What I’m aiming for are moments of strong sensation ⎯ moments of total physical experience of the landscape, when weather just reaches out and sucks you in. And the challenge of trying to trigger those moments with pigments of ground-up earth. When you think about it, it’s really very mysterious.
- Jane Wilson, 1991
When Jane Wilson left Iowa in 1949, she embarked on what would be the defining moment of her sixty-year career as an artist. Born on her family’s farm in Seymour, Iowa, in 1924, she had recently graduated from the University of Iowa and spent two years teaching art history there. Arriving in New York City, she and her husband, John Gruen, settled in Greenwich Village and soon immersed themselves in the downtown art scene.
One day in 1952 at the Cedar Tavern, the bar made famous by the abstract expressionists who frequented it, Wilson was approached to be a co-founder of the legendary Hansa Gallery, an artists’ cooperative that was first on East 12th Street and later moved to Central Park South. Among the other original members were Jan Müller, Richard Stankiewicz, Wolf Kahn, Allan Kaprow, and Felix Pasilis.
In all, Wilson had three solo shows at Hansa, in 1953, 1955, and 1957. She also participated in important group shows during these years, such as one in late 1952 at Tanager Gallery, another of the most active artists’ cooperatives, and in three annual exhibitions from 1953 to 1955 at the Stable Gallery on West 58th Street. In the mid-1950s, the Stable Annuals were major events that featured the work of both well-known and emerging artists, from Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning to Robert Rauschenberg and Helen Frankenthaler.
At that time, Wilson was working in an abstract expressionist mode, creating work that resonated with the energy of the moment. Later in the decade, she shifted to expressionist landscapes. Among the many artists whom she met at the time, Fairfield Porter, older and more established, became especially important to her, as his commitment to modernist representational painting supported her return to landscape painting
Fairfield Porter. Jane Wilson, 1957. Oil on canvas, 57 x 32 inches.
Wilson’s career as an artist began to take off in the early 1960s. The Museum of Modern Art acquired a large landscape, The Open Scene, in 1960, and Andy Warhol commissioned her to paint his portrait, Andy and Lilacs, which he subsequently donated to the Whitney Museum of American Art. That year she also joined Tibor de Nagy Gallery, which represented several of her friends and other, mainly young painters, including Frankenthaler, Porter, Larry Rivers, Grace Hartigan, Jane Freilicher, and Nell Blaine.
By then, Wilson, Gruen, and their daughter, Julia Gruen, were living on East 10th Street, across from Tompkins Square Park, which led her to create atmospheric cityscapes of the park and surrounding neighborhood. She also painted the area around Water Mill, New York, on the East End of Long Island, where she and her husband purchased an old shingled carriage house in 1960.
Jane Wilson in her studio, 2095 Broadway, New York. January 8, 1999. Photograph by John Jonas Gruen.
From the late 1960s through the late 1970s, Wilson focused on still lifes set in her apartment and studio, including a group of behind-the-scenes paintings of worktables and artist materials. She moved to the Upper West Side in 1968 and has lived there ever since.
In the early 1980s, Wilson returned to painting landscapes, and developed the distinctive approach for which she is best-known today – luminous works that hover between abstraction and representation, inspired by the sky, sea, and land around Water Mill. In 1999, she joined DC Moore Gallery, where she has had seven solo exhibitions in the past fifteen years.
In addition to painting, Wilson has also been a visiting professor at colleges and universities across the country, including thirteen years at the Columbia University School of Art, where she was Acting Chair from 1986-88. She has work in many museum collections, including those of the Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Art Institute of Chicago, and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Julia’s third birthday party, Water Mill, New York, 1961.
Back row, left to right: Lisa de Kooning (little blond child), Frank Perry and his wife, Eleanor Perry, John Meyers, Anne Porter, Fairfield Porter, Angelo Torricini, Arthur Gold, Jane Wilson, Kenward Elmslie, Paul Brach, Jerry Porter (behind Brach), Nancy Ward, Katherine Porter, friend of Jerry Porter; second row, left to right: Joe Hazan, Clarice Price Rivers, Kenneth Koch, Larry Rivers; seated on couch: Miriam Schapiro (Brach), Robert Fizdale, Jane Freilicher, Joan Ward, John Kacere, Sylvia Maizell; kneeling, back to front: Alvin Novak, Willem de Kooning, Jim Tommaney; front row, left to right: Stephen Rivers, Bill Berkson, Frank O’Hara, Herbert Machiz. Photograph by John Jonas Gruen.