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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."

 

WIMBERLEY COLLAGES AT BERRY CAMPBELL: APPEALING

Frank Wimberley, "Untitled," 1987. Acrylic and collage on board, 33 1/2 x 27 1/4 in  Courtesy Berry Campbell.

 

I've followed the career of Frank Wimberley since 1999, but that's only a fraction of his total career. Born in Pleasantville, New Jersey, in 1926, he's now in his 90s and has been exhibiting since 1969. Primarily, he's known as an abstract painter.   However, he's also made collages and nearly everything else from ceramics to assemblages, so for those who know him best, it comes as no surprise that his current show is "Frank Wimberley: Collage" at Berry Campbell (through April 17).

 

Wimberley come from a middleclass family who supported his interests in the arts. His mother, too, was a ceramicist. She also played the piano, and his father gave him a trumpet, according to the useful essay by Lisa N. Peters in the gallery's press release.

 

After serving in the U.S. Army, young Frank entered Howard University in 1945. Though he only stayed two years, he learned the rudiments of his profession. Despite being in Washington, D.C., Howard has been called headquarters or source for the Harlem Renaissance, and three artists with whom Wimberley studied were major figures.  

 

James A. Porter (1905-1970) has been called "the first African-American art historian," as well as being an accomplished representational painter.

 

Lois Mailou Jones (1905-1998), teacher of watercolor painting and design, had spent much time in Paris; she worked in a sizeable range of styles, encompassing everything from landscape to African-themed abstraction.

 

James L. Wells (1902-1993) was best known as a graphic artist, but this meant he had become familiar with Atelier 17 in New York--the graphics workshop of émigré Stanley William Hayter.

 

In addition to being a printmaker, Hayter exhibited abstract expressionist paintings in New York in the 1940s. He had helped to bring Parisian surrealism to New York, and been a key influence on Pollock.

 

While in college, according to Peters, Wimberley also became immersed in jazz, listening to it and playing it.  This in time would lead to friendships with many distinguished musicians, of whom Miles Davis is best-known.  Before Wimberley had ever had a show, these musicians would become some of the earliest and most generous collectors of his art.

 

During the 50s, while the artist was still an unknown, he was already working in a range of media.  With his wife Juanita and their son, Walden, he settled in Queens--.one of New York City's two boroughs on Long Island.  He took a night job at the post office, which freed him to work at his art in the daytime – and  look after Walden, while Juanita was at work.

 

By 1960, this energetic schedule enabled the couple to begin to visit Sag Harbor, in the East End of Long Island.  In 1964, they bought land there and then built their own house upon it – in a modern style. The house stands in an eastern part of Sag Harbor that encompasses three neighborhoods –Sag Harbor Hills, Nineveh Beach and Azurest –and has been a summer retreat since the 1920s for up-and-coming African Americans.

 

The area is also known for having more than its share of creative spirits.   One artist whom Peters mentions as a Sag Harbor friend of Wimberley's and whom I also knew is Al Loving (though by the time Loving died, in 2005, he had relocated to upstate New York).  Other African-American artists who have been associated with the East End of Long Island include Nanette Carter and Gaye Ellington (granddaughter of the Duke).

 

 Wimberley became friendly with some of the many Caucasian artists who frequented the East End of Long Island, including Herman Cherry, a better-than-average second-generation abstract expressionist, and Rae Ferren, who in addition to being a semi-abstract landscape painter herself, was the widow of John Ferren, a pioneering American abstract painter who first made his mark in Paris in the 1930s. 

 

Rae was a longtime staff member at Guild Hall in East Hampton.   She was an early subscriber to "From the Mayor's Doorstep," before the frailties of old age intervened (she died in 2016 at 87, but had been ill for quite a while before then).

 

BECOMING WELL-KNOWN

 

By the end of the 60s, this immersion of Wimberley in Long Island's cultural milieu began to bear fruit. Throughout most of the decade, it had been tough for African American artists to get shows in galleries or museums, but in 1969, the artist appeared in what according to his online CV was his first group show. This was in Brookville, Long Island, at C.W Post College (now an affiliate of Long Island University)..

 

Jules Olitski had taught at Post about ten years earlier, and I myself put in several semesters as an adjunct art historian there about ten years later.  In 1983 I got to organize a show at Post of 1940s figurative expressionists, based on a central theme in my dissertation. Presumably this was in the same gallery where Wimberley exhibited.

 

In 1973, he had his first solo exhibition, at The Black History Museum in Hempstead, Long Island, and since then has enjoyed increasing exposure.   He has had about 35 solo exhibitions and participated in more than 110 group exhibitions. 

 

Not surprisingly, about half of all these shows have been in Long Island galleries and museums, but the group shows have ranged as far west as Los Angeles and as far east as Italy, as far south as Charleston, North Carolina and as far north as Albany, NY.

 

The solo exhibitions have included quite a number with top commercial galleries in New York City. Between 1997 and 2007, Wimberley exhibited with June Kelly in SoHo. Between 2008 and 2012, he was with Spanierman in midtown Manhattan.  Since that gallery closed in 2014, he has migrated to Berry Campbell in Chelsea (both partners, Christine Berry and Martha Campbell, are alumnae of Spanierman).

 

This is Wimberley's second show with Berry Campbell. The first was paintings, and sales seem to be good. Over the last year, paintings by him have been acquired by the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Smithsonian Museum of American Art in Washington, the St. Louis Art Museum and the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens, Georgia.

 

THIS SHOW

 

The collages, in this show, are very different from Wimberley's paintings. They divide into two types: some are on canvas, and some are on paper or board.  The ones on canvas are shown unframed, while those on paper or board are matted, framed and "floating" under sheets of clear plastic or glass.

 

In dates, they vary. Two are from the 1970s, five are from the 1980s, six are from the 1990s, and four are from the 21st century. Yet they all work together very harmoniously.

 

Some of these collages (especially though not exclusively the ones on canvas) are singularly tough and muscular.  They tend to have darker colors and rounded little paper forms glued onto them.

 

Others (especially though not exclusively the ones on paper or board) are more graceful and esthetic. They tend to have paper shapes glued onto them that are straight-sided or modestly curved, and employ lighter colors and/or pencil marks..

 

On the whole, the level of craftsmanship and enterprise is high, so the overall effect is appealing. I'd say that the collages mounted on paper or board have a greater percentage of outright successes – perhaps because these are more conventional or traditional in feel.—but some of the collages on canvas are very effective, too.

 

Two of the most prepossessing ones on canvas are both dominated by the color black.  These are 'Scuttle" (2001) and especially "Jonathan" (1987), which was hung at the very back of the show when I visited the gallery..

 

The most effective mixed media on paper is the untitled work from 1998 which was hung facing the entryway from the street.   It is composed of many small curly cut-out forms in black and red covering the whole surface evenly. Alas, I was afraid it wouldn't reproduce properly online, so I turned my attention to other works in the show.

 

Among other collages on paper or board that I noted was the untitled one from 1977 illustrated on the announcement for the show. It utilizes curly shapes painted with blue and brown, as well as newsprint. I'd put it in the "muscular" category.

 

In the more "graceful" or esthetic category were two framed and matted collages in paler colors.  The first was displayed in the first open space after I entered the gallery, and the second in the second.

 

The first, on paper from 1987, utilizes shades of beige and brown, with a narrow horizontal strip of dark brown sitting (like a hat or roof) atop an equally horizontal rectangle of lighter brown.

 

The second, which I reproduce, is a vertical acrylic and paper collage on board, also from 1987. Composed of  paper colored with acrylic, it is dominated by off-white colors below and an orangey pink band across the top. This combination suggested to me two associations: one was with "peaches and cream" and the other (don't ask me why) was was with a college diploma.

 

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