Wednesday, June 03, 2015

A Spiritual Journey

I’ve always been a spiritually concerned person
and for me abstract art is an embodiment of the spiritual.”

George Wardlaw

In his late 20’s two events happened to the painter, sculptor and teacher George Wardlaw that were to have a profound effect upon his life. He married Judy Spivack who was to be his life partner for more than 50 years and he converted to Judaism.

Although not his muse per se, Judy had a major influence on his work. "I never did a painting or piece of sculpture without asking Judy to look and tell me what she thought," Wardlaw said at his 2008 exhibition Widows II at Hampshire College.

The driving force for his work was the exploration of the age old conundrum that exists between religion and art. As the description for the book about his work, Crossing Borders, puts it “Never confined by categories, Wardlaw explores medium, form, scale, and color as a lifelong dialogue between abstraction and spirituality. From his Baptist and Native American roots to Judaism, from the rural south to the urban northeast, from painting to sculpture and back again, Wardlaw produced series after series of profound artworks on his quest for creative and spiritual resolution.”

Growing up in rural Mississippi Wardlaw’s youthful exposure to art was parochial and pragmatic ranging from his mother’s quilts to his father’s drawings of the distinctive markings of hunting dogs he bred. Wardlaw escaped the life of a farm hand by joining the navy in World War II. An experience the Courthouse Gallery in Maine reports Wardlaw as recollecting “Being in the Service got me off the farm. It opened my eyes and head as I traveled around the country.”

At the end of the hostilities Wardlaw used his GI Bill entitlement to study art at the Memphis Academy of Art which he followed up by gaining a MFA from the University of Mississippi. His teaching career started as an instructor at the University of Mississippi and culminated at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, as a professor in their Art Department, a position he held for some 22 years.

Along the way Wardlaw also has had a string of exhibitions showing his work that started out impressionistic but developed into hard edge geometric abstraction and most recently as an amalgamation of the two.

As the one time critic for the New York Times, Grace Glueck has said about Wardlaw’s work “He has produced a rich and varied body of work whose scope defies the limits of a human lifetime, an output that resonates with the insights he has gained in the spiritual quest that eventually led him from Christianity to Judaism.”

A retrospective exhibition of his work George Wardlaw, A Life in Art: Works from 1954 to 2014 is currently on show at the Mississippi Museum of Art until the 30th of August. And a few blocks away at Fischer Galleries a selection of Wardlaw’s recent works are concurrently on show.

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