"Court Jester", o/c,
8 1/4 x 5 1/2", 1944.

by Marge Bulmer

(Tobey C. Moss Gallery, West Hollywood) Werner Drewes, printer/painter, significantly contributed to the development of American modern art. His art was rooted in an abstraction that is realistic at base but controlled by geometric simplification. An important art educator, he taught printmaking, drawing and painting at Columbia University, design at the Institute of Design in Chicago, and served as a professor of design and Director of First Year Program at the School of Fine Arts at Washington University in St. Louis. He was also Technical Supervisor of the Graphic Arts Project of the WPA and a founding member of the American Abstract Artists.

Born in Germany in 1899, he migrated to America in 1930 when Germany was in political turmoil, but still before the Nazis took power. At that time he was already an accomplished painter and printmaker who had built an exhibition record with German galleries. Early in his career he studied architecture at Stuttgart and then in 1921 attended the Bauhaus, attending classes taught by Kandinsky, Klee, Itten, Muche and Schlemmer. There he also became friends with Lyonel Feininger, Lazlo Moholy-Nagy and Josef Albers. Walter Gropius encouraged his printmaking and made a room available for his large printing press. Moholy-Nagy suggested he move to Frankfurt where he helped him establish his studio.

"Strange Islands", o/c, 22 x 37", 1948

When Drewes came to America the country was in the throes of the Great Depression. He supported himself with his prints. Several of them reflected his fascination with skyscrapers, which are reputed to be the first woodblock prints of a modern city. In those years artists were fleeing countries invaded by Germany, and Drewes was able to help and advise them when they landed in New York. Since it proved difficult to find galleries willing to exhibit abstract art, Drewes was among a group of artists that founded the American Abstract Artists in 1937. Refugee artists such as Leger, Mondrian and Moholy-Nagy were close to the American Abstract Artist group. During that period Drewes taught engraving at the New School for Social Research. His experiments with intaglio printmaking helped stimulate a rebirth of the the technique in the U.S. By 1946 he was a tenured professor at Washington University, where his circle included Philip Guston, Max Beckmann and Carl Holty.

"Autumnal Abstration",
o/c, 9 x 7" 1943

Although Drewes was sympathetic with those caught in the inequities of society, he felt that an artist should not be expected to address his society's politics. He pointed out that Kathe Kollwitz devoted her artistic life to those less fortunate, while Picasso did so only under great stress, and Mondrian not at all. Drewes expressed his philosophy of art in 1936 when he said that he questioned the underlying architecture of the Universe--the forces that keep stars in their orbits, the emotions that bring joy or sorrow within us, the problems of sunlight, or the growth of a tree: ". . . .Art is a world with its own laws, whether they underlie a painting of realistic or abstract forms. To create new universes within these laws and to fill them with the experiences of our life is our task. When they convincingly reflect the wisdom or struggle of the soul, a work of art is born."
Drewes' circles, squares, rectangles, crescents, stripes and grids of color include biomorphic forms that take on anthropomorphic suggestions. Court Jester is a small, whimsical work in bright blues, yellows, greens and reds with pointy shapes that resemble the title's jokester. Autumnal Abstraction captures the sadness of a coming winter with a few leaf shapes and a black biomorphic form set against white, yet it retains a promise of the natural cycle of changing seasons. Strange Islands is a quiet repose of vibrant color and a variety of geometric shapes that suggest the freedom of sailing, of wind and water, yet all is stable and contained.

Late in his life, Drewes succinctly stated his aesthetic quest: "One might work to give a message or devote one's energy to scientific research and pure cerebral projects. In each case the urge to create and make visible personal thoughts or moods such as joy, love, despair or the search for unknown worlds is behind my activity as an artist."