The Peculiar Steve Wheeler Was Indeed the Real Thing

Since his death in 1992 at the age of 80, the American painter Steve Wheeler has been the subject of a modest revival of interest both in his own work and as a member of the group-the so-called Indian Space Painters-with whom he was associated in the late 1940′s. Now, in an exhibition called Steve Wheeler: The Oracle Visiting the 20th Century , Gail Stavitsky has organized the first retrospective to be devoted to the artist’s work. It is currently on view at the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey, where Ms. Stavitsky is the curator of collections and exhibitions.

Although he was accorded some passing praise early on from critics as diverse as Clement Greenberg, Henry McBride and Emily Genauer-in 1943, Greenberg cited a watercolor by Wheeler as “the most striking piece of work” in a large exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum otherwise said to be dominated by “archaizers,” “academicists,” and “eclectics”-Wheeler’s career was never an easy one. And it wasn’t only a matter of the economic hardship suffered by many artists of his generation. Wheeler’s was often a difficult case even for fellow artists and other friends who admired his work.

It was typical of his erratic behavior, for example, that when the group of Indian Space Painters with whom he was most closely associated organized an exhibition of their work at the Gallery Neuf in New York in 1946, Wheeler-as Ms. Stavitsky writes in the catalogue of the Montclair show-”declined to participate in their exhibition that year and their magazine Iconograph, deploring what he perceived to be their narrow emphasis on technique.” This is all the more bizarre when one considers the high degree of concentration that Wheeler lavished on his own meticulous technique in adapting the forms of Northwest coast Indian art to modernist pictorial structures derived from Paul Klee and Joan Miró.

What this odd behavior signified-besides, that is, a certain tendency to be arrogant, independent and quarrelsome-was Wheeler’s preference for mystical utterance and oracular statement in speaking about his art. However hard he may have worked at perfecting his own very precise pictorial technique, even to the point of diagramming the many punning symbols that crowd his pictures with multiple meanings, it was to uncanny and occult spiritual forces that Wheeler attributed his artistic vision. In writing about his art-and he wrote a good deal-he wouldn’t settle for anything less than the miraculous. To comprehend the importance he placed on such mystifications, it is therefore necessary to know something about his life, for Steve Wheeler’s story is that of a man who had had to reinvent himself in order to pursue the artistic vocation that became the center of his existence.

“In his résumés and various writings,” writes Ms. Stavitsky, “Wheeler typically reinvented himself as a first-generation American born in New Salem, Pennsylvania.” In fact, as Ms. Stavitsky adds, “he was born as Stephen Brosnatch on April 3, 1912, in a village in Slovakia … and adopted the Americanized name of Steve Wheeler as a translation of his mother’s family name in 1939.”

In this respect, of course, he was very much a man of his time. Like a number of his contemporaries on the New York art scene-Arshile Gorky, John Graham and, for that matter, Mark Rothko-taking a new name was for Steve Wheeler but a first crucial step toward acquiring a new artistic identity. In this connection, moreover, it is hardly surprising to learn that as a prelude to that decisive moment in his career, Wheeler-or rather, Stephen Brosnatch-destroyed most of the work he had produced during what he afterwards dismissed as his “years of apprenticeship to art history,” thereby clearing the way for his reincarnation as Steve Wheeler.

It was to the mining town of New Salem, where his father labored in the coal mines, that Stephen Brosnatch had been brought as an infant, and it was in those same mines that Brosnatch himself went to work at age 16. Years later, Wheeler claimed it was from the voice of an “oracle” heard in a mine that he first learned of his artistic vocation-hence the title of the painting called The Oracle Visiting the 20th Century (1943)-but his decision at an early age to devote himself to art was undoubtedly assisted by an uncle who earned his living as a commercial artist in Chicago. That uncle was his first art teacher; his last and most important was Hans Hofmann, with whom Wheeler studied for two years in New York.

Notwithstanding the metaphysical and historical fables Wheeler invented about himself-and he was neither the first nor the last artist to engage in such personal myth-making-his youth reads like a story Willa Cather might have written, the story of an immigrant teenage kid working in the mines by day and devoting his nights to voracious reading, learning to play the violin and painting in the family attic. In time, Wheeler accumulated a large and extraordinary private library devoted to art history, ethnology, philosophy and psychology-some relevant and representative volumes are included in the Montclair exhibition-which fed his developing interest in a mode of pictorial art that is at once abstract in its forms and symbolic in content.

It was in the development of a pictorial style of this persuasion that the two principal influences on Wheeler’s painting-the art of the Northwest coast Indian tribes and the narrative abstraction of Paul Klee-were absorbed into a flattened, highly colored, Cubist format that probably owed something to Hofmann’s teaching methods. The result was never painterly in the Hofmannesque manner, however. It was basically a tightly controlled graphic style that gave priority to the symbolic narrative that is told and retold in virtually every picture of the artist’s mature period-a narrative in which Wheeler was intent upon mythologizing his own quest for the miraculous.

Opinions will naturally differ about the level of success Wheeler achieved in his pursuit of this mystical, hermetic narrative about his own life as an artist. For myself, there is a cornball element in Wheeler’s art-an impulse that at times bears a closer resemblance to the contrivances of Rube Goldberg than to the spirit of Northwest coast Indian design or the paintings of Paul Klee-that tends to undermine the gravity of the artist’s intentions. On the other hand, I am moved by the sheer exuberance-a distinctly American, urban exuberance-of a pictorial style that in principle is very much at odds with its governing technique but in practice manages to transcend the artist’s compulsive attempt to impose absolute control on every detail. That exuberance suggests to me, anyway, that in his painting at least-if not in the rest of his often difficult life-Wheeler achieved a release from the demons that had haunted him since the days of his youth in the coal mines of Pennsylvania.

But in writing about Steve Wheeler’s work on this occasion, I cannot speak with complete critical detachment, for in the last years of his life he touched my own life in a curious way.

About 10 years ago, I acquired a pied-à-terre on the fourth floor of a building in midtown Manhattan only a short walk from my office. It turned out to be the building in which Wheeler had lived and worked for many years, occupying the entire second floor. From time to time, I would run into an elderly, white-haired gent who seemed to live there, but I had no idea of who he was. I noticed the name on the mailbox was “Wheeler,” but it never occurred to me that he was the painter Steve Wheeler. He seemed to know who I was, however, and always greeted me by my first name, in the hall or on the street, in a very cordial manner. But we never carried on a real conversation. It was only when he died about five years after I moved into that building that I discovered he was Steve Wheeler.

Then I discovered something else, too. Soon after Wheeler’s death, my landlord-who is himself a painter-knocked on my door one day to tell me there was something he wanted me to see in Wheeler’s second-floor studio. What I was shown, amid the disorder of Wheeler’s voluminous library, was what seemed to be a complete archive of my own writings on art-magazines dating from the 1950′s, clippings from The New York Review, The New York Times, Commentary and the art journals from the 1960′s and 70′s, a complete run of The New Criterion from the 1980′s, and so on-including early columns I had written for The New York Observer in a room two floors above Wheeler’s own residence.

I won’t attempt to describe the emotions I experienced at that extraordinary moment. Suffice to say that it was the only time in my life when I had reason to feel like a character in one of those late stories that Henry James devoted to the lives of artists and writers. And insofar as this story can be said to have had an ending, that too is fairly Jamesian-for I now occupy part of the second-floor space that was formerly Steve Wheeler’s studio.

Reading Gail Stavitsky’s account of Wheeler’s life in the catalogue accompanying the current exhibition, I see that I must have become his neighbor just before or after the death of his wife, whom he had married in 1939-the year he changed his name. After her death, his life declined into what Ms. Stavitsky describes as “bitter reclusion” and what others have called paranoia. Younger scholars hoping to interview him about his earlier career were said to be rudely treated, and when a show devoted to the Indian Space Painters was organized at Baruch College in 1991, Wheeler-as Ms. Stavitsky delicately puts it-”had to be escorted from the gallery.” In our brief encounters, however, he was always a model of courtesy, and that is how I shall always remember him. The exhibition remains on view at the Montclair Art Museum through Jan. 4.