New York

Wyndham Lewis

Washburn Gallery

Wyndham Lewis’ first solo exhibition in the United States, 28 years after his death, came at a time when his literary star is rising. In fact, after many years of being out of print and unavailable (particularly in the United States), Lewis’ work has almost come into vogue, and several of his books have been reprinted in the last few years.

Still, Lewis remains more or less “out” as a visual artist—a position he cultivated as “The Enemy.” It may be that Lewis’ bombastic art criticism had more to do with his ostracism from the art world than his painting itself or his boycott of painters’ bohemia. Lewis put at least as much energy into attacking his contemporaries, particularly foreign contemporaries, as he did into making his own paintings and drawings or boosting his own career and those of his Vorticist allies. His spectacularly ambiguous politics further isolated him from recognition as an artist.

This exhibition went a long way toward reestablishing Lewis as an important visual artist. He is far more than an earth-toned English Cubist. He is the Cubist who captured the collision of the Old World and the machine that was the first World War. He is the prophet of the robot, the cyborg, the android—the man emulating his own imitation.

This exhibition contained several remarkable portraits. Lewis succeeded, perhaps better than anyone, at bringing the algebra of Cubism into portraiture. Lewis’ portraits are caricature combined with angelic geometry. He captures personality in sheer angle. Ezra Pound is heroically arced, superhumanly symmetrical, and conically spectacular. James Joyce’s portrait is a bare sketch, but perfectly telling in its enormous plane forehead, acute-angle nose, angle-and-arc goatee, and dominant-cipher spectacles. Iris Tree is a perfect creature of arcs, her posture that of a casual English odalisque, as telling as a Buddha’s. Edward Wadsworth’s 1920 portrait is the most radical of all since it has no face, but the angle of hands crossed over the lap, the knickered legs crossed precisely, are a perfect distillation of character.

Lewis’ best pictures are about the abstraction in man, the man in the abstract. He is a radical caricaturist, combining the savage totem and the anthropologist’s protractor. There is a great vision at work; sometimes Lewis seems to be the William Blake of pessimism. But Lewis is not a cynic. His bitterness is spectacular. His snarl swivels into a demonic grin. His howl is a howl of laughter. And in Lewis’ pictures, as in his masterpiece trilogy The Human Age (1955–56), hell can be more unorthodox and amusing than fictional, obsolete, and impossible heavens.

Glenn O’Brien