Art & Architecture : In Tune With His Intuition : In Tom Wudl’s painting and sculpture show, the recurring violin symbolizes improvisation and creativity.

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Hunter Drohojowska-Philp is a frequent contributor to Calendar

A voluptuous bower of wisteria hangs over the front door of Tom Wudl’s West Los Angeles home, and pots on the porch overflow with white impatiens. Wudl’s wife Melanie, an asset manager, has the green thumb, but this welcoming abundance of nature has also made its way into the artist’s paintings, which for a recent visit were arranged in his backyard studio.

Seated at a table on his stone patio behind the house, Wudl gestures at stands of bamboo and bougainvillea and says, “Look around. We live in a green world, so the color and the vegetation creep into my work.” Yet, in Wudl’s work, vines, leaves and trumpet flowers have deeper symbolic meaning. “Green is a symbol of the unconscious,” he adds. “Oscar Wilde is supposed to have said, ‘It takes genius to appreciate green.’ ”

Wudl’s paintings go on view at L.A. Louver Gallery in Venice on Thursday. It is his first show there in three years, and it is apparent that he has made a break from the tightly organized, highly realistic style for which he developed a reputation. “I’m feeling very free today and following my instincts unquestioningly,” he explains.


Paintings of loosely drawn plant life and fluttering birds are awash with dripping fields of celadon and mauve gouache. Japanese rice paper is affixed to a large canvas so that the drawn lines and painted forms appear to hover in space. In smaller works, lustrous gold-leaf panels are the background for singular objects of special meaning to the artist--leopard slippers, a brassiere and, especially, the violin. His brightly painted violin sculptures also will be displayed in the exhibition.

Wudl, 51, explains: “Although my initial interest was in vegetation, the show seems to be centered around the violin. All artists have images that begin to speak to them. I love that the violin shape is so organic on the one hand and such a controlled design on the other.”

As important, the violin symbolizes Wudl’s newfound willingness to follow his intuition in the art-making process. A few years ago, Wudl began taking violin lessons. At his teacher’s suggestion, he soon switched to the viola, which is less difficult to play. Triumphant, Wudl says, “It’s the only activity I have in my entire life in which my ego is not invested in any way. I’m not doing it for profit. It’s really a great pleasure, a private pleasure.”

Pleasure in playing a musical instrument, without expectations, enabled Wudl to reconnect to a spirit of improvisation and creativity in his painting, and these feelings have come to be symbolized by the image of the violin. Wudl realized that his talent for a “highly articulated fashion” of painting had become stifling.

“It had become a tyranny,” he says, so he wondered, “How can I satisfy my love of images without being subject to the tyranny of them?”

Wudl found the answer to his rhetorical question in 1995, during a visit to a retrospective of American-born R.B. Kitaj, at the L.A. County Museum of Art. Kitaj was a prominent figure in the London art scene for 30 years before moving to L.A. two years ago.


Kitaj incorporates literary as well as cinematic themes in his figurative paintings, which at times rely on drawing for a spontaneous, unfinished effect. Kitaj, 66, has also made a major stylistic change in his work in recent years. “I admired the fact that Kitaj was a precocious young artist who evolved and became inventive and expressive in an individual way,” Wudl says.

“From the minute I walked into his retrospective, I realized from looking that I really had a lot to learn,” Wudl adds. “I specifically saw that he could have clearly delineated images and a narrative, but painted in a way that wasn’t fussy. It was painted openly and directly. He could take liberties with distorting images and still have a likeness. Distortion had an expressive purpose and allowed him to be spontaneous.”

Wudl proceeded to contact the artist, and he has since found that “we had a natural rapport.” For one thing, both artists incorporate narrative and symbolism in their paintings. Kitaj agrees, saying, “He’s bright, and we have so many thoughts that are common.”

Rather than pretend that his paintings are born of the void, Wudl insists, “The meaning of a work of art is this influence of other art. This kaleidoscope of influences is constantly regurgitated by artists. This seems to be the general procedure, but it yields all sorts of surprising results.”


Last summer, Wudl and his wife traveled to Tuscany. While staying in the small Italian town of Cassia, Wudl went to see the early Renaissance artist Massaccio’s earliest known painting. He also was enthralled by the frescoes of Ghirlandaio, who was Michelangelo’s teacher. “The line of the drawing is very evident in those frescoes,” he explains. “I’ve always felt that the whole world of art, be it East or West, and going back to the cave paintings, is a living entity. Artists are influenced by other art and this cross-fertilization has been going on from the beginning.”

Wudl speaks with the careful articulation of one for whom English is a third language. Born in Cochabamba, Bolivia, he lived there until he was 10. His Jewish parents had emigrated there from Vienna in 1938. Although fluent in Spanish and German, when he arrived in L.A. in 1958, it took a year to learn the language and customs of his new homeland. “It was traumatic,” he recalls. As a result, he took refuge in his talent for drawing and painting, which led him to the renowned Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts). Even before graduating with a bachelor’s degree in fine art, Wudl went to Italy to see the paintings of the early Renaissance artists he most admired: Giotto and Cimabue.


By 1972, he had won the L.A. County Museum of Art’s Young Talent Award, painting abstract designs on rice paper, often with gold leaf, and entirely perforated with tiny holes. During the early ‘70s, he showed with the highly regarded Eugenia Butler Gallery in L.A., Ronald Feldman Gallery in New York and participated in Documenta V in Kassel, Germany.

After a decade of making decorative abstractions, he felt the need to move on. “The decorative is a part of my temperament, and I love it, but I felt I had other things to say. In fact, I’ve taken pains to curtail that inclination because I want something else to come through,” he says.

In 1983, he married Melanie, and four years later they had a son, Henry. Wudl began to insinuate symbolic figurative elements into his abstract paintings and soon found himself taken with the intense realism of the Flemish painters. His ability to finely evoke the style of different art historical periods earned him praise and recognition. An amateur scholar of Oriental art as well as Northern European and Italian Renaissance art, his extensive knowledge brought about paintings that were dense with art historical references.

Of his 1996 show at L.A. Louver Gallery, the late Bruce Davis, critic and curator, wrote in Art Issues magazine, “In style and content, Wudl is attempting to reinvent the grand themes and sentiments exemplified by the means of allegory and metaphor from the age of humanism.”

Wudl has a love of poetry that ranges from Dante to the Beats and Allen Ginsberg. “I see myself using imagery as a poet uses words. A poet may choose words because of their sound before their meaning. I choose the images first, then come the associations. Yet I want to make sure that this narrative is not just some inscrutable autobiographical material. That is the difference between these paintings and the earlier pictures, which almost had an impenetrable barrier in their eccentricity and symbolism. I’ve made every effort to make the pictures more accessible. In retrospect, I see some of my earlier pictures as closed off.”

Asked how he accomplished this leap, with a pained look, he says, “I cannot say how, but I will tell you that it was the result of a deliberate and consistent effort on my part. Ten years ago, I wouldn’t allow myself to do them. What would cause a person not to allow themselves to fulfill their artistic destiny? The world is replete with stories like that. Ninety percent of all artists don’t reach maturity until they are in their 50s. If Mondrian or Monet had died before 50, we wouldn’t be talking about them today. That clarity comes with confidence. The Kitaj show showed me you could have evocative imagery that could be articulated in an open way.”


He adds, “If you are an artist who has a love of images, you also have to understand that your challenge is to break through their spell, and the way that you are painting them instead of reiterating nostalgic references to the past. That was the challenge, and in this show I think I met it. I can be flexible with these images today. I am not tyrannized by them.”


TOM WUDL, L.A. Louver Gallery, 45 N. Venice Blvd., Venice. Dates: Thursday to Oct. 9. Phone: (310) 822-4955.