Wallace Putnam 1899 —1989
Putnam, born in Massachusetts, attended the department of fine arts at Harvard Art School, the Boston Museum School, the Boston Normal Art School and the Hartford School of Art, spending no more than a year at each. It is a record that suggests at the very least a temperament ready for the Modernist rebellion. And in fact, Putnam was only three years out of school when he was selected for the "Societe Anonyme International Exhibition" at the Brooklyn Museum (1926). It was the biggest avant-garde event since the Armory Show of 1913, and it was followed a decade later by one even bigger, the Museum of Modern Art's "Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism."
Among the 700 works in this "scandalous" spectacle were 50 paintings by Max Ernst, together with Man Ray's image of giant lips in the sky, the fur-lined tea cup and saucer of Meret Oppenheim and other objects destined to become Surrealist icons. Putnam was there with "Mask of the Traveler," a painting of a face with a collage of miscellaneous objects attached. At the library are photographs of related works taken by Consuela Kanaga, Putnam's wife, herself part of the later museum show, "The Family of Man."
Despite this auspicious beginning, Putnam, who lived much of his life in Yorktown Heights, did not achieve a Manhattan solo until 1945. According to an obituary written by Ms. Amadeus for a Sufi Muslim publication, the artist was by then on a mystical quest working his way through Eastern religions. The large painting of a woman leaning on a table looks very Japanese but other canvases from this decade -- a candy pink, pinheaded nude in landscape, a woman's profile in the same hue -- recall Milton Avery, a friend with whom Putnam had shown in the early Hartford days and whose wedding he witnessed.
In a catalogue introduction for the Luise Ross show, Red Grooms calls Putnam's drawings "brilliant," adding -- a bit lefthandedly -- that "it was as if Matisse had decided to move to New York and take up graphic journalism." But to this observer, the Matisse influence seems to have been strained through Avery, but without his humor.
During the 1960's and 70's, there were shows at the Whitney Museum, New York University's Loeb Center and the Neuberger Museum at the State University of New York in Purchase, and evidently these were the decades in which the artist produced his most fully realized images. One example is "Sunrise Boats," an expressionistic view of small purple craft at anchor under a red and yellow sky; another is the Averyish scene of deer browsing in a storm of cerulean snowflakes. More remarkable, however, are two small canvases of softly painted bottles floating in the ocean.
Dated 1962 and 1969, these are related to the 1975 still life that presumably comes from a series inspired by the writings of Carlos Castaneda. The bottle in this is for wine, and it stands with small unidentifiable objects on a white surface, separated from a purple-brown background by vivid stripes of green and lemon. There is a lushness about this work and the one beside it, "Blake's Tyger" (1974), which is all impasto stripes of black, orange and yellow on a white ground and, again, in the 1976 landscape seen between trees. In all three, Putnam triumphantly reconciles drawing with painting, opposites that appear to have troubled him as they have many other painters.
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