Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted, without accompanying illustrations, in Resource Library on October 4, 2006 with the permission of the West Bend Art Museum. This text accompanies the exhibition Otto Bielefeld Rediscovered, being held at the museum September 27 - November 12, 2006. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay please contact the West Bend Art Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:


The Paintings of Otto Bielefeld

by Abraham A. Davidson, Ph.D


Michael Bielefeld, Otto Bielefeld's nephew, recalls that when he was in middle school in the middle 1950s, his brother Richard would regularly take a bus from Milwaukee to his uncle's home just north of the city in Whitefish Bay. There he would cut the grass, fetch groceries, and do other chores for his uncle [1], who could not perform these tasks for himself since he had been crippled by polio from childhood. By this time Otto Bielefeld had given up painting and making prints. On his visits, Michael Bielefeld remembers seeing the large painting The Individuals, but was unaware of the presence of any other art in the house. His brother Richard, on the other hand, saw paintings "strewn about."[2] Eschewing art, from the 1940s onwards Otto Bielefeld had become interested in mechanical gadgetry, read magazines such as Popular Mechanics, and dabbled in the making of meteorological equipment. He even envisaged the manufacture of personal helicopters enabling the individual -- his own incapacity undoubtedly had something to do with this -- to go airborne from place.[3]

Why had Bielefeld given up the making of art in his late thirties or early forties? Had he become discouraged by not gaining greater renown? This is improbable, as he never courted it by playing at art politics. Quite the contrary. In a carefully printed slogan he asserted his purpose as follows: "To ridicule pretensions to expose hypocrisy to deride humbug in education, politics, and religion." (Fig. 1) And from Robert Henri, tellingly, he printed this: "I am not interested in art as means of making a livig [sic] but I am interested in art as a means of living a life." (Fig. 2) But Otto Bielefeld never flaunted himself as a revolutionary outsider. At least, there is no evidence of this. In a Self Portrait, probably painted when he was about thirty in 1938, the artist stands, apparently confidently, looking out at the viewer while holding on to the easel for support. At least seven painting behind and beside him can be made out, but unlike many other depictions of painter's studios -- Matisse's famous Red Studio of 1911, for example -- the contents of Bielefeld's work are obscured. Closer examination reveals a certain diffidence: the eyes, two black marks, do not really regard the viewer, while the extended left arm shields the body protectively. (Fig. 3)

In the 1930s when Bielefeld was artistically active, representational painting, as an offshoot of the German academic approach prevalent in the second half of the nineteenth century,[4] was firmly ensconced in Wisconsin. Modernism was scarcely to be found.[5] Regionalism, which focused on the typical activities of people in America's Midwestern heartland as well as the South -- broadly speaking --, was widely favored. Within this general format there were certain predilections. Generally, Regionalist paintings show people who are self-reliant, active, and physically robust. Leading Regionalists as Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry, and Grant Wood were positively observed for their own physical strength and robustness, the opposite of the popular image of the effete hyper-sensitive artist. Wayne Craven, the anti-modernist, pro-Regionalist art critic noted that Curry had "the heft of a bull and the speed of a horse."[6] (Bielefeld's physical limitations would have set him apart among the Regionalists more than within any other group of American painters of the time.) Indeed Curry continued to gain stature within the Midwest: in 1936 he was made the first Artist-in-Residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and that same year was the keynote speaker at the Annual Dinner of the Wisconsin Painters and Sculptors Association.[7] In 1934 Grant Wood was named Director of Public Works of the Art Project of Iowa and joined the faculty of the University of Iowa in Iowa City.[8] Meanwhile, Bielefeld worked in near obscurity. It wasn't simply the polio; his paintings struck a new note within the Regionalist gamut.

Not a great deal is known of Otto Bielefeld. He was born on December 12, 1908 to a first-generation American, Henry Bielefeld (whose own father was born in 1829 in Hessen, Germany), who was born in Baltimore and worked as a cooper, and Wisconsin-born Minnie Bielefeld, a frugal and industrious housewife, who bore the artist-to-be when she was forty. Otto was the youngest of four children. His sister Frances never married and stayed at home. Otto Bielefeld lived continuously with his mother on 2522 North 12th Street in Milwaukee (Fig. 4) then in Whitefish Bay, some ten miles from the center of Milwaukee, where he moved in early adulthood. Minnie owned the house in Whitefish Bay, as well as two properties on Malvina Street in Milwaukee. The rents collected helped sustain the family.[9] Bielefeld graduated from North Division High School in Milwaukee in 1929. I cannot determine why he waited until he was past twenty to graduate. Perhaps this had to do with his polio, which he contracted around the age of nine. There was no portrait of him the graduate yearbook, but there was set down this doggerel about him: "A man of perseverance is Otto; with clever pen he draws a lot-oh."[10]

In 1929 Bielefeld entered the Layton School of Art in Milwaukee and studied there until 1934, winning a scholarship in 1931. A photograph of him in 1933 when he was twenty-five next to his nephew Richard reveals a sturdy and muscular young man (in the upper torso) (Fig.5) quite different from the gaunt figure in the self-portrait. I assume that at the Layton School Bielefeld followed the strenuous and comprehensive curriculum. This included (along with other courses) Drawing and Modeling from the Figure, Design and Composition, Still Life, and Lettering in the first year; Painting, Advertising Design, Industrial Design, Interior Design, and Survey of Art in the second; Painting, Advertising Design, Analysis of Nature Forms, Etching, and Fashion Illustration in the third; and specialization in flexible program in the fourth.[11] There were also courses in practice teaching of which Bielefeld probably did not avail himself. (Fig. 6) Illustrated in the Layton Course Catalogue as the type of work produced in the School are competent but not strikingly expressive nudes and flower pieces. One of the instructors of the Layton School, Gerrit V. Sinclair, who was given a one-man show at the West Ben Art Museum in 2002, painted within the Regionalist genre with outdoor scenes of people strolling about, automobiles chugging along country roads -- all manifestations of a pleasant rural or small town existence.[12] (Fig. 7) Unlike Bielefeld, Sinclair did not try to get at the inner life of the people he showed or get beneath the surface of things. His direction was completely different from Bielefeld's. Unfortunately, we do not know how Bielefeld regarded his studies at the Layton School, but it is safe to say that the rigorous training he received there in drawing and fundamentals in design and painting stood him in good stead.

While enrolled at the Layton School, Bielefeld became part of the Federal Government's WPA Program, leaving it in 1935 or 1936, according to another source. [13] He produced no murals, but one of his prints, a street scene entitled In the Rain was included in a WPA print exhibition at the Smithsonian.[13] Richard Henry Bielefeld, Otto's brother and father of Richard and Michael, lived at 2714 Malvina Street in a house owned by Minnie. He would regularly drive to Whitefish Bay to pay rent.[14] Living in Whitefish Bay with the artist and his mother was "Ritchie," not a blood relative, but a young orphan taken in by Minnie.[15] Regularly fetching groceries and helping in many ways was Pat Ludwig, the only child of Otto's sister Marie. It was Pat who inherited the house in Whitefish Bay as well as Otto Bielefeld's paintings and prints. No letters or reminiscences regarding the artist's life or statements by the artist as to how he viewed his art have come to light. He died on June3, 1982 and is buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Milwaukee.

Otto Bielefeld's career coincided with the dark days of America's Great Depression. 85,000 businesses failed between 1929 and 1932. There were bread lines and soup kitchens everywhere. Many books have been written on this period, and there is no point in my siphoning off from the stores of information, of reiterating again the tens of thousands of tales of personal suffering, of going without. But I would point to the obvious, that the people of Wisconsin had to endure the same terrible privations as people elsewhere. One of the many stories had to do with a homestead of a Max Cichon near Elkhorn, WI. Cichon could not afford to keep up payments on his property, and as a result it was auctioned off at a foreclosure sale in August of 1932. Cichon refused to let his property go and, as the report stated:

... he refused to allow either the buyer or the authorities to approach his home. He held off unwelcome visitors with a shotgun. The sheriff called upon Cichon to submit peacefully. When he refuses to do so, the sheriff ordered deputies to lay down a barrage of machine-gun and rifle fire Cichon is now in jail in Elkhorn, being cared for in the county hospital. Cichon is not a trouble-maker. He enjoys the confidence of his neighbors, who only recently elected him justice of the peace of the town of Sugar Creek. That a man of his standing and disposition should go to such lengths in defying the authorities is a clear warning that we may expect further trouble in the agricultural districts unless the farmers are soon helped.[16]

Those were years of some light (to be sure) but a great deal of darkness. It fell largely to photographers, such as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Ben Shahn, to leave us a visual record of the terrible unyielding privations. The Regionalist painters focused only on the light, and from what they produced one would never suppose that a major economic Depression had occurred. Repeatedly, in agrarian scenes they showed stalwart types productively and industriously at work at planting, threshing, harvesting, as in Joe Jones' Wheat Farmers or gathered together for a communal meal, as in Grant Wood's Dinner for Threshers. Curry's Midwestern landscapes are broad panoramas of verdant terrains containing no hint of dust bowls or exhaustion, an unfolding of "God's country." The best known painting of Midwestern Regionalism is Grant Wood's American Gothic, ostensibly a portrait of a farmer and his wife (really the artist's sister and his dentist). There is a sense of satire, sometimes found in Wood's paintings but absent from the work of all other Midwestern Regionalists. The painting has gone through innumerable appraisals and interpretations, [17] yet at the bottom we are presented with an image of gritty fortitude. The Regionalist's indoor scenes are not as plentiful as their outdoor ones and, when they occur, it is often workers turning out some needed product in a factory, as seen in Charles W. Thwaites' Making Cheese. Life brightly goes on in an efficient way.

Bielefeld gives us something entirely different: a view of the 1930s which the other Regionalists were reluctant or chose not to explore. It is a view which caught the tenor of the decade more accurately or in a way which, at least, probed more deeply. Gone is any hint of brawny physicality. Usually, there seems to be a family setting, as in the Interior with Boys Examining a Fold-Out. (Fig.8). The father has stopped reading and looks up questioningly to an older man, perhaps his father or uncle. Each person is emotionally involved with another. The young daughter listens intently as she stands beside her mother, who bends toward her as though revealing something in confidence. There is a threadbare quality to the furnishings -- no cloth covering the table, no pictures on the wall, nothing beyond necessity, for these are hard times. But pictorially more detail would have been counterproductive. Bielefeld is a master of gesture, recalling for me the simplified, expressive gestures of Giotto and Honoré Daumier. In Four Figures in an Interior we again have what seems to be a close family grouping (a favorite theme for an artist who never married) with the father explaining something to his wife and children. The leaning forward of the boy in the red shirt -- a dexterous touch of warmth -- is sufficient in conveying an attitude of devoted attention. (Fig. 9) Another moment of quiet intimacy is captured in Woman Sketching with Two Men and Women Looking On (Fig. 10) in which the friendly support of the onlookers is evident. In The Movie (Fig. 11), a mother, while looking at the screen, holds her young daughter who has fallen asleep. Unlike the contemporary movie paintings of Edward Hopper, in which the cinema is seen as a means of escape from dreary lives into a world of make-believe, what matters to Bielefeld is the communion among members of the audience.

There is but one painting by Bielefeld of workers -- a staple of most Regionalists -- and these workers are found not in a factory or a mill or a farm, places the artist would have found difficult to navigate with his leg braces. Instead, they are ashmen, workers the artist would have seen from his home in Milwaukee. Michael Bielefeld informed me that there was a coal-burning stove in the basement (the house in Whitefish Bay had no basement), and ash would be placed in a container set out daily in the alley and would be collected once a week.[18] Once again we see Bielefeld departing from the typical Regionalist. His ashmen, instead of being brawny young men, are shown as they probably were -- middle-aged, unatheletic, going about their job with perfunctory deliberateness. (Fig. 12)

Bielefeld did manage to get outside the house, to the beach, on the street, for example. Never do we see his figures exerted except for the ashmen, never in any sort of athletic activity (as he himself never could be). Rather, it was the motivations of human beings that were of paramount interest to him. Regularly his figures are interacting comfortably with one another, as we see with his Figures at the Beach. (Fig. 13) It is the human contact that counts; excessive details of the setting are avoided. In Outside the School Store, the young women and older women behind them are united by virtue of their common activity: leaving together, they carry the purchases they have perhaps just made. The young woman to the left turns to look back to reassure herself, it would seem, that the older women continue to follow. It is a simple gesture but one fraught with meaning: people exist not as isolated individuals but as part of a community caring for the welfare of one another.

In the Rain (Fig. 15) -- the painted version of the print exhibited at the Smithsonian -- does not show people communicating with one another because the rain makes this difficult and undesirable. Nevertheless these muffled people beside dreary buildings are each in the same uncomfortable situation and must tread the same sidewalk, with the rain bringing forth their commonality.

With each of these outdoor scenes, I keep wondering how Bielefeld, using his crutches for support, managed. In Outside the School Store (Fig.14) did he catch the young women's quick turning gesture as he stood on his crutches, or was this gesture added in his studio to figures he had seen earlier? Had he actually seen the two older women, who are less fleshed out? Did he see the figures in In the Rain (Fig. 15) while in an automobile, or did he stand near them as he held his own umbrella in one hand, sketched with his other while his crutches were secured in his armpits -- something hard to imagine? Perhaps he took photographs? Or used an illustration? Unfortunately, these questions will probably never be answered.

The Individualists (Fig. 16) stands out in the artist's oeuvre. It is one of his two largest paintings. The three figures, fleshy, almost Rubenesque young women, are dramatically different from his usual modest, unassertive types as they confidently display themselves for the observer. As Bielefeld's paintings are left undated, we are led to wonder whether we are seeing a new direction taken at the end of a career or an aborted one at its beginning. I prefer to think of the painting as a fascinating one-time departure from Bielefeld's familiar direction. For me, these three young women, together with the nude in Thomas Hart Benton's Persephone, are the two most memorable images of nubile mid-western femininity of the 1930s. They were portraits of actual women, one of whom was a neighbor who cut grass with a lawnmower at the Whitefish Bay property.[19]

Bielefeld's portraits occur within his group scenes as well as single figures. His people are at once individualized and of a type. They are usually middle-aged and show their years, clinging tentatively to what the present has to offer. They are never aggrandized or seem overweening. (The women in The Individualists are exceptional in this regard.) The men have receding hairlines and their heads, bearing unattractive heavily-framed glasses, protrude awkwardly from their shoulders, as in Figures at the Beach (Fig. 13). Wrinkles, strands of hair, facial crevicies are not indicated in the manner, say, of Jan van Eyck, but the posture and attitude of the person convey a great deal. Two elderly women with umbrellas converse, as their children (or, more likely, their grandchildren) play before them. The woman in red, her hands in the pockets of her raincoat, is haggard and forlorn. (Perhaps the parents are at work - or far away.) She listens to her companion listlessly as she watches her charges, partially bored, partially aware of her responsibilities. All of this is conveyed with a minimum of ostentation, with an avoidance of the non-essential. (Fig. 17)

A wonderfully expressive portrait of a single figure is that of the head and upper torso of a boy of ten or eleven. (Fig. 18) He is not a lighthearted child, this boy who looks warily out at the observer. Is this wariness, this pensiveness so striking in one so young (here is not the frequently-depicted middle-aged person) attributable largely to the hard economic times? But children do not reflect general hardships as much as adults. Perhaps, as with Thomas Eakins, it is something in the artist's inner character that comes through in the sitter.[20] Yet there is something about the costume that is not "normal," the metallic beaded neck ornaments attached to the scarf down the front of the boy. Was this clothing adornment meant as a prop or an indication of an insider culture of some kind? If the latter was the case, the boy would have been especially ill-at-ease with the artist, and it is this attitude that is reflected in the portrait. (I am reminded here again of how little we know of Bielefeld's sitters.)

Beyond the figurative work, a significant part of Bielefeld's oeuvre has no link with Regionalism. Instead, it consists of non-objective paintings of flat superimposed shapes, jagged forms suggestive of machine parts, and rows of identical forms and objects. These rows actually constitute a "serial" art and therefore remind one of -- or, better, look forward to -- the similar treatments of Andy Warhol, Donald Judd, and many others in the 1960s and 1970s. But while Warhol's work featured mass-produced and immediately identifiable recognizable items, such as Campbell soup cans, replicas of posters, or newspaper clips of celebrities, such as Jackie Kennedy, Bielefeld's objects and figures were more neutral. They include pyramid squares (Fig. 19), womens' torsos with white upper parts and dark lower ones (Fig. 20), and houses flanked by trees (Fig. 21).

No other Regionalist artist or any figurative artist produced a "serial" art in the 1930s as far as I know. I had assumed the idea came to Bielefeld out of a sudden inspiration, fully formed, like Athena being born out of the head of Zeus. However, I was instructed otherwise,[21] and now believe that the handicrafts produced under the aegis of the WPA Handicraft Project financed by the Federal Government moved Bielefeld in this direction. Under the leadership of Milwaukee kindergarten teacher Elsa Ulbricht, about a thousand women were put to work making dolls and costumes, weaving fabrics, binding books, and so on. Some of the repetitive forms used for draperies and upholstery fabrics suggest similar concepts found in Bielefeld's "serial" paintings.[22] It should to be kept in mind that Bielefeld himself was briefly supported by the WPA.

Another influence which came into play with a few of the "serial" paintings was Art Deco, the modern art of the 1930s. This was an art encompassing a very wide variety of objects and favoring forms that seem hard and metallic. There was a streamlined quality to this art, what was geometric was favored, what was frilly, organic, and plant-like was avoided. Bielefeld may have been referring to Art Deco in his carefully printed statement in block letters: "THE ARTIST OF THE NEW MOVEMENT IS MOVING INTO A SPHERE MORE AND MORE REMOTE FROM THAT OF THE ORDINARY MAN IN PROPORTION HIS ART BECOMES PURER THE NUMBER OF PEOPLE TO WHOM IT APPEALS GETS LESS. IT CUTS OUT ALL ROMANTIC OVERTONES OF LIFE" (Fig.22) While the general idea for a "serial" art may have been prompted by WPA Wisconsin handicrafts, some of the particular forms used within the series, such as the tilted pyramids (Fig. 19) are quite similar to those used in Art Deco.[23] Moreover, in some of the "series" paintings, foreground and background interweave, as in the painting of houses flanked by trees. (Fig. 21) This device was close to what M. C. Escher (Murius Cornelis, 1898-1972) used more consistently [24] and also, such paintings with their use of optical effects, look forward to the Optical Art of the 1960s and 1970s.

Unfortunately, as Otto Bielefeld did not date his work, we cannot know whether the "serial" and other non-objective pieces were done prior to, following, or concurrently with the Regionalist work. Nor can we know what he would have done during the years of Abstract Expressionism, Post-Painterly Abstraction, Pop Art, Optical Art (which Bielefeld anticipated) and other movements from 1940 to his death in 1982 had he not given up painting when he did. Nor do we now how closely he observed those directions and what he thought of them. Even so, no one can deny that in finding within Regionalism something deeply felt and powerfully authentic, and in being one of America's earliest non-objective painters, Otto Bielefeld deserves a prominent place in the history of American Art of the twentieth century.

© Abraham A. Davidson, Ph.D 2006



1. My interviews with Michael Bielefeld, April, 2006.

2. Interview with Richard Bielefeld by the researcher Anne-Lee Geiger, March 15, 2004. I wish to than Ms. Geiger for her diligence in researching the life of Otto Bielefeld.

3. My interviews with Michael Bielefeld, April, 2006. Richard Bielefeld, as recorded by Ms. Geiger, tells: "it was extremely difficult for him to get into a car. He wore braces on both legs, which needed to be locked to get him out of his wheelchair and upright in order to use crutches. He was not in pain, but required considerable assistance, which he did not like to ask for. He was friendly but not an outgoing person." Interview with Richard Bielefeld by Anne-Lee Geiger, March 15, 2004.

4. For a brief but useful treatment of the history of art in Wisconsin before the emergency of Bielefeld as an artist see William H. Gerdts, Art Across America: Two centuries of Regional Painting, 1710-1920, II New York, 1990, pp. 328-341. For significant events, see West Bend Art Museum, Wisconsin Art History: A Chronology of Wisconsin Art and History to 1950, West Bend, Wisconsin, 2004. Also, Gay Donahue, "Society of Milwaukee Artists" in West Bend Art Museum, Wisconsin Art History: Foundation of Art in Wisconsin, West Bend, Wisconsin, 1998, pp.6-9 for the influence of academies in Germany.

5. An exception was George Niedecken who in the first two decades produced abstract abstract color patterns and encountered hostile criticism from the public. Donahue, p.8.

6. Wayne Craven, "John Steuart Curry," Scribner's Magazine 103 no. 11 (January 1938): 38.

7. Lucy J. Mathiak, "A Stranger to the Ivory Tower" in Patricia Junker, John Steuart Curry: Inventing the Middle West, New York, 1998, pp.111-132.

8. Wanda M. Corn, Grant Wood: The Regionalist Vision, New Haven and London, 1938, pp.43-46, 56-59. With an interesting dispute between Wood and the art historian Lester Longman, who was Wood as unyielding in his determination to force the Regionalist approach on his students.

9. Minnie owned the house at 2714 Malvina Street and the duplex at 2920 Malvina Street. Family members occupied these houses. My interviews with Michael Bielefeld, April, 2006.

10. From the school yearbook, The Commencement Tattler, 1929, p. 64. Reference Archives of the Milwaukee Public Library, Main Branch. Information provided by Anne-Lee Geiger.

11. Layton School of Art, Catalog of Courses of the Day School, Milwaukee, n.d. The Layton School started in 1920 in the basement of the Layton Art Gallery with twenty-seven day students and sixty evening students. After moving in 1950 to a building on Prospect Avenue overlooking Lake Michigan and in 1970 to the Joseph Schlitz Building on North Port Washington Road, the School closed in the spring of 1974. Jane Brite, "The Evolution of Art in Milwaukee," Wisconsin Academy Review 32 no. 2 (March 1986): 24.

12. On Sinclair see Janet Treacy, Gerrit V. Sinclair, 1890-1955, A Retrospect, West Bend, Wisconsin, 2002.

13. My interview with Ken Marx of Milwaukee, May 2, 2006.

14. Peter C. Merrill, German-American Artists in Early Milwaukee: A Biographical Dictionary, Madison, Wisconsin, 1977, p.10.

15. My interviews with Michael Bielefeld, April, 2006.

16. Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States, 1492-Present, New York, 2003, P.388.

17. For example, Steven Biel, American Gothic: A Life of America's Most Famous Painting, New York, 2005 and Thomas Hoving, American Gothic: The Biography of Grant Wood's American Masterpiece, New York, 2005.

18. My interviews with Michael Bielefeld, April, 2006.

19. My interviews with Michael Bielefeld, April, 2006.

20. In this regard see Henry Adams, Eakins Revealed; The Secret Life of an American Artist, Oxford and New York, 2005.

21. Thomas D. Lidtke, Executive Director of the West Bend Art Museum, told me of the extent and historic importance of the Project, of which I was largely unaware and pointed to its significance for Bielefeld, August 12, 2006. I am grateful for this.

22. The chief source of information on the Project is Mary Kellogg Rice, Useful Work for Unskilled Women: A Unique Milwaukee WPA Project, Milwaukee, 2003. In the Author's Note dated September 2001, Kellogg pointed out that "I am the only person alive who was closely associated with the project from its inception" Similarities to the kids of patterning used by Bielefeld may be found in the illustrations of a large rug (p. 109) a sample of upholstery fabric (p. 103), and a bolt of drapery (p. 113). I thank Graeme Reid, Assistant Director of the West Ben Art Museum, for sending me Kellogg's book.

23. For an authoritative study of Art Deco, see Alistair Duncan, Art Deco, New York, 1986. For triangular forms similar to Bielefeld's pyramids, see the pottery pelican bookends designed by A. Drexel Jacobson in c. 1929 (Duncan, p. 108), a table lamp by an unidentified designer in 1928 offered by Altman and company, New York (Ibid., p. 74), and a textile design illustrated in Good Furniture and Decoration (Ibid., p. 141).

24. For good illustrations of Escher's work, see The Magic of M.C. Escher, with an introduction of J.L. Locher, New York, 2000.Abraham A. Davidson is Professor of Art History at Temple University, Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia where he has taught since 1968. His Ph.D in art history was awarded in 1965 from Columbia University with his dissertation being titled "Some Early American Cubists, Futurists, and Surrealists: Their Paintings, Their Writings and their Critics." A highly experienced lecturer, reviewer, Professor Davison is also an accomplished photographer with many solo and group exhibitions to his credit.


Cover Illustration: Otto Bielefeld The Individualists, oil on canvas, not dated. Collection of Gary Blakeslee.

Fig. 1. Otto Bielefeld, "To ridicule pretensions."

Fig. 2. Otto Bielefeld, "I am not interested."

Fig. 3. Otto Bielefeld, Self-Portrait, o/c, 30" x 23".

Fig. 4. House at 2522 North 12th Street, Milwaukee. Photograph.

Fig. 5. Otto Bielefeld and nephew Richard in 1933. Photograph.

Fig. 6. Otto Bielefeld as student in class at the Layton school of Art. Photograph.

Fig. 7. Gerrit V. Sinclair, Brown Cow, 1938.

Fig. 8. O.B., Interior with Boys Examining a Fold-Out, o/c, 24" x 27".

Fig. 9. O.B., Four Figures in an Interior, o/c,

Fig. 10. O.B., Woman Sketching, etc., o/c,

Fig. 11. O.B., The Movie, o/c, 22 _" x 16 _".

Fig. 12. O.B., The Ashmen, o/c, 26" x 22".

Fig. 13. O.B., Figures at the Beach, o/c, 22 _" x 18 _".

Fig. 14. Outside the School Store, o/c, 28 _" x 23 _".

Fig. 15. In the Rain, tempera on paper, 23" x 18".

Fig. 16. The Individualists, tempera on board, 48" x 36".

Fig. 17. O.B., Mothers (Grandmothers?) and Children, o/c, 26" x 20".

Fig. 18. O.B., A Boy, o/c?, 18" x 12".

Fig. 19. O.B., Modern Painting (Tilted Pyramids), w.c.?, 18" x 18".

Fig. 20. O.B., Modern Painting (Womens' Torsos"

Fig. 21. O.B., Modern Painting (Houses and Trees)

Fig. 22. O.B., "The Artist of the New Movement."


About the author

Abraham A. Davidson is Professor of Art History at Temple University, Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia where he has taught since 1968. His Ph.D in art history was awarded in 1965 from Columbia University with his dissertation being titled "Some Early American Cubists, Futurists, and Surrealists: Their Paintings, Their Writings and their Critics." A highly experienced lecturer, reviewer, Professor Davison is also an accomplished photographer with many solo and group exhibitions to his credit.


About the exhibition

The great names of American Regionalist painting are writ large in the art history books: Grant Wood from Iowa, Thomas Hart Benton from Missouri and John Steuart Curry from Kansas, and later of Wisconsin. Their iconic works have helped define in the public mind a selection of images featuring ordinary people coping with America's worst-ever economic depression with fortitude and character. Such is the status and renown of these three; most other artists are relegated to supporting roles. Now, however, a dark horse has emerged and been deemed worthy of sharing their place in the Regionalist pantheon: early 20th century Wisconsin artist, Otto Bielefeld. According to Abraham Davidson, Professor of Art History at Temple University/Tyler School of Art, Bielefeld is "one of the half-dozen greatest American realist painters of the 1930s and 40s. It is remarkable to me that to this day he is virtually unknown." Professor Davidson then continues, "[Bielefeld] is a master of gesture. From the charcoal sketches he eliminates a great deal to produce an almost Giotto-like simplification in figures, whose gestures convey the inner motivation, the core of the person. In this he calls to mind figures in works of Daumier and [Georges] de la Tour. Secondly, he is drawn to moments of quiet intimacy, of heartfelt communion between people that surely existed but is seldom revealed during the gnawing years of the Great Depression." High praise indeed!

The works of Otto Bielefeld featured in this exhibition are all from Gary K. Blakeslee, a collector and art dealer from the Palm Beach area who has been enjoying art in that capacity for nearly 30 years.

On Friday, September 29th at 10:30 a.m., Assistant Director Graeme Reid will deliver a lecture on Otto Bielefeld, the subject of the current exhibition. The artist's work will be studied and explained as will his place in Wisconsin and American regionalist art. This program is free and open to all. Refreshments will be served.


Gallery handout from the exhibition


Otto F. Bielefeld
Born in 1908 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Died in 1982 in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin
As a youth Otto Bielefeld contracted polio and this condition had a profound affect on the rest of his life. A rather shy, reclusive man, between 1929-1934 Bielefeld was enrolled at the Layton School of Art in Milwaukee studying under Myron Nutting, Robert von Neumann, Gerrit Sinclair, and Emily Groom. Two years into his studies his work was deemed of sufficient quality to merit a scholarship.
In 1936, Bielefeld was involved in the Federal Art Projects and one of his prints, In The Rain, was included in a W.P.A. (Works Progress Administration) print exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution. Much of his work can be classified as "regionalist" in that he painted common, every-day occurrences and regular people without pretension or glorification. Where his work stands apart from more famous regionalists such as Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry (whose work was predominantly out-of-doors) is that Bielefeld's work was more intimate and at close-quarters to its subjects. This is perhaps unsurprising given that his leg calipers and crutches would have made painting and moving around outdoors difficult. Consequently, we get a more somber view of the 1930s than many other artists depicted, with a strong sense of community and fellowship being evident to survive hard times.
Interestingly, Bielefeld's work can be divided into two very distinct categories. In addition to his realist paintings of people and places in the Milwaukee area, there is another, completely different body of work. This one concentrates on the repetition of shapes, objects and colors, revealing an early appreciation and knowledge of art deco forms and abstraction. Rarely is such a stylistic divide seen in a single artist's work. These abstract works also reveal a possible awareness of Federal programs in Milwaukee that provided work for women. These programs, under Elsa Ulbricht, produced, among other things, hundreds of abstract patterns for fabrics for applied and decorative arts.
Sometime during the 1940s Bielefeld lost interest in producing art and became fascinated with the science of meteorology, going on to make weather equipment and tinkering with instruments. Otto and his brother Richard designed a small home for Otto in Whitefish Bay where he lived until his death in 1982.
While Bielefeld showed a few works during his lifetime, this is the fist time that many of these works have been shown publicly in over 60 years. Otto Bielefeld Rediscovered is on loan from the Gary Blakeslee Gallery in Florida.

Resource Library editor's note:

Dr. Davidson's essay was reprinted, without accompanying illustrations, in Resource Library on October 4, 2006 with the permission of the West Bend Art Museum. This text accompanies the catalogue for the exhibition Otto Bielefeld Rediscovered, being held at the museum September 27 - November 12, 2006.

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Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Graeme Reid, Assistant Director, West Bend Art Museum, for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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