If you have not heard of Milton Wolsky, the artist featured in a new retrospective at Gallery 1516, and you are older than about 45, you probably have seen some of his work. His commercial illustrations have been featured in articles and on covers of magazines like, McCall’s, Good Housekeeping, Collier’s, Cosmopolitan and Esquire.
He was a popular and sought-after commercial illustrator; his drawings appeared in magazines and advertising for decades during the first half of the twentieth century what is often and arguably referred to as the “golden age” of commercial illustration, the late 30’s through the early 60’s.
Gallery 1516 has assembled about four dozen works from a collection of over 175 owned by the gallery. “Milton Wolsky: A Mid-Century Nebraska Artist” is primarily concerned with his traditional oils on canvas, with a smattering of early work, and his commercial illustrations, the latter mostly done in casein on board.
In 1946, Wolsky was drafted worked as an illustrator for the Army Corps of Engineers during the occupation of Japan. Visitors to the gallery should be sure not to miss the watercolor he produced while stationed in Japan, the “Yokohama Shrine,” on the wall behind the front desk. In 1954, he returned to live out his life in Omaha after stints in Chicago, where he studied at the Art Institute, and New York. Here he set up shop in the former J.Laurie Wallace Studio, which still stands on Leavenworth Street.
Some of the works mimic well-documented art movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Several are repeated as “studies,” as teaching aids, or the artist’s own experiments to see the effects of different modes of representation.
The “6 Panels” from 1953, is a good example of one of his teaching tools, showing what different methods of abstraction look like. Another example, the four-panel series “Lilacs,” from 1978. Each of the four canvases is rendered in a different, established style, as if a different artist was painting the arrangement from the same vantage point, in another time.
He explored modern art movements and stylistic alternatives with fervor. Quite often he would paint the same subject, scene, or maquette in several different styles; a bowl of fruit or vase of flowers would be done through an Impressionists eye, or as though painted when cubism was hip, or through a Post-impressionist’s lens. Many of the offerings here represent this analytical process.
In addition, several pieces in this exhibit appear to shine and may be an indication of where things may have gone had he not died in 1981, so soon after retiring. Just a few of the standouts in this exhibit are those that, although they incorporate elements of past approaches and techniques, they have a more timeless quality.
Be sure to take in the cryptic “Square Based Pots” (1978), a cubists interpretation of a pedestrian arrangement that abstracts the forms into a more modern arena, and the Bacon-esque “Beyond Pain (Mother’s Death)” 1963, and “Movieola 3” from 1979, an abstract expressionist piece and “Oaxaca Mermaid” 1960. As fine a draughtsman as he was, some of his more modernist abstractions may be some of his best strongest work.
What Wolsky considered one of his most successful is the “Sultan Ahmet” (The Blue Mosque,) 1964, an abstracted view of the famous Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul. The interior of the mosque reportedly is decorated with over 20,000 hand-painted blue tiles. At night the exterior is flooded with blue toned floods.
The artist captures the mystique of the building and its setting through veiled detail and mastery of stretching the monotone hues into various shades of blue; deep violet strains of ultramarine to giving depth and definition to Prussian to Pthalo blue forms and backgrounds. Specular inklings of white and yellow highlights accompany a sky of ersatz tiles and floral motifs found on the interior of the dome.
From accounts of his life, Wolsky, though quite successful, was not a self-promoter. He was often discouraged that his work in both commercial and fine art, was not recognized as fully as some of the other big names of the era, the likes of Rockwell, Parrish, Wyeth, and others.
One could surmise this was partly because he was painting in styles from art movements past. Although skilled in most of the stylistic techniques of painting, he was, for instance, still painting purely cubist images into the 1970’s. Clearly “Superman and Mobile,” and “Studio (Easel and Tabouret,)” both 1979, show strong cubist influences.
Wolsky’s biography is extensive; he started in his early teens and never looked back. Gallery 1516 has provided a thorough biography on their website and in the show catalogs. “Milton Wolsky: A Mid-Century Nebraska Artist” is up through August 13. Admission is free, and appointments are encouraged but not required. Further information may be found at gallery1516.org