A review of a collection of works by American modernist painter Walter Quirt, whose name is not widely known these days, but whose works are a visual feast and convey a still-timely message. At Frederick Holmes through May 31.

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If you’ve never heard of Walter Quirt, you are not alone. Yet he is a monumental modernist American painter, viewed as revolutionary at his peak and admired by the likes of fellow artists Romare Bearden and Stuart Davis, whose laudatory letters are included in this exhibition.

But because Quirt refused to compromise his leftist views, the federal government viewed him as a possibly dangerous malcontent. He continued to paint, but he paid dearly for his political stance.

Today his work is in the collections of such institutions as the museums of modern art in New York and San Francisco, the Smithsonian, the Whitney Museum of American Art and Seattle’s own University of Washington Henry Art Gallery, yet Quirt’s name is still not well known. The current exhibition at the Frederick Holmes Gallery, created in collaboration with Wilson Art Service, is a chance to appreciate his enormous talent.


‘Walter Quirt: Revolutions Unseen’

Through May 31, Frederick Holmes and Company, 309 Occidental Ave S, Seattle (206-682-0166 or frederickholmesandcompany.com).

The Michigan-born Quirt (1902-1968) began his painting career in the 1930s as a Social Realist railing against the inequities of capitalism, the outrageous treatment of black Americans and the suffering brought on by the Depression. He viewed his art as a propaganda weapon. Injustice haunted him. He was compelled to fight it.

By the late 1930s, his work underwent a monumental change probably precipitated by his withdrawal from the Communist Party and experience with Freudian analysis. He was still interested in issues of human justice but now he wanted to set free the subconscious, to find the universal symbols through which he could express his beliefs and incorporate them within his work. Thus began his Abstract Surrealist period.

Around 1941, the grand dame of contemporary painting, Peggy Guggenheim, came to his studio to offer him a one-man exhibition — if he’d paint what she deemed important. His response: “I didn’t ask for a solo show, and I didn’t invite you to my studio.” Here was a painter unwilling to sell his soul, even for enormous potential reward.

A number of the paintings in the Holmes exhibit exemplify his Abstract Surrealist period. In the 1942 work “Nature’s Children,” the canvas is broken into small bits of vibrant color, some representing geometric forms; others depicting faces, hands; sinuous curves. It’s a riot of color that takes reality and twists and distorts it.

So, too, does the 1943 painting “The Crucified.” Again his canvas is filled with color and meaningful icons and designs. Within that heterogeneous mass, the viewer can distinguish the cross and the crucified Christ as well as the mourners, but it’s the color and the swirling mass of bits and pieces that first capture attention.

Totally different are Quirt’s three abstract oil paintings of horses from the late 1950s and early 1960s. Gone are the surrealist elements. Here, the masterful use of line and color is commanding.

His career was constantly evolving, and this evolution is wonderfully captured in this exhibition showing work from the 1930s to the mid-’60s. Quirt was an artist breaking new ground with art designed to serve society. As he said, “The great artist is the 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.”