John von Wicht was highly trained in fine and applied arts in his native Germany before he immigrated to the United States in 1923. When he was seventeen he apprenticed in a painting and decorating shop, and spent his spare time drawing from nature. He began painting in oil about 1908, and soon thereafter sold his first canvas. Encouraged that her son would have a future as an artist, von Wicht’s mother sent him to the advanced private school of the Grand Duke of Hesse, where the professors encouraged students to draw plants and flowers to learn about organic growth, shape and proportion. “I remember the Professor speaking of circular movements, of space between forms and of Equilibrium,” von Wicht later recalled.(1) The students also studied ancient art, Chinese and Japanese calligraphy, as well as Mathias Grünewald, Albrecht Dürer, Martin Schongauer, Hans Memling, and other German masters whose work was in local collections. Von Wicht subsequently studied printing methods at the Royal School for Fine and Applied Arts in Berlin, but said he skipped class frequently to visit exhibitions of the newest painting—van Gogh, Cézanne, Munch, Gauguin, Kandinsky, and Franz Marc.
Wounded and partially paralyzed in the trenches during World War I, von Wicht spent several years recovering, doing book design and illustration work, and looking at art. It was during this recuperation that he discovered Mondrian and Malevich. In 1923, with inflation devastating the German economy, he immigrated to the United States. In New York, his early training served him well. He worked for two years with a lithography company, then joined a firm making stained glass and mosaics. He learned to use symbols rather than naturalistic motifs, and explored both geometry and dense color in abstract paintings such as the Untitled gouache of about 1938, and in murals for radio station WNYC and the New York World’s Fair.
Von Wicht had his first solo show, of mural designs, at the Architect’s Building in 1936. It was followed, in 1939, by an exhibition of his paintings at Theodor A. Kohn Gallery. The show at Kohn was well received by the New York press, and the following year he exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art. This exposure cemented von Wicht’s reputation as an abstract painter. Throughout the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, he exhibited frequently in solo and group exhibitions in New York and around the country. He was invited to join the American Abstract Artists and the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors.
During World War II, von Wicht served as captain of a supply barge ferrying food to army transport ships in New York harbor; after the war he continued to command a supply scow. Harbor themes began to appear in his abstractions, and during the 1950s his sensuously colored geometric abstractions gave way to loose, expressionistic forms. In 1954 von Wicht received the first of twelve annual residencies at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. The spacious studio and contact with other artists at the MacDowell Colony had an important impact on his work. In his exhibition at Passedoit Gallery that year, he exhibited paintings with nautical motifs in which the Cubist device of interlocking and overlapping planes was paramount. But von Wicht also began relating his work to music created by the composers he had met at MacDowell. Although his work was well received from the time of his first exhibition, critics attributed the expanded sense of space, brilliant color, and vigorous handling of paint surfaces in his new work to the experience of living away from the city. By the time he died, in 1970, von Wicht had received international acclaim.
1. John von Wicht, “Recollections,” John von Wicht Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., p. 3. Von Wicht’s own recollections have provided the foundation for most subsequent writing about his early career.
Virginia M. Mecklenburg The Patricia and Phillip Frost Collection: American Abstraction 1930–1945 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press for the National Museum of American Art, 1989)