A painter, printmaker, illustrator, and sometime writer

In Memoriam: John Wilde (1919-2006)

by Robert Cozzolino

Suggestions For Hot Weather Entertainment III, 1999, Oil on Canvas over Panel, 18 x 24" Courtesy of Tory Folliard Gallery, Milwaukee
John Wilde passed away in the late afternoon of March 9th. He was 86. Wilde was well-known as a painter, master of silverpoint, occasional printmaker, renowned draftsman, illustrator, and sometime writer. Many readers probably studied with him at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he taught from 1948-1982 (two of his most well-known students were Bruce Nauman and Wynn Chamberlain). For over sixty years, Wilde’s paintings and drawings have been among the most powerful, startling, and gorgeous objects to emerge from Wisconsin. Despite national acclaim, a consistent record of sales to major collectors and museums, and inclusion in hundreds of prominent exhibitions, Wilde remained in Wisconsin and helped shape the state’s cultural identity.

Yet Wilde was never simply a Wisconsin or Midwestern artist. His work is among the strongest of his generation and its impact on American art is only now beginning to be assessed by a generation of art historians rethinking modernism. He was featured prominently in the exhibition Surrealism U.S.A. organized by the National Academy of Design, New York (2005) and With Friends: Six Magic Realists 1940-1965 (2005) organized by the Chazen Museum of Art and reviewed in the February 2006 issue of Art in America. He will be included in a major survey of Magic Realism currently being organized for the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio (tour dates to be announced). Wilde’s drawings regularly appear in museum surveys of outstanding works on paper, most recently in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts 200th Anniversary exhibition Light, Line and Color: American Works on Paper 1765-2005.

John Henry Wilde was born in Milwaukee on December 12, 1919, to Mathilda and Emil Wilde and was the youngest of three sons (Leslie, born 1909 and Robert, born 1914). He attended public schools in Milwaukee and met a life-long neighborhood friend, the artist Karl Priebe (1914-1976), as a young boy. Wilde often remarked that early on he had “possessed a very deep instinctive love of drawing. There wasn’t any outward reason for it, nor any particular encouragement.” It was on a high school trip to see the studio of Santos Zingale (1908–1999) and Alfred Sessler (1901–1963) Wilde witnessed “real artists at work,” and realized for the first time that art could be a serious profession. Soon afterward he began an informal apprenticeship with Milwaukee painter Paul Clemens (1911–1992).

He studied at the University of Wisconsin in Madison from 1938-42 with Frederick Burkhardt, John Kienitz, Harold Taylor, Eliseo Vivas, and the artist and art historian James Watrous (1908-1999). In Madison he met several of the most influential figures in his life, including Sylvia Fein (born 1919), Dudley Huppler (1917-1988), Arnold Dadian, and the older, charismatic artist and iconoclast Marshall Glasier (1902-1988). Wilde also met fellow art student Helen Ashman who he married in June 1943 (she died, tragically young in 1966). In Watrous’ historical techniques seminars, Wilde spent hours studying recipes, experimenting with mediums, and honing his skills as a draftsman and painter. He eventually developed his own oil recipe (a secret) from trial and error and dissatisfaction with preexisting combinations. Even as an undergraduate, Wilde was considered a prominent emerging Wisconsin artist.

Wilde was drafted into the army during World War II where he worked for the medical corps and then the OSS. During this time (1942-46) he developed some of the most potent and resonant imagery of his life, which he used in dozens of paintings and drawings throughout his career. As late as 2005 Wilde integrated these images with new material in large, confident cumulative paintings. After the war Wilde earned a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin’s education department (1948) as there was not yet a formal art degree. He also flirted with an art history degree and completed a thesis on surrealism and Max Ernst (likely the first of its kind in the United States). He later described it as a diatribe against abstract expressionism first, and a thesis on Ernst, second.

During the 1950s Wilde was part of the Edwin Hewitt Gallery roster in New York, which also represented George Tooker, Jared French, Bernard Perlin, Pavel Tchelitchew, and others. For many decades he exhibited with two galleries – one in Manhattan and one in the Midwest – sometimes three. When he passed away he had concurrent exhibitions of recent work on display at Tory Folliard in Milwaukee and Spanierman in New York.

Wilde married his second wife, Shirley in 1969 and lived happily with her in Cooksville on fifteen acres of land which has the feel of a sanctuary from the noise and nonsense of the world. From 1971 through 2001 Wilde collaborated on nine books with his friend Walter Hamady, founder of the Perishable Press, Limited. In recent years he collaborated with Warrington Colescott on prints to commemorate the state’s sesquicentennial and the activities of the Wisconsin Academy. He was elected full academician at the National Academy of Design in New York in 1994.
Wilde is survived by his wife, Shirley; son Jonathan and daughter Phoebe from his first marriage, and stepsons Robert Grilley and Dorian Grilley and stepdaughter Rinalda Grilley. The exhibition, Things of Nature and the Nature of Things: John Wilde will be on display at the Chazen Museum of Art from June 10-August 20, 2006. The exhibition was to honor a gift of approximately 30 Wilde paintings from a private collection; it will now serve as a memorial exhibition with a celebration of John’s life to take place on June 11th from 2 to 4 pm at the museum.

Robert Cozzolino is Curator at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia