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‘Some people got it’: Ben Wilson at Montclair State
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‘Some people got it’: Ben Wilson at Montclair State

Artist’s dark early works gave way to vibrant abstraction

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Ben Wilson in 1969. Images courtesy Montclair State University 
Ben Wilson in 1969. Images courtesy Montclair State University 

A bleak cubist landscape strewn with human bodies and heads, some bleeding into the earth, greets visitors as they enter the Ben Wilson exhibit at Montclair State University (MSU). 

The grim figures and dark tones, however, soon give way to abstract forms on multiple planes with an increasingly vibrant palette representing the passing decades of Wilson’s life and the maturing of his art. 

The exhibit, “Ben Wilson: From Social Realism to Abstraction,” which opened at the Montclair campus’s George Segal Gallery on Sept. 6 and runs through Nov. 4, offers an overview of the artist’s career. 

Born in Philadelphia in 1913 to Jewish immigrants from Kiev and raised in New York City, Wilson was later a longtime resident of New Jersey, living in Ridgefield and Blairstown. 

His early paintings, from the ’30s and ’40s, are the ones most closely associated with his Jewish roots. They reflect the darkness of the time and his parents’ experiences of life in Ukraine during periods of violence against the Jews; they bear such titles as “Pogrom” and “Wasteland.” 

“He couldn’t bear what was happening in the world, what was happening to Jews,” said his daughter, Joanne Jaffe, 75, who spoke to NJJN from her home in Santa Monica, Calif. Some of his early works have rarely been shown, according to Jaffe. 

“Some people got it; some people didn’t,” she said. The graphic nature of these early works turned off some viewers and critics and often ignited controversy. One exhibit of Wilson’s work at a branch of the New York Public Library in 1939 was taken down early, a victim of censorship because of the harsh content. 

Those exhibit organizers “did not realize what they were getting,” said Jason Rosenfeld, professor of art history at Marymount Manhattan College and curator of the exhibit at MSU. “Deprivation. Women being assaulted. Babies dying. It was unsentimental and unsparing.

“Some people thought it was too direct. Some people thought he was speaking truth to power.” But, Rosenfeld added, the censorship “was gut-wrenching to Wilson because he was deeply connected to those images through his family.”

Speaking with NJJN by phone, Rosenfeld called the early paintings “the most riveting, because they have a deeply human element.”

“I think he was always trying to solve a problem,” said Teresa Lapid Rodriguez, director of the George Segal Gallery. In the early years, he was reacting to the changing world — the suffering brought on by the Depression, the rise of fascism, the Holocaust — and to his parents’ experiences in Europe. But as the postwar period took over, he moved on to solving problems in art and in teaching abstract art. “I don’t think we know yet all of what he was doing in his paintings,” Rodriguez said. 

Jaffe pointed out, “By the late 1940s and early 1950s, things started to be less bleak for my parents and for this country. Title by title, his torment dissipated and he was able to move away from that material. His palette brightened; the subject material lightened.”

The bulk of the exhibit focuses on Wilson’s colorful abstract work, including “Corrida,” from the mid-1960s, reflecting a passion for bullfighting he acquired on a trip to Spain. The painting is the largest in the exhibit and among the most arresting, with sharp oranges, reds, and blacks and geometric forms. 

Many of the pieces include shapes and motifs that ultimately defined Wilson’s art: “T-square elements, empty rectangular frames, round shapes with striations, and clear progression of form and color…” as Rosenfeld writes in the exhibit catalogue.

“Tic Tac Toe,” with its heavy black lines on a white background, dominates one wall in the gallery, while “The Past Disassembled” invites the viewer to search for a path through myriad planes created by triangles and rectangles resting one upon the other.

By the end of his career, paintings created in the woods behind his home in Blairstown and in his winter home in Sarasota, Fla., reflect that the depressive character of his youth is long gone. As his daughter pointed out, “His paintings were quite joyous, colorful, and abstract. He was free of torment.” 

But, she added, “I wonder what would he think today?”

Wilson was culturally Jewish “from the get-go,” according to Jaffe, but did not engage specifically with the Jewish community. He did have exhibits at various JCCs, where he formed artists’ groups and taught (he was an art teacher throughout his career). “He was deeply spiritual, but it did not take a particular religious form,” Jaffe said. “He didn’t talk about Judaism, and it didn’t continue to be a theme in his work, but culturally and internally, we were always Jewish and felt a kinship.”

She pointed out that growing up in Ridgefield, she could think of only a handful of Jewish students in the high school and didn’t know of a synagogue there (there isn’t one). “I don’t think there were any Jews there,” Jaffe said, “but there were so many churches.” 

Even his secular approach to Judaism fits a trajectory that Rosenfeld called “a typical Jewish story for the Northeast in the second half of the 20th century.” He grew up with struggling immigrant parents (his father was a tailor, his mother a seamstress) and received his education in city public schools, including the City College of New York. He moved to the suburbs and eventually to Florida. “He just also happened to be a really interesting painter,” said Rosenfeld. “He was not particularly religious. That was not his thing. He was culturally Jewish. But he is really invested in bringing art to the community.” 

“My father was always painting, painting, painting,” said Jaffe. But he never pursued fame; in fact, he gave up his studio in Manhattan after moving to New Jersey, cutting ties with the city and staying out of the gallery fray. According to Rosenfeld, Wilson did not actively promote himself.

By the end of his life, his reception in Florida was almost the same as it had been in the early days. While her mother, sculptor Evelyn Perlman Wilson, kept winning prizes for her works (some of which are also at the university), Jaffe said, “My father’s work was less well received. He was either rejected, or he’d win first prize. People either got it or not.” 

Today, Wilson remains relatively unknown, but Rodriguez and Rosenfeld think that may eventually change. 

Following his death in 2001 and Evelyn’s, in 2006, the estate donated his work to more than 60 institutions, including Hebrew Union College in New York City and William Paterson University in Wayne. But the largest grouping, with over 200 core works, went to MSU. (It is also the largest art gift the university has received to date.) 

The reason? It was all about Rodriquez, Jaffe said. “She got it right away; she really understood what my father was doing.”

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