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Wols, Die Brücke (Camp), 1940–41, ink and watercolor on paper, 8 1/2 x 12".

Wols, Die Brücke (Camp), 1940–41, ink and watercolor on paper, 8 1/2 x 12".

Wols

The Menil Collection

Wols, Die Brücke (Camp), 1940–41, ink and watercolor on paper, 8 1/2 x 12".

When Wols, the preferred moniker for the German Informel artist Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze, first met Jean-Paul Sartre, he immediately established his affinity with the philosopher by reciting a passage from his well-known novel Nausea. If Wols’s position as one of Sartre’s chosen exemplars of existentialist angst has, with some recent exceptions, been the cornerstone of most French and English-language scholarship on his work, the tragic details of Wols’s biography—with special focus on his estrangement from his bourgeois family, his self-imposed exile and poverty in France, his incarceration for fourteen months in French internment camps, his alcoholism, and his failing mental health—have served as the primary framework for accounts of his art in Germany. The first American retrospective of the artist’s work, curated by Toby Kamps with art historian Ewald Rathke and currently on view at the Menil Collection (through January 12, 2014, in a pared-down iteration of a larger show that opened at the Kunsthalle Bremen, Germany, last spring), attempts to counter these narrow approaches with a broad selection of Wols’s early Surrealist-inspired photographs, his abstract tachist paintings, and a plethora of intricate works on paper.

Often overlooked, these small watercolor and ink drawings are given their due at the Menil, where they range from the tight penmanship of Le peigne (The Comb), ca. 1943, to the color-stained Rorschach splotches of Untitled, ca. 1948. Many of the earlier drawings—strange, otherworldly landscapes populated by a personal language of grotesquerie—display an aesthetic somewhere between the generative line of automatic writing and the obsessive workmanship of Paul Klee. Le Monstre Passif (The Passive Monster), 1939–40, with its deformed woman and child, declares allegiance to Wols’s Surrealist colleagues, paying direct homage to Max Ernst’s 1926 The Virgin Spanking the Christ Child Before Three Witnesses: André Breton, Paul Éluard, and the Painter; whereas others, such as Die Brücke (Camp), 1940–41, depicting a kind of ship of fools set adrift in an apocalyptic landscape, may be allusive renderings of personal experiences. As critic Katy Siegel points out in her catalogue essay, “sheer materiality is not abstraction; it is one aspect . . . of the world of things,” an observation that rescues Wols from the clichés of postwar abstraction and highlights his concern for the minutiae and physicality of the natural world, wedded to a kind of Taoist modesty that resists the outsize demonstrations of self typical of his peers.

Nonetheless, his paintings—materialist experiments in chance and accident—remain relevant to debates about abstraction today. Encouraged by his dealer, René Drouin, who after World War II gave the artist paint and canvases, Wols pushed the delicate physical obsession of his watercolor drawings in ways that confound the formal and psychoanalytic readings normally applied to similar European work from this period. Manhattan, 1948–49, appears at first glance to be an explosion of pigment on the canvas, and indeed it feeds comparisons to an existential and nihilistic vocabulary of voids, wounds, and bombs that abounds in the scholarship on the era. Yet despite Manhattan’s sense of violent abandon, it still bears fragments of the microcosmic worlds found in the artist’s drawings. In a series of moves that both subtract from and build up the painterly surface, Wols etched a grid of fine lines, like an endless network of tiny ladders, onto the canvas, their compulsive order somehow in sync with the underlying layers of turpentine-thinned splotches and washes of color. His paintings, though uniquely fragile, are still caught between the violence of the graffiti mark and the strange beauty of Expressionism (see L’oiseau [Bird], 1949, an ode to Chaim Soutine if there ever was one), making Wols a fascinating figure of his historical moment, when the vestiges of an authentic belief in painting persisted throughout the horrors of World War II and into the postwar moment of new beginnings.

Karen Butler