"Wols: Retrospective" Paints a Picture of a Rebellious, Yet Versatile, Artist

Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze's art is like his personality was: nonconformist and uncompromising.

From his birth in 1913 until his death in 1951, the artist known as Wols was a rebel with a brush, pushing out art while traveling the world, once even doing a 14-month prison stint. When he wasn't posting bail, Wols was a principal adopter of "Tachisme," an outgrowth of the "Art Informel," or art without form, movement. Wols's "formless art" is different from abstraction in that, even in the ruin, there is still the faint outline of an image. Despite being one of the originators of Tachisme, Wols did not experience the success enjoyed by his Abstract or Surrealist counterparts, though the Tachisme oil paintings he created, with their wild flourishes and strange figures, combined both techniques.

Wols's art was also ever-changing. Just as he didn't stay in one country for long, Wols didn't limit himself to one medium. Thanks to this restlessness, the German artist's catalog is a bevy of photographs, watercolors, oils and the occasional ink doodle. What a fortunate coincidence that Wols was one of Dominique de Menil's favorite artists; her expansive gallery makes room for "Wols: Retrospective," a look at the artist's many works.

It doesn't matter whether one turns left or right after walking into The Menil Collection's front doors. "Wols" nearly takes up the entire first floor. Starting with the two main galleries, the exhibition disappears into smaller and smaller rooms. The sum of this is a labyrinthine collection that mirrors Wols's versatile style. Turn right, and you come face to face with Wols's Tachisme paintings. Each of these oil on canvas paintings start out as stains of one or two colors, with more and more color added toward the center, until in the middle, a smudged, abstract mess drips down the canvas. Careful observation reveals subtle images in the center of this pile of goo. "Oiseau (Bird)" is a picture of poultry; without the image of the bird, there would only be a green-stained background, filled with a bevy of colors that looks like chicken (get it?) scratch. "Fish" starts with a brown and red-stained background. A fish swims in the middle, perhaps the lone survivor of a previous underwater carnage.

Turn left, and you enter a room filled with small to medium-sized watercolor, ink and gouache pieces. These pieces are less polished than the oils, looking like something Wols scribbled down quickly while in art class. There are a myriad of "Untitled" pieces in this section; the fact that Wols didn't take the time to think up a proper name for them suggests that they were hurried, not to be taken seriously. Even though these pieces are smaller in size and simpler in content, there is still the element of Tachisme at work. While the bigger Tachisme's are a centripetal pull into a center of schizophrenic colors, these little pieces draw you in with ink markings.

In a smaller adjacent room, the walls transition from white to blue. Washing the walls in baby blue encourages emotion as the viewer encounters the most personal pieces in the exhibition.

This room is where the photographs are housed. Some are of random odds-and-ends and others show Wols at his most candid. "Self-Portrait (Wols grimacing)" is a series of six photos that show Wols to be a funny, balding man with a heavy mustache and large, expressive eyes. Next to it, "Untitled (Grety's Mouth)" is a half-parted pair of lips, wet with either lipstick or spit. It's hard to tell which, since the photo is in black-and-white, and, armed with only a singular name and a monochromatic color scheme, it is difficult to discern if the subject is a man or a woman. The only tell is a crop of facial hairs sprouting from the upper lips and, and even these are sparse enough as to warrant confusion. These photos, however eyebrow-raising, are where the spirit of Wols truly resides. If the main rooms are where the viewer learns about Wols the artist, it is here, in this dark cove, that he or she learns about Wols the man.

"Wols: Retrospective" will be on view through January 12, 2014. Visit menil.org for more information.

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