Johannes Von Wicht was born in Holstein, Germany on February 3, 1888. His mother moved the family to Oldenburg when Von Wicht was in elementary school and he began to visit the artist Gerhard Bakenhus. Bakenhus helped familiarize Von Wicht with old masters while guiding him through rigorous nature studies. Soon John Von Wicht’s mother had arranged for him to apprentice at the studio of master painter F.W. Adels. There he learned to prepare paints with linseed oil and later commented on the lasting impression of colors throughout his career. Interior of a Farmhouse was his first painting completed in 1907. Gerhard Bakenhus was able to include the painting to in the Bremer Kunsthalle exhibition in 1908. Due to the critical success of this piece Von Wicht was accepted to the private art school of the Grand Duke of Hesse in Darmstadt. Fundamental themes of simplicity, nature, and poetry were instilled in the students. Von Wicht continued to pursue the arts with a three-year scholarship to the Royal School of Fine & Applied Arts in Berlin. There he was influenced by the city’s avant-garde art scene. In 1911 his work was included in the Free Berlin Secession exhibition.
During his service in WWI Von Wicht was wounded and partially paralyzed. While recovering he worked on book designs and illustrations. In 1923 Von Wicht immigrated to the United States, leaving a post-war Berlin and its economic hardships. He found his place at the Ardsley Art Academy in Brooklyn and secured a job at the U.S. Printing and Lithography Company, later moving to work at Ravenna Mosaic. While working for the mosaic company, Von Wicht designed a vestibule for the St. Louis Cathedral in a classic Byzantine manner. After a few years he had established enough contacts to become an independent mosaic contractor, setting up an office on Park Ave to handle private commissions, with a studio in Brooklyn Heights.
Von Wicht’s first attempt at abstraction was not until 1937 when he created his “Force” series in watercolor, commemorating Juliana Force, the first director of the Whitney Museum of American Art. This group of paintings were clearly influenced by Kandinsky’s geometrical abstractions. In 1941 Von Wicht was accepted into a show at the Whitney, whereupon he was recognized and acknowledged both by his critics as well as his peers. Challenged by cubism and surrealism, Von Wicht had yet to find his own personal artistic vocabulary within abstract expressionism. By 1950 Von Wicht was painting full time and able to explore his personal expression of abstraction as a mature artist, returning to drawing in order to solve problems of content and composition. Far Eastern calligraphy was a major influence for Von Wicht that moved his works into a more vertical format. In 1951 Von Wicht had his second solo exhibit at the Passedoit Gallery, which won him much critical acclaim.
As he became more established as an abstract artist, Von Wicht began to experiment with a variety of themes. He held another show at the Passedoit in 1954 with works based on musical symphonies, using elements of abstraction to provide a spiritual analysis of the music itself. He created innovative works on rice paper while spending a winter at the McDowell Colony, an artist-in residence program in New Hampshire. He attempted automatic sketching as a direct translation of inner movement to find equilibrium within his work.
Towards the end of the 1950’s, Von Wicht contract with the Passedoit Gallery ended and he moved to the Bertha Schaefer Gallery. His first European show was in held 1959 in Paris, with others following in Brussels, Liege, and Belgium. The following year Von Wicht returned to the McDowell colony to complete five large canvases in the first 4 weeks he was back which include “On Black” “On Red” “Silanus” and “Vertical Abstraction”. These paintings created a feeling of immense freedom through various concentrations of color. During this time Von Wicht also began over-painting, taking older canvases and reworked them, often completely changing the content of the original piece. These reworked pieces became heavier with a much deeper surface texture both in content and form.
During the last years of his life Von Wicht worked on compositions with themes of the four seasons. These pieces were quite similar to the impressionist’s technique of observing different light and form under various circumstances and times of day. The decisive geometric elements that were hallmarks of his earlier work shifted as he matured. Von Wicht’s later pieces touched on the spiritual and natural realms of being, using color to reach viewers emotions directly though pure form. Von Wicht died of pneumonia on January 20th, 1970 in Brooklyn and was remembered by those who knew him as an “artist’s artist”.
Compiled by Lauren A. Zelaya