Viewed as revolutionary during his peak decades, 20th-century painter Walter Quirt slipped into obscurity and today is unknown even to many serious art enthusiasts. A show of 25 oil paintings – “Walter Quirt: Revolutions Unseen” at Sandra Lee Gallery through March 14 – illustrates why he mattered.
Quirt (1902-1968) created emotionally charged, lyrically expressive paintings in styles reflecting modern-art history – social realism, surrealism, postwar abstraction. While suggestive of European masters such as Bosch, Picasso and Munch, his works are distinguished by an American spirit and his own political and personal ideas.
“I came across a black-and-white image of Quirt’s work in a book written by Sidney Janis in 1944 – I couldn’t get it out of my mind,” says independent curator Travis Wilson, whose Wilson Art Services, along with the gallery, is presenting the show.
“I asked myself, ‘Who is Walter Quirt?,’ and have spent the last three years trying to answer that question,” Wilson adds, describing Quirt as an “important suture between social realism and abstract expressionism.”
The Michigan-born Quirt moved to New York in 1929, when the Great Depression was about to begin. An early communist and a social realist, he created political cartoons and other drawings addressing issues such as economic and racial injustice. The Mexican muralists of the day were among his influences.
Quirt soon renounced communism and shifted from social realism to surrealism, injecting political, social and human-condition themes into the picture. His subjects included the horrors of World War II. New Yorker critic Robert Coates called Quirt “one of the most impassioned artists alive today” in 1944.
After the war, Quirt returned to the Midwest and continued to paint, with diminishing recognition. His paintings became increasingly gestural and abstract, sometimes suggesting those of de Kooning and Stuart Davis, who was among Quirt’s friends.
Exhibition highlights include “The Crucified” (1943), described by Quirt as an “accurate picturization of the growth of sadism within American society, painted without moral conclusions.” Contorted figures made up of Quirt’s trademark ribbons of color produce a portrait of anguish sharpened by the artist’s keen ability to draw.
“Shipwrecked” (1943), depicting a calamity at sea, also contains curvilinear imagery, a tone of torment and an absence of quiet space. Stark contours offset the figures’ faces, putting a focus on the subjects’ distress.
Works from Quirt’s later years include “The Model” (1961), a figurative piece containing shades of abstract expressionism, and “The Dilemma” (1953), a portrait featuring pastel tones and sweep-of-the-hand brushwork. Beneath the calm surfaces, these being Quirt paintings, something emotional is going on.
IF YOU GO
Walter Quirt: Revolutions Unseen
Where: Sandra Lee Gallery, 251 Post St., Suite 310, S.F.
When: Tuesdays-Saturdays, closes March 14
Contact: (415) 291-8000, www.sandraleegallery.com