I've received some concerned emails about The Cleveland Plain Dealer article on our Frank Wilcox exhibition. I've learned to be grateful for any coverage they give and to disregard the unfortunate reviews. I thought sharing my letter to the editor and one of another disgruntled patron would adequately explain our reaction to The Plain Dealer.
If you haven't seen the exhibition, it's really worthwhile, or I guess we'll let you decide.
Letter to the Editor:
HAS DARTH VADER'S SABER GONE LIMP?
Steven Litt, the Darth Vader of the Cleveland arts community, has again tried to denigrate Cleveland’s rich artistic history.
As he tees up our major exhibition of works by Frank Wilcox (1887-1964) at Wolfs, Litt tries in vain to strike another mighty blow to the impenetrable integrity of the Cleveland School of artists. What does this man have against our fair city? It’s almost as if Litt is begging for backlash.
Because he couldn’t attack the artistic virtuosity of Wilcox’s work, he has clumsily tried to retrofit political incorrectness on our unsuspecting hero. Weren't the noble yeomanry noble? Wasn't agrarian America something to behold?
Wilcox’s work speaks for itself. The real question here is what has pissed off Darth Vader so, that every rainbow becomes a wet mess. These tired comments of Litt’s were exhausted in the 70s when misguided critics tried to assail the likes of Norman Rockwell and Grant Wood for being too beautiful, too idyllic. Why, 50 years later, should Cleveland have an art critic so intellectually bereft that it’s an embarrassment to our entire arts community?
The following is a letter from a WOLFS patron:
From: Ken K.
To: George Rodrigue, President and Editor, The Plain Dealer
Sunday, November 10, 2019
Subject: Steven Litt is a prime example of why I will not renew my subscription
His review of the Wilcox exhibit was so off base as to be laughable. In his determination to prove how woke he is, he only succeeded in showing us the irrelevance of his ignorant opinions.
"I don't know the first thing about all that. In what areas do you disagree?"
Thank you for your prompt response, George, and your question.
To dismiss an artist’s entire oeuvre because he didn’t paint anything acknowledging race riots in 1919, or skyscrapers is preposterous. However, it is very consistent of Steven Litt’s condescending attitude toward “Cleveland School” artists and contemporary regional artists. For years he has demeaned and denigrated both in his columns. Surely you are aware of how widely he was panned and vilified on social media for his critical comments of Front & the local artists who participated. Honestly, I’ve attended art openings all over the country and in Europe for many many years and rarely have I seen such a visually stunning show as the Wilcox exhibit at Wolf’s. Of course, to each his own taste, but enough of Litt’s pompous pontificating. The Plain Dealer can and should do better.
Ah, understood. Thanks for sharing those observations.
Barbara Hughes, Granddaughter of Frank N. Wilcox:
Criticizing Frank Wilcox for not creating art that reflects Cleveland race riots and burgeoning skylines in the early 1900s is akin to criticizing the Beatles for releasing songs like "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" in 1967 -- nostalgic reminiscences of their days growing up in Liverpool, England -- at the height of the escalation of the Vietnam War and antiwar protests during those years. It's absurd. Life is not a collection of either/or choices, and rights vs. wrongs... least of all in art!
There isn't one person in this world, let alone a creative artist, who is here to fulfill anything but what is IN them to fulfill, to create, to give to the world. Each of us has something unique to contribute. We can't all be reflecting or commenting on the same situations or politics of the day. To criticize an artist posthumously for what they didn't do is to diminish what they actually achieved. It's pointless and a mental exercise for the critic's ego. It contributes nothing to the supposed purpose of reviewing an exhibition, which is to help people understand what to expect and why it might be interesting, enlightening, or moving for them to see the artist's work.
I was equally upset by the statement that "...Wilcox stuck mainly to sweetly sentimental images with a nostalgic, narrative air, suiting his role as a book illustrator for volumes such as 'Ohio Indian Trails,’ 1933, or a later historical survey of the Ohio canal system." His "role" in those books was not only as "a book illustrator." He was the creator, the author, and did all the research. He was the sole contributor. To describe his images, especially in "Ohio Indian Trails," as "sweetly sentimental" is to completely miss his keen understanding and painstaking depictions of all the historic facts and conditions. Litt should brush up on his knowledge of Wilcox's publishing achievements.
Frank Nelson Wilcox (American, 1887–1964) Stevedores, Ohio River, c. 1920, Watercolor on paper
Then there is Litt's offensive comment about the painting of the stevedores in West Virginia: "Wilcox depicted the black laborers as anonymous colorful types, not as individuals suffering under Jim Crow laws that sharply restricted their options in life." Since when is an artist required to spell out all the conditions of his subject matter in his paintings? Since when is painting what one SEES, in the style that one is most skilled, somehow not good enough? My personal reaction to the painting is that these "colorful types" are indeed carrying heavy loads, and the struggle shows on their faces. They are breathing heavily and looking pained, and this is powerfully portrayed in economic brush strokes. Their human condition is as human as what we see in all of Wilcox's paintings of Native Americans as well. What more could possibly make this painting "worthwhile" beyond what it already depicts? How does Litt know that Frank Wilcox did not TALK to these men and connect with them on some level? Why does Litt feel that Frank Wilcox should atone for all of White society's barbaric treatment of blacks in his one painting of these supposedly anonymous workers? What about all the white "anonymous" people in Wilcox's paintings? Should Wilcox have done more to somehow make paintings of them more "worthwhile" instead of just "sweetly sentimental?" At what point does painting humanity include a requirement that all aspects of life in the painting be acknowledged in some way? I mean.... this criticism is laughable. Litt is making up stories out of his own ego instead of out of his understanding of the artist, which seems to perfectly suit his role as an art critic.
I am glad the Beatles did not write songs about the horrors of the Vietnam War. I am glad they reminisced about life in Liverpool. I am glad they painted the picture in their music that "all you need is love." They moved and changed the world with their music. Steven Litt's comment, "Looking at Wilcox’s work, you get the impression he was a pretty happy guy who was having a great deal of fun at his easel" makes me realize that this is exactly how I remember my grandfather. Neither the Beatles nor Frank Wilcox need have done anything more than what they gifted to the world with their art.
Granddaughter of Frank N. Wilcox