In a sense, modern art came to the United States because of World War II. Hitler, like some of the more extreme right-wingers of our own time, hated modernism. Among his earliest targets were the artists and architects of the famous Bauhaus school, which was forcibly closed by the Nazis in the early 1930s. As a result, many of the key figures in the development of the Modern movement fled Europe and came to this country, where they flourished. One was the late painter and printmaker Werner Drewes, currently the subject of a fine exhibit at Inkfish Gallery that's worthy of a museum show.
Drewes came to the Bauhaus school in the 1920s with a background in architecture and interior design--appropriate, given the school's famous philosophy that blended all the arts into a single curriculum. He attended both the original Weimar Bauhaus and its successor, the Dessau Bauhaus, where he studied painting for two years with the great Russian transcendentalist Wassily Kandinsky. Drewes saw the trouble coming for abstract painting in Germany and in 1929 emigrated to the United States, settling for more than a decade in New York, where he painted and provided instruction in the fine arts. From 1946 until his retirement in 1965, Drewes taught at Washington University in St. Louis.
Most of the numerous wood-block prints included in the Inkfish show date from the 1950s and 1960s and cover a wide stylistic range. Some feature organic shapes arranged as surrealist still-life compositions; others depict landscapes that have been reduced to interlocking straight lines, while still others are purely nonobjective, emphasizing the relationships between geometric forms. This last type, the "constructivist abstractions," anticipate the paintings in the show, most of which were produced in the decade before Drewes's death in 1985.
That Drewes was right on the money up until shortly before he died is amply demonstrated by a 1984 oil on canvas called "Juxtaposition," painted when the artist was 86 years old. Here the horizontal panel has been divided by a stripe up the middle--to one side, there is a painterly and expressionistic passage; to the other, a triangular shape dominating a jungle of rectangles. These details are set off by large areas of strong, bright colors such as lavender, yellow, blue, black and orange.
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Drewes took the classic modern approach to the hard edges of his lines and rectangles. Paint, often applied when it was nearly dried on the palette, allowed him to let the different colors of the underpainting show through. The use of the nearly dry paint also tended to emphasize each brushstroke.
Many of the paintings adhere to a rigid horizontal-vertical format, but some of the most beautiful feature a dynamic sense of the diagonal. This is well shown in "Collapsing Forms," completed in 1982. Triangles and rhomboids in gray, black and mushroom are offset by wedges and rectangles in blue, white and orange. One form guides the viewer to the next in a sequence that leads through and around the picture.
Though the newest thing here is ten years old--some of the prints are forty years old--it's amazing how fresh and contemporary everything seems. The exhibit is a powerful reminder that the lasting impression the great European modernists made on American art continues to be felt today.
Werner Drewes, through April 30 at Inkfish Gallery, 949 Broadway, 825-6727.