While visiting Bridgewater State University’s Wallace L. Anderson Gallery in mid-September, I discovered Jack Wolfe.
His work was being featured in “The Promise of Lincoln” exhibition that ran from August 19 through October 4; upon viewing it, I was immediately intrigued and set out to learn more about this artist.
I started by talking to curator Jay Block, the associate director of collections and exhibitions at Bridgewater, who told me that Jack Wolfe was once a promising and highly recognized abstract expressionist painter in the mid-1950s in New York City but, he decided to walk away from it all. He believed the art world was too money-driven and morally corrupt.
Rene Ricard, in his seminal article, “The Radiant Child,” in the December 1981 issue of “Artforum” wrote, “Nobody wants to miss the Van Gogh boat. The idea of the unrecognized genius slaving away in a garret is a deliciously foolish one.”
And yet, here was Mr. Wolfe, who in a few short years, had exhibited at the Carnegie Institute (1955), the Whitney (1957 and 1958) and at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston (1957). He just up and turned his back on the recognition and success that so many artists strive to achieve and returned to his studio in Stoughton, Massachusetts, where he continued to paint until the end of his life in 2007.
Looking at “Roxbury Portrait,” that large showcased piece that he painted in 1967 — three parts, with its center panel 80 x 144 inches — at Bridgewater State, I was totally won over by its presence and sense of place and time. Due to the personal vibe it exuded, my gut reaction was that Jack Wolfe (1924-2007) was an African American painter.
Regardless, the imagery and, more so, the unseen but very palpable presence of these works had sadly, and once again, become very contemporary. The current social and tense political climate bear witness to it, as Ricard described in “The Radiant Child” piece, “To Whites, every Black holds a potential knife behind the back, and to every Black, the White is concealing a whip… Our responsibility is to overcome the sins and fears of our ancestors and drop the whip, drop the knife.”
I contacted Jack’s widow, Laurie Wolfe, who graciously invited me to visit his studio which she has kept exactly as it was prior to his death with stacks of completed canvases leaning up against the walls. Together we hauled out a few of Jack’s many large Wittgenstein series canvases and I lost my equilibrium looking at them.
Ludwig Wittgenstein was an early 20th-century philosopher who developed the picture theory of language. It’s the study of the gap between what is expressed in language and what is expressed in nonverbal ways and it very much appealed to Jack.