KCAC Forum Magazine February 1980
Wilbur Niewald at the Kemper Gallery
By Elisabeth Kirsch
As Chairman of the Kansas City Art Institute’s Painting and Printmaking department for the last 21 years, Wilbur Niewald is one of Kansas City’s best known and respected painters, Coupled with the knowledge that his recent September 1979 one-man sow at the Ingber Gallery in New York City spawned a number of national reviews (as did his previous show there in 1976), it is to be expected that his January exhibition at KCAI’s Kemper Gallery provoked a heightened critical response.
Twenty-five oils and fourteen watercolors, composed of classically represented still lifes, portraits, cityscapes and landscapes, comprised this large exhibition of uniformly consistent quality. Niewald has, one assumes, now thoroughly entrenched himself in a school of traditional realism increasingly evident in his painting since the 1960s. His earlier work of the 1950s and early to middle sixties, although derived from nature, was largely abstract. I have never seen his paintings from the 1950s, but they are purportedly influenced by the work of Mondrian, notably the master’s Pier and Ocean series.
Niewald’s paintings of the next decade seemed to take a more personal bent; brightly colored dashes and stripes filled his canvases with horizontal and rectangular slashes that created a brisk interweaving of space with color. Niewald followers claim there latter paintings were never given the full attention they merited. They are, perhaps, the most original of any of Niewald’s work, and represent an interesting, almost classical, strain of abstract expressionism.
then, in 1965, while in Florence, Niewald became more concerned with what he calls “realizing the direct experience.” Taking as his credo Chardin’s maxim “I lay on paint until I get a resemblance,” Niewald began a series of paintings containing more and more obvious references to the physical world.
A number of painters, of course, by the turn of the last decade, had abandoned abstract painting styles in favor of new currents of realism. Leslie, Pearlstein, Estes and a host o f others evolved very personal styles worked realistically that somehow managed to be contemporary as well.
These painters, in many instances, “borrowed” from much older masters (e.g., Leslie from Caravaggio). Niewald, it is clear, reaches back to the last century to pay homage to Cezanne. What one reviewer describes as “open celebrations of Cezanne” (ArtNews, November 1979), however, this reviewer sees as a reliance so heavy as to rob these works of what we must all expect of a painter as experienced as Niewald; that is, a unique way of viewing the world. At times the viewer feels transported back in time and place to Aix-en-Provence rather than the more cosmopolitan setting of Kansas City, Missouri, where Niewald works.
Is Niewald’s watercolor of a mountain really drawn from Yampa Valley in Steamboat Springs, Colorado as the title says, or is it an incarnation of Cezanne’s beloved Mte. Ste. Victoire? If one must ask, then the similarities are really to embarrassingly close.
Niewald also comes too close, for my comfort, at least, to Cezanne’s style not only with his choice of subject matter (his paintings of geraniums and cowskulls are also reminiscent of Cezanne), but with the obvious parallels that may be drawn between the two artists’ compositional devices. Perspectives similar to Cezanne are apparent in the still lifes, as table corners tip toward the viewer and as white drapery folds around oranges and apples, and in the landscapes there is a solid horizontal and vertical layering of space evidencing a clear debt to the Frenchman. Granted, there are marked differences between the two painters, but that is not the issue. What is worrisom is that we are given a vision of our physical environment that in substance is an echo of a sensibility that is almost 100 years old.
As difficult as it may be for any artist painting these subjects to escape the influence of the man considered by many to be the father of 20th Century painting, it has been done by all the aforementioned artists in this article. Weather or not we care for their vision is another matter; at least they have a unique way of coming to grips with the “real” world in a manner peculiarly contemporary. One expects the same of Niewald, and in all fairness he accomplishes this to a great extent in his cityscapes of the Kansas City area.
One of Niewald’s obvious strengths is his ability to create a solidly structured architectonic kind of space, and it is well served in his paintings of building and skylines, composed of rectilinear strokes. Niewald considers all of his paintings to be portraits, and indeed these Kansas City scenes are. He accomplishes the enviable task of presenting us with a topographical view of an urban city that is yet warm, intimate, even inviting. Away from the mountains and table tops of Aix-en-Provence, Niewald comes into his own.
Niewald continues to be a predominant artist in the Kansas City area and his View of the Roundhouse was the Sealed Bid item for the 2013 Annual Art Auction at the Kansas City Artists Coalition.