A draftsman, painter, and photographer, Wols (1913–1951) was one of the most ingenious and influential—if commercially unsuccessful—artists to emerge in postwar Europe. Along with Jean Dubuffet, Pierre Soulages, and Georges Mathieu, Wols was a leading figure in Tachisme, a movement in painting considered to be the European equivalent of American Abstract Expressionism. Named for the French word tache, meaning stain, Tachisme—an outgrowth of the larger Art Informel, or “art without form” movement—cultivated an autonomist style emphasizing free lines and forms drawn from the artist’s psyche.
In his intimately scaled drawings and paintings, Wols did not start with preconceived compositions. Instead, his unconscious, in the Surrealist and existentialist senses of the word, shaped his images, which began with a few marks, then carefully developed highly complex, self-contained visual universes. Early drawings and watercolors include fantastical animals, figures, sailing ships, and cityscapes. Later paintings are almost entirely abstract, using heavy impasto and tentacle like drips to suggest powerful emanations that suggest otherworldly flowers or atomic explosions.
Born Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze in Berlin, Wols moved to Paris in 1932 to escape his austere bourgeois roots and the authority of a father who was chancellor of the German state of Saxony. There, inspired by a mistake on a telegraph, he changed his name to Wols, and eked out a living during the difficult wartime years by teaching German and making drawings, paintings, photographs, and etchings. A number of his prints were used as illustrations for texts by Antonin Artaud, Franz Kafka, Jean-Paul Sartre, and others. And various exhibitions of his work in Paris in 1945 and 1947 at Galerie Drouin and other galleries in France, Italy, and the United States, allowed him a precarious existence, made difficult by constant illness and alcoholism.
Notoriously reticent about his work, Wols once explained his vision of the world by referring to a crack in the sidewalk: “Look at that crack. It is like one of my drawings. It’s a living thing. It will grow… It was created by the only force that is real.” The increasing esteem that Wols enjoyed in Europe before his death had little sustained echo on this side of the Atlantic during or after his lifetime, except for the keen interest of John and Dominique de Menil and a handful of other individual and institutional collectors. Organized by the Menil Collection and curator of modern and contemporary art Toby Kamps in conjunction with the Kunsthalle Bremen, Germany, Wols: Retrospective will introduce broad audiences to the work of an artist who remains unknown for the most part in the United States. Comprising approximately 20 paintings and 50 drawings, watercolors, and photographs, the exhibition will supplement the Menil Collection’s strong holdings of the artist’s work with international loans of important works.
The above text is the exhibition press-release. Wols: Retrospective is on at the Menil from the 13th of September until the 12th of January 2014.