A final show and tribute: Herter Galley exhibit at UMass celebrates the legacy of George Wardlaw

  • Procheta Olson, interim director of Herter Gallery at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, talks about “Disruptions & Continuities,” the final work of the late George Wardlaw. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Recent UMass art graduate Kelsi Giguere, who worked closely with George Wardlaw to create the paintings of his last exhibit, says she learned an enormous amount about art from him. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Recent UMass art graduate Kelsi Giguere, who worked closely with George Wardlaw to create the paintings of his last exhibit, says she learned an enormous amount about art from him. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Procheta Olson, interim director of the Herter Gallery at UMass, says George Wardlaw, the late Amherst artist and UMass professor, was instrumental in creating Herter, which is marking its 50 anniversary this year. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Procheta Olson, interim director of the Herter Gallery at UMass, talks about “Disruptions & Continuities,” the last work by the late George Wardlaw. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Recent UMass art graduate Kelsi Giguere, who worked closely with George Wardlaw to create the paintings of his last exhibit, says she learned an enormous amount about art from him. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Procheta Olson, left, interim director of the Herter Gallery, and Kelsi Giguere talk about “Disruptions & Continuities.” STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • “Erotic Dream,” left, and “Invasion” are part of “Disruptions & Continuities,” in which the late George Wardlaw examined Picasso’s treatment of women. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • “Discards,” one of a number of reworking of paintings by Pablo Picasso, is part of “Disruptions & Continuities” at Herter Gallery at UMass Amherst. The work is by the late George Wardlaw and Kelsi Giguere. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • A book on George Wardlaw’s earlier work. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • An initial draft of work by the late George Wardlaw for his final exhibit, “Disruptions & Continuities.” He created images like these on an iPad, and UMass art graduate Kelsi Giguere then created finished paintings from them. 

For the Bulletin
Published: 10/9/2019 4:32:44 PM

George Wardlaw’s legacy extends beyond any one boundary, whether a state line or a job title.

The late Amherst resident was a celebrated artist whose paintings, aluminum sculptures and silver jewelry were exhibited across the East Coast. He chaired the art department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst for close to two decades, and he was an educator who understood being a great teacher meant simultaneously being an observant student.

Wardlaw, who died in July at age 92, continued to create art right up until the very end — and now a new exhibit of his last work is honoring both his vision and his legacy.

“Disruptions & Continuities,” at Herter Galley at UMass, reveals Wardlaw prodding in a new direction. The artist lifted figures from historic pieces by Pablo Picasso and — with help from Kelsi Giguere​​​​​​, his studio assistant and a recent UMass art graduate — replicated them on new canvasses, merging them with colorful geometric shapes and abstract lines.

The exhibit opened two weeks ago to a crowd of hundreds. Some visitors strolled beside the pieces, pausing a moment to take in each one, while others bounced around the gallery. Line after line in the guest book was filled with words of appreciation and memories from friends.

Many were past students, friends, and co-workers Wardlaw met during his 17 years as chair of the UMass Art Department. He joined the faculty in 1968, then became chair three years later; he also witnessed Herter opening its doors in 1969 as the first art gallery on campus.

“Before the gallery was established, there was no common meeting place for the art department,” said Herter’s interim director, Procheta Olson. “Art was kind of on the back-burner for the university.” Olson notes, however, that this was likely the case at many schools at the time.

Today, UMass has three other galleries as well as the University Museum of Contemporary Art (UMCA), and undergraduates can choose from six areas of study, from animation to sculpture, in the fine arts program.

Ron Michaud, one of Wardlaw’s past students, said his former professor brought a “knowledge-based level of professionalism” to the school’s art department and also helped bring about a significant amount of growth in the department.

“His engagement with his class, the materials, the ideas, and sense of enthusiasm of the creative process itself all were infectious,” Michaud said during the reception. “He instilled in all his students a strong sense of a professional artist.”

A native of Mississippi, Wardlaw began teaching at the University of Mississippi in the early 1950s and later worked at Louisiana State University and Yale University, all the while gaining recognition as a painter and metal sculptor. During his lifetime his work was exhibited in Wisconsin, Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York state, among others.

His success eventually won him an appointment to UMass, and he moved with his family to Amherst in 1969; he became the art department chair in 1971, a position he held until 1988. But he continued to advise graduate art students until 1990, when he officially retired from UMass and ensconced himself in his studio; friends said he’d recall emotions and experiences there to create art around the clock.

Local gallery curator Lori Friedman met Wardlaw in 2008 and then became his studio manager. Like others who knew him, her relationship with the artist “quickly turned into a very special friendship,” Friedman said.

“To work that close with George for all those years was such a gift,” Friedman recalled. “To have that ongoing conversation is very special to me.”

Revisiting Picasso

Wardlaw was inspired to create “Disruptions & Continuities” after seeing a televised auction of a lost Picasso portrait portraying one of his many lovers, which reminded Wardlaw of Picasso’s attitude towards women; the famous artist once said that “women are the machines for suffering.”

As Wardlaw saw it, Picasso’s legacy as an abusive man is not always connected to his worldwide impact as an artist, which is what he attempted to highlight in his series. “I, like many, have strong negative feelings about the way women were treated by Picasso,” he wrote in his draft artist statement. “The fact that such behavior continues, even today, is appalling and adds an additional reason for this project.”

Olson, the Herter Gallery director, and Kelsi Giguere agreed that Wardlaw’s intention in the work may not have been an answer to such a historic yet relevant issue, but to ask if someone can separate art from the artist.

To finish his new series, though, Wardlaw needed help. The cancer he had been fighting since 2016 seriously weakened him in his final months, and he had to use a wheelchair. Too weak to paint the works to his liking, he drafted his pieces on an iPad.

That’s when Giguere expanded her role. Using canvasses that had been stretched onto the wall of his studio, rather than on a wooden frame, the two would varnish the canvas before projecting Wardlaw’s work from the iPad straight onto the canvas. With Wardlaw close by, Giguere would then paint inside the lines, so when the projector was shut off, the colors remained.

Giguere quickly evolved from an assistant to a collaborator. Wardlaw soon began asking her what she would add, remove, or change in the pieces. In some cases, he would accept her adjustments, other times insist that a particular trait must stay. Wardlaw then layered Picasso’s abstract shapes with his own, creating harmony in some pieces, while others were completely out of sync.

In “Caged,” for instance, Wardlaw replicated a portrait of Olga Koklova, one of Picasso’s lovers, in which Picasso depicted her as a monster, with sharp teeth, beady black eyes, and an abstract, contorted body. By contrast, Wardlaw flipped her image upside down and surrounded her with sharp boxes filled with bright, harsh colors. He imagined Koklova as a lost explorer, falling to her lowest while boxed in with nowhere else to go.

Giguere said she was moved by Wardlaw’s “openness and support” towards women, artists or not. She also said it was a privilege to learn from someone so distinguished.

“All of the formal techniques in the studio, things I didn’t learn in my five years at UMass, George was able to teach me in less than a year,” she said. “All that knowledge he shared with me ... that will never leave.”

It’s also thought provoking to consider the sensitive topic of Wardlaw’s last work addressed through the collaboration of a 92-year-old male artist and a recent female graduate.

“I think one of the greatest things I can take away from our relationship is George’s dedication for looking,” said Giguere. “He had such a seriousness for being aware of what’s around you and actually seeing. I can only hope to be like that.”

“Disruptions and Continuities” will be on view in the Herter Gallery at UMass Amherst through October 25.

Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

115 Conz Street
Northampton, MA 01061


Copyright © 2020 by H.S. Gere & Sons, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy