Ben Wilson: from Social Realism to Abstraction
Curated by Professor Jason Rosenfeld
Through Nov. 4
The George Segal Gallery,
Montclair State University
1 Normal Ave.
By GIOYA MCRAE
For Montclair Local
Ben Wilson is an unknown figure in American art… by choice.
The retrospective “Ben Wilson: From Social Realism to Abstraction,” which runs through Saturday, Nov. 4, at Montclair State University’s George Segal Gallery, is the first survey of Wilson’s entire career.
Guest curator Jason Rosenfeld explained the artist’s anonymity.
“He decided that he did not want to be part of the commercial art establishment. He pretty much limited his operations to New Jersey. He was involved in a couple of artists’ societies,” Rosenfeld said. “They exhibited in places they were hopeful people would see the stuff, so libraries and community centers, not necessarily just art museums.”
Wilson’s work is now displayed at numerous universities and museums, including the Newark Museum and New Jersey State Museum. The exhibition also includes pieces on loan from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Museum in New York City.
Wilson was born in Philadelphia in 1913 to Jewish immigrant parents from the Ukrainian city of Kiev. He later moved to Ridgefield, and then Blairstown where he lived with his sculptor wife, Evelyn, until his death at age 88 in 2001. Six of Evelyn’s sculptures stand in the lobby of MSU’s Alexander Kasser Theater.
This exhibition, according to a release, shows Wilson’s development from work as a WPA artist in the 1930s and ’40s, working in a socialist realist style that reflects the war and the Holocaust, through cubism and surrealism, into more symbolic figures in the 1950s, that evolved into geometric abstraction, a style he continued to explore until his death in 2001.
The collection was gifted to MSU by Ben and Evelyn Wilson’s only child, Joanne Wilson Jaffe, in 2012, for the college’s permanent collection. Rosenfeld, a distinguished chair and professor of art history at Marymount Manhattan College and a senior writer for the monthly journal The Brooklyn Rail, orchestrated the exhibit into four separate stages. “Part of the goal of this show is to show his earliest work through his very last pieces. You can see the development of his painting,” he said.
DARK TO LIGHT
In the George Segal Gallery exhibit, Wilson’s early paintings, such as “Pogrom” (1936) and “Apocalypse” (1938) express the misery of the Holocaust through pained faces and dark colors.
Later works, “Bypass” (1991-92), and “Queen of Hearts” (1960), display bold geometric patterns. According to his bio on benwilsonamericanartist.org, “When times changed and social pressures subsided, Wilson’s mood lifted. Towards the end of the decade Wilson reached a crossroads, moving towards abstraction and searching for what he called ‘a scaffolding under the externals.’”
Adam Swart, education coordinator for the George Segal Gallery, said, looking at the paintings, “A couple of the social realist pieces at the front, ‘The Wasteland’ and ‘Muckrakers,’ on loan from Hebrew Union College, stylistically seem to be rather important for the evolution of the artist.”
“Corrida,” a large oil on canvas painted in 1965-66, “was apparently one of Ben’s own favorites,” Swart said. According to the exhibition catalog, “Corrida” reflects Wilson’s passion for bullfighting, which developed during his visits to Spain. In the catalog, Wilson writes in a letter, “So about the bullfight again — it is not enough to see this as a spectacle or a contest between two species of animal. It has not only a theme of art — the pictorial, the dance, the music. It has a religious note — primitive man against all the dangers of nature, and conquest thru knowledge and skill, but it is wrapped in mysticism, the acceptance of death as inevitable, and the deep feeling of both man’s heroic potential and his destructibility.”
Swart pointed out another important piece in the collection, “In Plane Sight” (2000), which was filled with vibrant colors. “This was painted the year before he died in his late 80s. It’s quite remarkable to consider that,” Swart said. “Some analysts suggest that an artist’s palette may be representative of their state of mind. If that’s at all accurate, he was a happy guy.”
FAR FROM THE HURLY-BURLY
Wilson was an educator as well as an artist, Rosenfeld said. “He was very generous. He taught the whole of his life, and he taught private lessons. He taught at colleges and art schools. He did a lot of outreach. He was very engaged in the community. He was really trying to help build an artistic community in New Jersey.”
Wilson also worked for the Works Progress Administration as an art instructor.
In addition to artwork, Rosenfeld also included photos of Wilson and his wife, Evelyn, in the show. The photographs “say a lot about how he thought of himself as an artist,” he said. “In a way, this story is about Ben Wilson, but they really were a quite remarkable partnership. They exhibited together all through the second half of their lives.
“I think it’s interesting to think about an artist who was deeply committed to elevating the state of the arts in New Jersey,” Rosenfeld said. Wilson “removed himself from the hurly-burly of New York City.”