Elvehjem retrospective samples Wilde's world
Nov. 2, 1999
A master of oil painting and silverpoint drawing, retired UW-Madison artist John Wilde is one of Wisconsin's most respected artists.
John Wilde, "Myself Working from the Nude in Silver," oil on panel, 1948. Courtesy Elvehjem Museum of Art
"Wildeworld" opens Saturday, Nov. 13, at the Elvehjem Museum of Art. John Wilde will attend a museum reception, 6-8 p.m., Nov. 13. Museum hours: Tuesday-Friday, 9-5 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 11-5 p.m.
The first full-scale retrospective of Wilde's work, "Wildeworld: The Art of John Wilde," has been organized by the Elvehjem Museum of Art and debuts this month.
About 75 paintings and drawings offer audiences an overview of more than five decades of work. Museum director Russell Panczenko is curator of the exhibition.
Wilde, who taught at the university for 34 years, was born in Milwaukee in 1919. He lives in Evansville, 30 miles from Madison. Wilde received a B.S. in art in 1942, then later joined the faculty and taught from 1948 through 1982, becoming the Alfred Sessler Distinguished Professor of Art.
An outdoorsman, Wilde frequently draws what he finds on his walks: dead birds, rabbits or chipmunks, birds' nests and cocoons, dried cicadas and grasshoppers, a jawbone or animal's skull, all objects that lend themselves to close examination. Each object is rendered in meticulous detail. He also draws the human figure, usually representations of people he knows intimately: his wife, close personal friends or, very often, himself.
Wilde's paintings, sought out by dedicated collectors, are more complex and richer in content than the drawings and more formal in their presentation. They vary in size from exquisite miniatures to relatively large easel works.
Whatever the scale, the detail in each is minutely and painstakingly rendered: Large panels require the same kind of close examination from the viewer as small ones. Like the drawings, Wilde's paintings recall those of renaissance masters, especially those who used line to contain color, linear or aerial perspective to organize the compositional elements and transparent layers of glazes for rich and subtle modeling. The fanciful and often fantastic subjects of Wilde's paintings, as those of the drawings, are drawn entirely from Wilde's imagination.
Panczenko says the capacity of academic painting to produce the illusion of reality has always intrigued Wilde and, in fact, in his still-life paintings, he exploits it to the fullest, wholly enjoying its illusionary effect on the eye.
"However, Wilde, ultimately, is not a realist; he is not a teller of tales," Panczenko says. "His long career as a painter can be characterized as a continuous exploration of how to make the subjects of his paintings as immaterial and illusive as those of his drawings."
Although he has been classified as a surrealist and a magic realist, Wilde's imaginative and brilliantly executed works ultimately defy categorization. His work has been featured in exhibitions organized by The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, The Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. More than 800 of his pieces have been acquired by private collectors, and his paintings and drawings are featured in the permanent collections of The Art Institute of Chicago, the National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C., and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.