Steve Wheeler

Steve Wheeler (1912-1992)
In his résumés and various writings, Wheeler typically reinvented himself as a first-generation American born in New Salem, Pennsylvania. In fact, 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.(

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