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 Steve Wheeler  (1912 - 1992)

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Lived/Active: New York / Slovakia      Known for: Indian symbolic-zoomorph, non ob

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Ad Code: 3
Steve Wheeler
from Auction House Records.
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Heavily influenced by modernists Klee and Kandinsky, he was a pioneering American abstractionist who, in the 1940s, was a member of the "Indian Space Painters," explorers of Indian mythology and imagery through abstraction. Much of his work is totally abstract with puzzle-like compositions and wild animation. He was largely unappreciated in his lifetime.

He was born Stephen Brosnatch in a coal-mining village in Slovakia and at age two came to live near the coalfields of Pennsylvania with his parents. For a period as a young man he worked as a coal miner and claimed he heard the voice of an oracle in the coal mines imploring him to become an artist.

In 1932, he went to New York and enrolled in the Art Student's League, studying with Vaclav Vytlacil and George Grosz and then attended Hans Hoffman's Abstract Expressionist School on West 8th Street. He developed a strong enthusiasm for pre-Columbian and North-American Indian art but became disillusioned and left the school in 1937.

He supported himself as a graphic designer and in 1939, changed his name to Steve Wheeler, an English translation of his mother's family name. He frequented the Cedar Bar where he was drinking buddies with Jackson Pollock and Willem DeKooning and then struggled to establish a unique identity as an artist. He made exaggerated claims that he had discovered a totally unique pictorial language for his art and that his paintings were living organisms.

During World War II, he was employed by an industrial designer of templates for ship parts. In the late 1940s, he seemed to be achieving recognition as being in the forefront of American painting, but that was overshadowed by the success of the pure Abstract Expressionists. Compared to their pieces, his work was too intimate, small and seemingly irrelevant with its Indian imagery.

His last one-man show was in 1951 in New York at the New Gallery. Faced with diminished reputation, he continued to paint and write and made a living by teaching graphic design and participating in the "Four O'Clock Forums" held from 1953 to 1956 in the studio of Louise Nevelson. But he grew ever more embittered, and struggled with excessive drinking and smoking. People found him extremely difficult, and after his wife's death in 1978, he became very reclusive. In 1991, he was part of an exhibition of Indian Space Painters at Baruch College, but became so outrageous he was forcibly removed from the Gallery. He died the next year.

Biography from David Findlay Jr. Gallery:
As the inventor of Indian Space painting, a style of art which incorporated the imagery and philosophy of Native American art and artifacts, Steve Wheeler was an important link between the various forms of abstraction being practiced in Europe in the early part of the 20th century and the development of a uniquely American Modernist form.

Wheeler was born Stephen Brosnatch in Slovakia.  As a young boy he immigrated to the United States with his family, settling in New Salem, Pennsylvania.  At sixteen he left school to work in the coal mines, but continued to read and study, particularly on the subject of art.  He soon decided to become an artist and moved to Chicago where he studied commercial illustration with his uncle and likely took classes at the Art Institute of Chicago.  In 1931 he moved to Pittsburgh, then moved again in 1932 to New York City where he studied at the Art Students League and with Hans Hofmann.  It was Hofmann who shaped the foundation for Wheeler's philosophy about art by introducing him to the concepts of cubism, abstracting from nature, two-dimensionality and the push-pull of positive and negative space.

Wheeler moved to Pittsburgh in 1939, partly to remove himself from the strong influences on his art, which he experienced in New York.  He found the freedom he sought there and began to develop his own artistic vision, while at the same time keeping in touch with colleagues in New York such as Peter Busa and Robert Barrell.  He returned to New York in 1940, where Wheeler's ideas about art and his work blossomed.  There was a lot happening in the art world in New York at that time, much of which was to feed Wheeler's burgeoning explorations.

In 1941 the Museum of Modern Art had two exhibitions, one of the work of Paul Klee and another featuring Joan Miró.  In the same year the Modern also mounted the landmark exhibition titled "Indian Art of the United States".  Wheeler, Barrell and Busa had been visiting collections of tribal art throughout New York as early as 1937, and by the early 1940s Wheeler had found the ideal visual language for his work in the art of the Northwest Coast Indians. 

Not only did Wheeler use this imagery in his work, which had been done before by such artists as Marsden Hartley and Pablo Picasso, but he also used the philosophy behind that imagery, and developed his own language of symbols and pictographs, explored the idea of metamorphosis, and gave equal weight to positive and negative space which eliminated any differentiation between foreground and background. The result was a flattening of the picture plane characterized by an all-over design, which became known as Indian Space painting.  The philosophy behind Wheeler's style became the common philosophy of a group of artists called the Indian Space Painters, which included Wheeler's friends Robert Barrell and Peter Busa, but not Wheeler himself. Wheeler was a stubborn individualist, and in attempting to portray himself as a completely unique artist unrestricted by current trends in modern art he tended to isolate himself which limited his opportunities to exhibit the work which, when it was shown, received favorable reviews.

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