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Jack Wolfe: Beyond the Known - An American Artist’s Legacy Revisited



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Saturday, 13 November 2021
Saturday, 13 November 2021 - 6:00pm

Jack Wolfe: Beyond the Known

An American Artist’s Legacy Revisited


CORRECTION: Due to the surge of the Delta variant, CK Contemporary has decided to push back the date of this opening event to November 13, 2021.


Exhibition opening November 13th, 2021, 6-9pm CK Contemporary
246 Powell Street, San Francisco, CA 94102, 415-397-0114

On November 13th, CK Contemporary will open its exhibition “Jack Wolfe: Beyond the Known”, the first major retrospective for Wolfe since his death in 2007 and the first exhibition since the gallery’s announcement of its exclusive representation of the Wolfe estate. Wolfe (1924-2007) was a pioneering American artist who consistently created bold, passionate, and expressive artwork. Art History’s standard narrative often excludes purists and separatists who were unwilling or unable to navigate the priorities of the commercial market, and in the case of Jack Wolfe, it doesn’t fully acknowledge an artist who had a different concept of success. CK Contemporary is working directly with the Wolfe estate to help bring this artist’s significant legacy back to light. We feel that it is our duty to tell the story of Jack Wolfe and advocate for the scholarship and attention his artwork deserves.

Wolfe is commonly associated with the Boston Expressionists, however his varied body of work does not neatly fit into a single category. He combines cubist, abstract expressionist, and hard-edge techniques with rich colors and an acute sense for emotional pitch. Wolfe earned early recognition, and in the 1950s, was included in several group and solo museum exhibitions, with work on display alongside artists such as Pollock, Calder, and Frankenthaler. With his artwork added to the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, and the deCordova Museum, Wolfe was poised to become a successful mainstay of the New York art scene. However, after only four months there, Wolfe became disillusioned with an overtly commercial “art system” to which he was unwilling to bend his creative vision. He returned to Massachusetts, cleared land in rural Stoughton and built a home and studio where he began his lifelong commitment to creating a significant body of work, consisting of expressive and compelling abstractions, emotionally charged portraits and powerful political paintings.

Although he refused to pursue a traditional version of fame, Wolfe’s artwork remains a salient reminder of his unique ability to transform a canvas into a magnificent new universe. As Wolfe said himself, “It is the quality of adventure that delights me about painting. When I was a little boy, I wanted to be an explorer, and when you are faced with a canvas six feet by eight feet, the possibilities for discovering are so great. This is an infinite expanse.”


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In 1959, after a series of wildly successful solo museum and gallery exhibitions, as well as group exhibitions at the Carnegie Institute and the Whitney Museum of American Art, where his work was shown alongside Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Richard Diebenkorn, Sam Francis, Helen Frankenthaler and many others, Jack Wolfe was asked by a young student what he was thinking about when he painted a canvas he had titled “Chorus”.  To the student, he responded, “In the formal sense as you mean it, I was not thinking.  Art is communication. The artist looks at a picture, maybe on the wall or out the window…a country scene…and he looks beyond, as far as you can see and then further beyond into space. The artist is involved with space, beyond, beyond and beyond and then almost further than imagination.”  From this place beyond imagination, Jack Wolfe enjoyed a career with every hallmark of success.  Every hallmark that is, except for fame.  To Wolfe, fame and success were opposing ideals, and very early on he made an unshakable commitment, not to marketability and commercial advancement, but to his unique vision as an artist and his integrity as a man.  In this sense, the elegant, daring and consequential paintings we have from Wolfe today speak for themselves. 

Born in Omaha Nebraska in 1924, and raised in Brockton, MA, Wolfe studied first at RISD and then under the great Boston Expressionist, Karl Zerbe, with classmates Cy Twombley and Ellsworth Kelly at The School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in the late 1940’s.  Almost immediately, he attained representation at Boston’s distinguished Margaret Brown Gallery, alongside Alexander Calder and other cutting edge Moderns that defied the more conservative tastes of New England collectors at the time.  By 1953 he had his first of dozens of subsequent museum exhibitions and became one of the earliest artists championed by the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, MA and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston.  The 1950’s marked additional achievements, such as inclusion in the traveling exhibition, New Talent in the USA with the American Federation of the Arts, and paintings in two Whitney Museum Annuals, where the Whitney purchased one of Wolfe’s large triptychs for their permanent collection.  In 1958, two of Wolfe’s works, his widely acclaimed “Portrait of Abraham Lincoln” and his five paneled “Crucifixion” were chosen by the US Information Agency for exhibition at the Salzburg Biennial and circulated throughout Europe, where they were met with widespread acclaim.

After winning both the first Margaret Brown Memorial Award and the Clarissa Bartlett Graduate Scholarship in 1958, Wolfe embarked on a year of travel, briefly stopping to paint in Mexico before settling in San Francisco.  Upon his return in 1959, the DeCordova museum hosted Wolfe’s third solo exhibition, featuring work made during his time in California where it was reported that “more than 500 persons attended the opening.  Competitive bidding added to the general mood of excitement.  Eleven paintings were sold on the spot.”  Of that exhibition, it was written in the Sudbury Mass Weekly Independent that, “Mr. Wolfe ranges in his work from fine portraiture to the most extreme abstractionism, both done with great success.  He has been called the American inheritor of French cubism, a logical descendent of Picasso.”  Edgar Driscoll added in the Boston Globe, “To those who have followed this 34 year old artist…the promise he had seems to be fulfilled.  To our mind he has his national stature chiefly because this always powerful and individualistic young painter has added a new dimension – depth.”

With his future as one of the great artists of his time laid out neatly before him, Wolfe moved to New York in the early 1950’s, which was then the postwar epicenter of the art world and in the midst of experiencing the first real revolution in American Art, now known as Abstract Expressionism. However, almost immediately upon his arrival he became disenfranchised with the overtly commercial nature of the art scene there, spurning fame and security in an unwillingness to bend his creative vision to the expectations of others.  After four short months, he left New York, returned to Massachusetts where he bought property in Stoughton, cleared the land, and built both his home and studio with his own two hands.  Wolfe would go on to paint there, extensively exhibiting and garnering constant critical acclaim, until his death in 2007 at the age of 83

Known primarily for his revolutionary, explosively colored and large-scale abstractions, Wolfe was also celebrated throughout his career for his portraiture (He and Elaine de Kooning enjoyed a successful two person portraiture exhibition in 1965) and was well known for his political and socially conscious works revolving around The Civil Rights Movement, Native Americans, and the Vietnam War. His work continues to be represented in private and museum collections, including the Whitney Museum, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Phoenix Art Museum, the Rose Art Museum, the DeCordova Museum, the Worcester Art Museum, The Harvard Art Museum and the Addison Gallery of American Art.

Venue ( Address ): 

CK Contemporary

246 Powell Street,

San Francisco CA, 94102

CK Contemporary , San Francisco

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