince a classical order and balance. This also is a function of the way Niewald uses paint as a stabilizing agent. Looking at a Niewald composition, we know his apples and onions aren't going to be doing any rolling around; they are virtually sculpted into place with paint.

"Yaki Point" offers the exhibit's first instance of Niewald's use of an elevated perspective on the landscape, a change from the largely straight-on views of earlier scenes. "I like broad vistas, I like vastness," Niewald said.

He exercises the same care over motif with his landscapes as he does with his still lifes, but instead of "constructing" the composition he will paint, he chooses it. His choices, as seen in his well-known views of the West Bottoms, Penn Valley Park and Greystone Heights, typically include a place for the eye to rest, away from the densely clustered buildings and bursts of greenery. Often this break takes the form of curving expanses of pavement, from which the rest of the scene ascends.

The Niewald aesthetic that we all have come to know is calm and organized. But it was not always so, as seen in the uncharacteristic visual busyness of the relatively early "View From Greystone Heights" (1985). By the time he painted "Kansas City, View of the River" four years later, the artist had solved the problem, stabilizing the composition by using a red building as focal point.

A 2001 portrait of his beloved wife, "Gerry," epitomizes Niewald's ability to convey the inner life of his subject by carefully recording outer appearances. Some of Niewald's most compelling paintings record the beauties of the natural landscape. Scenes such as "Pines in Loose Park I" and "Rocks at Cambridge Circle V" and "Rocks at Cambridge Circle VI" (2001) capture the freshness and renewal that he finds in nature.

Niewald is no photo-realist, painting at an emotional remove from his subjects. "Painting to me is making something whole. It's not like house painting. It's never mechanical. It's always felt," Niewald says.

Niewald would be the last to claim that he has mastered the art of observation, but his increased comfort level comes through in the heightened sense of feeling contained in his new landscapes and still lifes. Whether or not it's intentional, it adds immeasurably to their allure.