An Analysis of Walter Quirt's Art
"The great artist is one who faithfully follows his impulses, who vigorously and courageously peels off layer after layer of restrictions, prohibitions, and inhibitions. This takes courage, for it automatically means suffering." - Walter Quirt
Throughout his life as an artist, Quirt dared to rely on his impulses and his courage in order to create the most effective art. The cost of such independence may have been that he had to suffer, but as Quirt's constantly evolving theories regarding art, society and nature changed with every decade, so did his style and technique. By the end of his career he had fulfilled his lifelong objective of communicating with an extensive audience.
Quirt began his painting career as a Social Realist but eventually converted to Social Surrealist techniques in order to express his passion for political struggle and social awareness in his art. While he based his paintings on life in the tangible world of human interaction, his complex surrealist visuals allowed him to intensify the authority of his many social-political testimonials.
Until the late 1930s, Quirt used his art as a propagandistic instrument, denouncing such issues as the exploitation of workers, unemployment, poverty and inequities toward Black Americans. He did so by pairing contradictory images with intricate arrangements of overlapping and entwined metaphorical assemblages that were, according to art critic Ilene Susan Fort, "psychologically associated but formally disconnected" (11). Quirt often devised compositions in which barrier-like formations contained the figures and divided the spatial arrangements. This was a mechanism that he felt was essential to his subject matter as it allowed him to coalesce dissimilar times and places into a single work of art, as he does, for example, in Conflict (1935). Critics frequently compared Quirt's initial Surrealist paintings to works by Dali, since the compositions of both artists were similarly radiant, fluid and smooth (Lansing 31). Unlike Dali, Quirt focused upon the predicaments of farmers, workers and African-Americans, filling his earliest paintings with powerful and complex surreal compositions that illustrated his beliefs that capitalism was a source of universal human suffering.
By the late 1930s, after leaving the Communist Party and undergoing Freudian psychoanalysis, Quirt transformed his style from Social Surrealism to a more abstract Surrealism. He began to focus more upon finding a better society through personal motivations rather than trying to mend unfortunate social conditions by political means. Such paintings from this period of his career as I'm Going Away, Far Far into the Distance, Never to Return, Goodbye (1942) are permeated with mythical Freudian dream imagery and primordial symbolism, and the undulating ribbons of paint and color evoke incessant, seemingly eternal movement. His use of color and form in these paintings now allowed the once-political artist to express himself psychologically and emotionally (Fort 17).
Quirt continued expanding his ideas about the human condition into the 1940s. His paintings from this era reveal his anger on a more international or even universal level about the catastrophes triggered by WWII. Quirt continued using luminous ribbons of paint which twist into more discreetly colored labyrinths of winding forms. These paintings are filled not only with anger but also bitterness and anguish.
In the late 1940s Quirt's style changed yet again when he moved from curvilinear works to more geometric abstract compositions. In Origin of Life (1946), for example, Native American hunters and their dogs are portrayed in geometrical shapes and forms. Quirt turns the violence of the hunt into an amusing display of playfulness (Swanson 24). With geometric abstractions, though, Quirt sensed that he was dehumanizing his forms, so again he adjusted the shapes to appear more like semi-defined geometric figures. In the late 1940s and into the mid-1950s Quirt freed his painting of the ribbons-of-color geometric forms. He concentrated rather upon pure motion, with swiftly painted depictions of figures and the simple objectiveness of the white space. Quirt stated that "[he] was interested in the space outside the object" (Coates 9). In paintings from 1959 to 1963, Quirt implemented two new images which stemmed respectively from his impulsive and introspective sides: running horses and the reserved, DeKooning-esque, monumental figure. Eleanor Quirt recalls that Quirt had Indian ponies as a child, and the horse image became an agent for Quirt's brushwork. She describes her husband's boldly confident lines in Running Horses (1959) as 'joyous.' Quirt painted his monumental figures with a more controlled calligraphic line, and he encased them within colored sections of tans and grays.
In canvases from the late 1950s through the mid-1960s, Quirt continued utilizing the counter-curve in his paintings because he believed that it was "the more civilized linear element" and that the motion of the S-shaped line transforms objects in art into positive, non-aggressive energy and love (Swanson, 25). In his last group of paintings, the Lake Harriet Series, Quirt endeavored to portray an 'entire society at play" (Swanson 25). Eleanor Quirt describes this point in her husband's life as a 'benign period.' Since they lived close to Lake Harriet, Quirt took strolls down to the lake to sketch people riding bicycles, throwing Frisbees and swimming. The series was "Cezanne-like, hippy-ish, garish and full of energy" (Quirt). This last series of Quirt's career can be viewed as a unification of all the works he created throughout his life.
His wide-ranging oeuvre cannot be narrowed down to one category, as his style continuously evolved throughout his career, but according to Eleanor Quirt "everything he ever did had a lyrical line. Period." His style shifted through stages of Realism, Surrealism, fantasy and abstraction, but he always managed to articulate his social and personal beliefs. His unpredictable personality and his passion for new ideas and techniques drove him to experiment endlessly and in doing so he created works of art that at best were both meaningful and profound. In the words of New York Times critic Robert M. Coates, Quirt "is one of the most impassioned artists alive today and […] has achieved something close to true monumentality" (Swanson 25).