Walter Quirt (1902-1968) - American Social Surrealist and Abstractionist
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Walter Wellington Quirt was born to Arthur Quirt and Theresa McDowell on November 24, 1902 in the small mining town of Iron River, Michigan.
Far removed from any traces of civilization, Iron River was for Quirt
a place as bleak and unkind as its name.
's family had little money and limited contact with the life of culture or art, yet Quirt
managed to find a creative flame within himself, for although the schools in his
rough hometown provided no art training, Quirt began drawing well before he
had entered his
According to his widow Eleanor, Quirt
"was for a long time colored by Iron River."
In 1921, Quirt left Iron River to attend the Layton School of Art in Milwaukee.
progress there led to part-time work as a drawing instructor, and by 1926, Quirt
was teaching novice classes and outdoor sketching.
While at the School, Quirt
earliest watercolors, and his
paintings were exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago
in 1926 and in the International Watercolor exhibitions of 1929.
During this time, Quirt
also studied at the McDowell Colony in New Hampshire but his
formal training went no further, allowing him the independence to experiment stylistically throughout a very prolific and eclectic career.
Quirt left Milwaukee for New York City in 1929, a change he had long looked forward to.
arrival in the city coincided with the onset of the Great Depression, and soon he
was involved in the radical causes that would influence his
work throughout the 1930s.
Within a year such leading leftwing periodicals as New Masses, New Pioneer and Art Front were publishing his
socially and politically engaged drawings.
future paintings would evolve from these illustrations.
In 1931, Quirt
married Martha Pearse of Milwaukee.
The following year, Quirt became secretary of the art section of the John Reed Club, an organization associated with the Communist Party USA and committed to encouraging young, leftist talent.
Appealing to the art section's affiliates across the country, Quirt
created newsletters calling for an increase in politically- and socially-themed artwork.
In February 1933, along with one-hundred other artists, he
contributed to the John Reed Club's
first art exhibition titled The Social Viewpoint in Art.
had work creating sketches and murals, he
needed a stable income to survive the Great Depression.
In October 1935, Quirt landed a position with the New York City branch of the Works Progress Administration/Federal Art Project, which kept him employed for the next seven years.
During this time, Quirt
painted small panels that echoed influences ranging from Diego Rivera and Jose Orozco to Salvador Dali and de Chirico.
In February 1936, New York's exclusive Julien Levy Gallery
first solo-exhibition with sixteen works reflecting the cultural and economic tone of both the American Artists' Congress
and the current New York art scene.
In defending the decision to exhibit an obscure social-surrealist, a spokesperson affirmed that the work of the gallery's "first radical painter" was not only fresh and innovative but also of profound social and political importance (Swanson 19).
The success of this show paved the way for Quirt's
future artistic endeavors.
In January 1937, Quirt
participated in a panel with Dali at the Museum of Modern Art on "Surrealism and Its Political Significance."
candid Marxist views, arguing that Dali's doctrines on Surrealism paralleled those of Fascism and that human emotions could be divided into a dichotomy of fascist or revolutionary ideologies. (Swanson 19).
Although critics took offense, Quirt
stood true to his
By the late 1930s, however, the Freudian analysis that he
had begun in 1935 led to dramatic changes in Quirt's
opinions and art.
While painting murals for Bellevue Hospital in 1937 and 1938, Quirt, now divorced, met and fell in love with Eleanor Falk, an assistant to the mural project.
outlook changing, Quirt
sought out the Pinacotheca Gallery
, and in 1941, began painting and writing newsletters for the gallery.
comments in these newsletters on 1930s art suggested the reasons for his
departure from Marxism.
In "Social Content vs.
Art," for example, he
questioned whether a direct social-surrealist portrayal of society and politics in painting could count as art, or if a more indirect approach using "art's language" would be more effective (Swanson 21).
time under Freudian analysis along with his
disillusionment with the Communist Party after the Soviet-Nazi pact of 1939 both contributed to his
changed political and artistic stance.
With his wife and newborn son Andrew, Quirt left New York City for Milwaukee in mid-1944 to resume work as a teacher at the Layton School of Art, a move which Mrs. Quirt describes as a "screaming disaster."
It was in Milwaukee that Quirt's
ten-year long drinking problem began, getting so bad some nights that he
would make threats to Mrs. Quirt of jumping off their apartment's fire escape at night.
Although the two teaching positions allowed Quirt
to provide for his
growing family with his
first steady salary since leaving the WPA/FAP in 1942, the increased workload and his
growing drinking habit led to a sense of isolation during his
time in Wisconsin and Michigan (Eleanor Quirt).
unhappiness in the Midwest, Quirt
continued painting and writing productively.
had exhibitions at the Duveem-Graham Gallery
in 1957, the Greer Gallery
With a grant from the Ford Foundation
, the American Federation of Arts
sponsored the "Walter Quirt Retrospective," in which forty-two of his
pieces traveled throughout the United States between 1960 and 1962.
In 1967 the University of Michigan
presented him with a grant to spend a quarter in an isolated area of the Yucatan to develop his
ideas on composition and design by studying the "linear preferences" of the local population (Swanson 25).
life as an artist, Quirt
dared to rely on his
impulses and his
courage in order to create the most effective art.
The cost of such independence may have been that he
had to suffer, but as Quirt's
constantly evolving theories regarding art, society and nature changed with every decade, so did his
style and technique.
By the end of his
had fulfilled his
lifelong objective of communicating with an extensive audience.
painting career as a Social Realist but eventually converted to Social Surrealist techniques in order to express his
passion for political struggle and social awareness in his
paintings on life in the tangible world of human interaction, his
complex surrealist visuals allowed him to intensify the authority of his
many social-political testimonials.
Until the late 1930s, Quirt
art as a propagandistic instrument, denouncing such issues as the exploitation of workers, unemployment, poverty and inequities toward Black Americans.
did so by pairing contradictory images with intricate arrangements of overlapping and entwined metaphorical assemblages that were, according to art critic Ilene Susan Fort, "psychologically associated but formally disconnected" (11).
often devised compositions in which barrier-like formations contained the figures and divided the spatial arrangements.
This was a mechanism that he
felt was essential to his
subject matter as it allowed him to coalesce dissimilar times and places into a single work of art, as he
does, for example, in Conflict (1935).
Critics frequently compared Quirt's
initial Surrealist paintings to works by Dali, since the compositions of both artists were similarly radiant, fluid and smooth (Lansing 31).
Unlike Dali, Quirt
focused upon the predicaments of farmers, workers and African-Americans, filling his
earliest paintings with powerful and complex surreal compositions that illustrated his
beliefs that capitalism was a source of universal human suffering.
By the late 1930s, after leaving the Communist Party and undergoing Freudian psychoanalysis, Quirt
style from Social Surrealism to a more abstract Surrealism.
began to focus more upon finding a better society through personal motivations rather than trying to mend unfortunate social conditions by political means.
Such paintings from this period of his
career as I'm Going Away, Far Far into the Distance, Never to Return, Goodbye (1942) are permeated with mythical Freudian dream imagery and primordial symbolism, and the undulating ribbons of paint and color evoke incessant, seemingly eternal movement.