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September 16 - October 28, 2006 at Tobey C. Moss Gallery, West Hollywood

by Margarita Nieto

What is the mystery underlying the Architecture of our Universe? What are the laws which create the pattern of the frost which forms on our windows?. . . .these are problems that belong to the world we live and which should concern the artist. . . .To create new universes within these laws and to fill them with the experiences of our life is our task. . . .”
Werner Drewes,  “Statement,” Exhibition Brochure, “Société Anonyme” Traveling Exhibition, 1936.

"Winter Solstice", 1978-
79, o/c, 26 x 38"

"In the Studio, 1950,
oil on canvas, 50 x 23".

Even though Werner Drewes’ works were included in last summer’s “Société Anonyme: Modernism for America” exhibition at the Hammer Museum, this show offers a succinct study of a master who linked aesthetics and continents in the first half of the twentieth century.

His fascination with the  relationships between organic forms and their transformation, through line and color, into the abstract is the mainstay of Drewes long and prolific working life.  His curiosity and exploration of the world-at-large was encouraged by a father interested in archaeology and the natural sciences.  After military service during World War I, and studying architecture and design in Berlin, Drewes went to Weimar in 1921, attracted by the freedom and experimentation that marked the early Bauhaus.  He was there for two years studying under Johannes Itten, Paul Klee and Oscar Schlemmer.  But a youthful restlessness led him to five years of travel beginning in Italy and Spain, but eventually taking him to South and Central America, the United States, Asia, and via the trans-Siberia railroad, to Moscow, Warsaw and finally back to Germany.

Returning to a now changed Bauhaus (Dessau), he again studied with Klee and Schlemmer, and began attending classes with Wassily Kandinsky.  During this time he developed friendships with Lionel Feininger, Lazlo Moly-Nagy and Josef Albers.  By the end of the twenties however, the shifts and tremors that forewarned of the tumultuous events to come in Germany were apparent to Drewes, and he left for New York in 1930.  There, through the graces of Kandinsky, he met Katherine Dreier, the founder of the Societé Anonyme.
These events and experiences, along with his studies and travels were to inform a body of work which exemplifies a strong relationship between knowledge and respect for representation.  But his deepest affinity was for transcribing and translating that knowledge into a lively and dynamic abstract language.  Covering works dating from 1934 to 1983, this exhibition demonstrates Drewes’ fluid understanding of the modernist language initiated by the Bauhaus aesthetic, and the adaptation of those concepts to the innovations that mark the role of the Sociéte Anomyne in the United States.  In “Abstract” (watercolor, 1934), the loose flow of paint expands across the surface, the warm palette accentuates the link between subject (representation) and object.  References abound to Kandinsky, the mentor and friend whom Drewes continued to admire and with whom he continued to correspond after moving to New York.
In “Composition X-Dynamic Rhythm” (woodcut, 1934) Drewes utilizes a socially charged medium of mass production, together with a resounding affirmation of the Bauhaus exploration.  The interplay of floating circles, swirls pierced by arrows and angular lines creates the rhythmic tension referred to in the title.  The strong, broad strokes of the black and white composition heighten its depth.  Again, Drewes pays homage to Kandinsky, evoking his exploration of a primary tribal, popular language that became the compositional structures of his “Kleine Welts.”  

In three works from the fifties, “In the Studio”, “Monumental Figuration” (both paintings), and “Nausikaa” (color celloprint, 1951), Drewes continues to demonstrate adaptability toward technical innovation (the color celloprint) as well as to maintain a balance between representation and abstraction.  With “In the Studio” Drewes presents a much more structured linear grid in which the bright palette of tones of blues contrast with both the severity of the lines and the brightly colored and curvilinear compositions that float in the center left and upper right of the painting.  The transparent layers reveal both masterful finesse and knowledge of mixing paint and application.  “Monumental Figuration,” a compositional study in something approaching turquoise blues is another compositional interplay between a stark grid and the curvilinear forms that almost playfully float within and on them.  “Nausikaa” on the other hand, is a return to the curvilinear mastery of the figurative line, a nude study dominated by a minimal palette of ochre and grayish-blue.  

Drewes’ activities  not only in Europe, but here in the United States, as artist, teacher (involved in the WPA, he taught at Brooklyn college and at Columbia, and at Washington University in St. Louis until his retirement in 1965), as well as his active role in creating an awareness of abstract aesthetics (he was also a founding member of the American Abstract Artists) continue to offer new insights into the history of modernist abstract painting.

"Composition X--Dynamic Rhythm,"
1934, woodcut, 9 5/8 x 11 7/8".

"Monumental Figuration,"
oil on canvas, 1950, 35 x 26".