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Abraham Walkowitz, Forgotten Pioneer of American Modernism: Selections from the Collection of Eugene DeGruson and the Collection of the Wichita Art Museum

May 29, 2005 - October 23, 2005

(above: Abraham Walkowitz (1880-1965), Isadora Duncan, date unkonwn, pen and ink on paper, Wichita Art Museum, Gift of Virginia M. Zabriskie, 1997.6)


In 1908 Abraham Walkowitz (1880-1964) presented a New York showing of some of the earliest paintings and drawings by an American to reflect the influence of Cézanne and the French fauves. For the next twelve years Walkowitz ranked in the forefront of U.S. artists experimenting with new European styles. From 1912 through 1917 he played a significant role in the fellowship of progressive American artists championed by Alfred Stieglitz in his famous gallery 291. New York art critics who sympathized with the progressives hailed Walkowitz as an original talent in "the new movement." He appeared in every landmark declaration of artistic freedom launched during the early 20th century in the U.S., including the 1913 Armory Show, the Forum Exhibition of 1916, the People's Art Guild showings of contemporary art from 1915-1917, and the inaugural show of the Société Anonyme in 1920.

Late in life Walkowitz traveled from New York to Kansas to reunite with an old friend from the early creative period in both their lives in order to publish, in a series of five books, a summation of the modernist vision that had animated his career. While this exhibition surveys Walkowitz's major contributions to American modernism, its unique contribution to scholarship is its new insights into the artist's experiences and portfolio during his sojourn in Kansas.

Unlike many of his fellow artists at 291, Abraham Walkowitz's prominence in American art did not survive the 1930s shift from interest in modernist experiments to regionalism. Even more detrimental to his artistic development, Walkowitz's eyesight began to fail. He spent the latter part of his long life legally blind, living with a niece in an apartment in Brooklyn. Although his works are owned by major museums and occasionally appear in group exhibitions of period art, Walkowitz is known today primarily to art historians and a few avid collectors.

Despite this neglect, Abraham Walkowitz is an artist who richly deserves public attention. Walkowitz drew upon multiple sources, but he was not an imitator. He created a distinctive aesthetic of lyrical expressionism, evoking alternate sensations of urban dynamism and Arcadian repose through the rhythmic orchestration of line and color. His work also conjures up one of the most exhilarating eras in the social and intellectual history of the United States.

Walkowitz's passion for the common man reverberates with the radical socialist fervor that permeated New York City's immigrant communities; his infatuation with the dancer/choreographer Isadora Duncan and her barefoot dancing recalls the irreverent panache of Greenwich Village; and his quest for all that was fresh, real, essential in feeling and artistic expression, summons up the dynamic confluence of so many great seekers of the period, from writer Gertrude Stein and radical agitator Emma Goldman to French sculptor Auguste Rodin and American symbolist painter Arthur Dove.

In 1945 Abraham Walkowitz's friendship with freethinker and innovative publisher Emanuel Haldeman-Julius brought his modernist mission to what may be for many the surprising destination of small-town Kansas. Haldeman-Julius, who was like Walkowitz, of Russian Jewish parentage, met the painter in New York sometime between 1912 and 1914 when Emanuel began his career as a journalist for socialist newspapers. In 1915 Haldeman-Julius moved to Girard, Kansas, where he purchased the socialist press The Appeal to Reason, and founded the Haldeman-Julius publishing firm. The latter earned enormous financial and critical success in the 1920s due to the mass production and mail-order dissemination of the Little Blue Books, a precursor to modern paperbacks.

The two men rekindled their association of "Greenwich Village days" in the summer of 1945 when Haldeman-Julius invited Walkowitz to come to Girard, Kansas, for a visit. The painter executed his last major series of on-site drawings in studies of the barns and coal mines around Southeast Kansas. Haldeman-Julius also initiated collaboration with the artist on the publication of several books intended to promote public recognition of Walkowitz's art. Three of those five books are presented in the exhibition. In this section special appreciation is extended to the late Eugene H. DeGruson, devoted historian of Southeast Kansas culture, for the ideas and research that initiated this project.

This exhibition honors the zest and ambition of a forgotten pioneer of modern American art. It presents a comparison of representative works by Walkowitz with works by other progressive American artists of the period; a survey of the major themes of his art; and a background summary of the personalities whose revolutionary ideas incubated the modernist movement in early 20th-century America.

-- Novelene Ross, Ph.D., May, 2005.


About the author:

Novelene Ross, Ph.D., former chief curator of the Wichita Art Museum, is co-author with David Cateforis of Toward an American Identity: Selections from the Wichita Art Museum, and author of Passing Seasons: Paintings by Robert Sudlow.

About the exhibition

In the early 20th century, critics called painter Abraham Walkowitz "the John the Baptist of modern art." This exhibition of 35 paintings and drawings presents the artist in comparison with peers such as Marsden Hartley, John Marin, and John Sloan, and highlights the artist's favorite themes of bathers, workers, city streets, landscape, and dancer Isadora Duncan. The show combines works from the collections of the family of Eugene DeGruson and from the Wichita Art Museum. The exhibition was curated by Novelene Ross and organized by the Wichita Art Museum.. Research supporting the exhibition, specifically the relationship between Abraham Walkowitz and Emanuel Haldeman-Julius, proceeded with the assistance of a Helm Fellowship Grant, Lilly Library, University of Indiana, Bloomington, Indiana.


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