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Walter Quirt

 (1902 - 1968)
Walter W. Quirt was active/lived in Minnesota, New York, Michigan.  Walter Quirt is known for cubist images, surreal view, genre.

Walter Quirt

Biography from the Archives of askART

Biography photo for Walter Quirt
Social Realist, Walter Quirt's earliest works were largely political--motivated by Marxian values. Active during the 1930s, his Surrealist paintings were full of social content which encouraged radical social change. In the late 1930s, he became disenchanted with radically left ideas.

Later he began to experiment with new styles of painting, including figuration, fantasy and abstraction, but always contained his social and personal beliefs. In 1937 he spoke at the Museum of Modern Art Symposium "Surrealism and Its Political Significance." He also wrote an essay "Wake Over Surrealism: With Due Respect to the Corpse" (c.1940, Pinacotheca Gallery, NYC), which contained his criticism of Dali and other Surrealists whose work he felt had degenerated into negativism and decadence.


Peter Falk, "Who Was Who in American Art"

Biography from The Columbus Museum of Art, Georgia
Walter Quirt studied art at the Layton School of Art in Wisconsin from 1921 until 1923 and later at the McDowell Colony in New Hampshire in 1928. (1)  He was one of the most vital and active figures of the New York avant-garde art world of the 1930s.  He worked for the Works Project Administration painting murals in the mid-1930s.

He later moved to Minneapolis and taught art at the University of Minnesota from 1956 to 1968.  Early in his career, Quirt painted the social problems of his time in a realistic style.  He also involved himself in left-wing causes by illustrating political magazines, such as The Masses, and by joining radical artist groups.  Quirt was a member of the John Reed Club.

After working with socialist themes for many years, Quirt became one of the first American artists to experiment with Surrealism.  He had a retrospective exhibition of his work in 1960 through the American Federation of Arts, and he showed during his career at the Art Institute of Chicago, Whitney Museum of American Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum, and the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Quirt died March 19, 1968 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Developed in Europe, the movement known as Surrealism included artists who painted the fleeting images and moments of their subconscious activity and dreams. By the time the Museum of Modern Art held their landmark 1936 exhibition on Surrealism, Walter Quirt was already defining his approach to Surrealism that had been displayed first as early as 1933.  Quirt's attitude was that Salvador Dali and others had not taken full advantage of the possibilities that Surrealism offered, and that artists using free association to explore the language of emotions on problems the public feels but has not the means for projecting into actualities was a positive move. (2)

Quirt's painting reflects a subliminal consciousness that is based in Hegelian theories of metaphysics and psychoanalysis, and James Joyce literature. (3)  Quirt's dreams supplied this disturbing theatrical imagery of interlacing color and distorted clown figures.  Given Quirt's previous tendency toward social commentary and the current events of World War II, his paintings could be interpreted as a discourse on the problems of the era, but more likely was one such as those described in the early 1940s as enigmatic. 

Quirt's style shifted late in his New York career when he abandoned the social realist politics and imagery that had dominated his early years as an artist and activist.  One possible source for this new manner of imagery after the social realism that had dominated his earlier career might have been Roberto Matta's first one-person exhibition at Julien Levy Gallery in 1940.  Almost certainly, Quirt would have seen these paintings that incorporated staining, overlays, wiping, lines of straight and smeared character and multi-faceted forms. (4)

Many of Quirt's paintings of this period follow this active and colorful format. Quirt's painting shows fragmented, sometimes "harlequin-esque" figures.  In doing so, he makes a uniquely American Surreal picture that, at the same time, resonates with the work of many European émigrés who had recently fled to America to escape Nazi persecution.

1. Some of the biographical information is gleaned from The City as a Source for Artists (New York: D. Wigmore Fine Art Inc., 2001), p. 34.

2. Oliver W. Larkin, Art and Life in America (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, revised edition, 1960), 454.

3. Glenn Wessels, "Surrealism," Art Digest, October 15, 1934, 17.

4. Jeffrey Wechsler, "Surrealism in America: At Home on the Range of Possibility, "Surrealism and American Art (Boca Raton, FL: Boca Raton Museum of Art, 1997), 16.

Submitted by the Staff, Columbus Museum

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About  Walter Quirt

Born:  1902 - Iron River, Michigan
Died:   1968 - Minneapolis, Minnesota
Known for:  cubist images, surreal view, genre