Photos by Mookie Forcella
John Wolfe says that he’s always considered himself a folk artist. While it’s true that his dreamlike canvases often depict larger-than-life characters from that wavering zone where the historical record is blurred by legend – Jim Thorpe, Che Guevara, Babe Ruth, Josephine Baker, the intrepid 19th-century reporter Henry Morton Stanley – it’s also true that in Wolfe’s case, the pigeonhole of “folk art” may not be adequate to the task of fully conveying the rigorous approach, the high degree of skill, that he brings to his (mostly) narrative paintings.
Reviewing the work of Thomas Hart Benton, another artist who made wide-ranging use of folk motifs, the cultural critic Linda Weintraub wrote, “He is not [strictly speaking] a folk artist. [He] is neither uneducated nor unworldly. His work is informed by extensive readings in history, literature, political theory, philosophy, and aesthetics.” You can say the same for John Wolfe, although I’d hasten to add that damn good painting is damn good painting, whatever anyone cares to call it.
This Sunday, May 4, Unison Gallery will present the first major solo show of paintings by John Wolfe in New Paltz, the town where he has lived and worked since the early 1970s. (He currently maintains a studio on Prospect Street, although he now resides a little ways up the road in Ulster Park.) The show’s title, Crossroads, was chosen by Wolfe to reflect the encounter, in many of his canvases, of two cultures at the moment they collide, or that liminal moment when one historical period is ending and the next one has not yet arrived.
Wolfe came to the village of the Huguenots following his graduation from The Art Students League of New York. He then studied with the late Alex Minewski, an extraordinary modernist painter and draughtsman, at SUNY-New Paltz. Eventually, student and mentor became the best of friends, and after Minewski died, Wolfe inherited his cozy aerie of a studio, built on top of a garage.
“I don’t remember whether it was Natalie [Minewski’s wife] or I who suggested that I keep the studio going, but it had a lot of sentimental associations – I used to visit Alex every day for years – and I was honored to take it over,” Wolfe says.
Minewski would be happy to see his former studio so gloriously unfree of clutter, the sign of a working artist. The wall nearest the door is a palimpsest of overlapping photos, copies of prints, and penciled notes and admonitions (“reduce to essentials and make a design out of that”; “creativity: just lie”). There are National Geographics dating back to the early Pleistocene, pink rolls of fiberglass insulation, a beach chair with frayed slats facing an easel, and a radio splotched with many generations of paint, perched on a stool. The only pristine items in this chaotic still-life are the unopened tubes of Utrecht paint: viridian green, naphthol red, titanium white, cerulean blue.
The day I visited, many paintings were propped up on the floor to assist Wolfe in making his selections for the show. Prominent among them were several of his portraits and studies of great players and teams from the old Negro Leagues, which are especially prized by aficionados of our National Pastime.