George Wardlaw (b. 1927) grew up poor on a Mississippi farm without any exposure to art either at home or in school. Two vivid memories that have stayed with him are of watching his mother lay out patchwork quilts, observing color, pattern, and the process of organization, and watching his father who, in addition to digging roads on the WPA, bred dogs for quail hunting, fill out the dogs’ registration papers, adding spots in the right places to give them identity.
Wardlaw served in the Navy medical corps, completing the core medical training program, and was stationed at a number of different locations in the U.S. “Being in the Service got me off the farm,” he recollects. “It opened my eyes and head as I traveled around the country.” Evidently he must have done some drawing earlier in his schoolbooks because right after leaving the service he ran into a friend who asked, “Are you still drawing?” His friend’s suggestion that he study at the Memphis Academy of Art sent Wardlaw off to the Veteran’s Administration and in two weeks he found himself enrolled at the Academy. The faculty took an interest in him and were very supportive; he read Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art which influenced him profoundly, and when an abstract painter from New York joined the faculty, he turned to non-objective art, winning an award for both his representational and his abstract work. “I wanted to do something different in my life. I’ve always been a spiritually concerned person and for me abstract art is an embodiment of the spiritual.”
In 1951 he moved to the University of Mississippi where he was teaching. He later enrolled in the MFA program and studied with Jack Tworkov in 1954 and with David Smith in 1955. Asked whether he did sculpture with Smith, he replied that he had always worked three dimensionally as well as in two dimensions and that he had become skilled in metal-smithing and had established a program in metal working at the University of Mississippi. Through Tworkov he became familiar with Abstract Expressionism and his painting of the 1950s reflects that movement’s forceful gestural paint application and all-over energizing of the canvas surface. Another significant factor in his formation was living in Oxford, Mississippi, devouring Faulkner’s writing and admiring his ability to focus on the local and regional while giving it universal resonance.
Wardlaw feels that Maine, where he has spent many summers and has made many photographs of its coast, has served something of the same purpose for him, “as a spiritual magnet” and a visual theme which can be used to point to other meanings. After teaching and at the same time earning a degree at the University of Mississippi, Wardlaw taught at Louisiana State and was at the State University of New York in New Palz when Tworkov invited him to join the faculty at Yale. In 1968 he moved to the University of Massachusetts where he chaired the art department until his retirement in 1990. His works in the present exhibition are landscape-inspired, but the compositions reflect an abstract underpinning and the paint is loosely brushed on in shimmering color areas that recall Philip Guston’s abstractions of the 1950s.