Frederick S. Wight, Art: Los Angeles

Professor; Director, The Frederick S. Wight Art Galleries, Emeritus

Fred Wight was born on June 1, 1902, in New York City, the son of Carol Van Buren, and Alice Stallknecht Wight. His father had been a professor of classics at Johns Hopkins University, and his mother became a strong artist whose work was always very important to him. In 1923 he graduated from the University of Virginia and went to France for two years, to study painting at the Academie Julien and elsewhere. In 1936 he married Joan Bingham, and with her had one son, George Wight. From 1942-1945, he served as a lieutenant commander, United States Naval Reserve, took part in the Normandy landing, and afterwards transferred to the O.S.S., serving in London, Paris, and Wiesbaden. He was separated from the armed forces in 1945, and returned to take his M.A. at Harvard University, under Paul Sachs and Jakob Rosenberg, concentrating in museology. He served as associate director of the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art from 1950-1953, before taking a position as professor of art and director of the UCLA Galleries in 1953. He was also chair of the Art Department from 1963-1966. Under his guidance, and because of his knowledge and energy, the UCLA Art Galleries played a vital part in the development of Southern California as a major region for both the exhibition of modern art and the production of important, new American art. The extraordinary sculpture garden at UCLA is a permanent monument to his skills as a leader in the complex world of art exhibition.

All those who ever met Fred Wight were promptly struck by his sharp wit; those who knew him were perpetually delighted by the wonderful novelties of his speech, not to speak of the subtle deployment of an erudition he carried lightly. His was that most rare amalgam--painter and writer. Indeed, he published six novels in the two decades from the mid-1930s to mid-1950s: South (1935), The Chronicle of Aaron Kane (1936), Youth in Trust (1937), Inner Harbor (1949), Kindling (1951), and Verge of Glory (1956). Two excellent books on art came from him: his Milestones of

American Painting in Our Century (1949), and The Potent Image: Art in the Western World from Cave Paintings to the 1970's (1976), as well as articles, essays, and monographs on such important artists as Goya, Van Gogh, Louis Sullivan, Gropius, Hans Hoffman, Arthur Dove, Hyman Bloom, Orozco, Jack Levine, John Marin, Marsden Hartley, Morris Graves, Milton Avery, and Modigliani. Anyone who peruses The Potent Image cannot fail to be astonished at Wight's power to evoke and describe the essence of an artist's work even in one or two brief paragraphs; that kind of graceful compression and intellectual lucidity reveals an understanding of what matters in art that most critics and scholars strive for in vain.

During his active years as director of the UCLA Galleries, Fred mounted many memorable, in fact landmark, shows, exhibiting, among others, the work of artists like Lionel Feininger, Arthur Dove, Sheeler, Marin, Graves, Hoffman, Modigliani, Picasso, Lipschitz, Stuart Davis, Matisse, Bingham, Arp, Marcks, Archipenko, Oldenburg, MacDonald-Wright, George Rickey, and June Wayne.

Yet all the while Fred Wight remained a painter, exhibiting his everchanging, developing work in one-man shows in New York at the Art Center, the Marie Sterner Gallery, the Kleeman Gallery, the New School for Social Research; the Stamford Museum in Connecticut; at the deYoung Memorial Museum in San Francisco, the Pasadena Museum, the Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego, the Museum of New Mexico Art Gallery, the Long Beach Museum, the Palm Springs Desert Museum, the Barnsdall Municipal Gallery of Los Angeles, the Galerie d'Art Internationale in Chicago, and the Newspace Gallery of Los Angeles.

Fred Wight died on July 26, 1986, after the rather lightning invasion of a disease he'd fended off for some years. What those who knew him closely delight in was the fact that he never stopped working: he was painting fresh, beautiful, really marvellous canvases right to the very end. At the memorial service for Fred Wight held at UCLA on January 25, 1987, the artist Richard Diebenkorn observed, “Fred, should he have viewed this company and been told its purpose, would have, we know, commented upon it. I wouldn't presume to anticipate the content of what would have been a very brief remark, but I know that its texture would have been fine, it would be bone-dry, and its tone would be ironical. It would be withering and iconoclastic and it would wipe us out, making a travesty of today's efforts. It would also be unexpectedly and excruciatingly funny--with its color a shade off.

“Possibly tomorrow having pulled ourselves together we see that ruthless put-down differently and we know that the man behind it cared immensely. He cared about us and he cared about our loving him. And he would have cared desperately about our tribute to him even while mocking it. He was a complex and ambivalent carer. This of course is what a painter needs to be. He cared there too.”


And the painter William Brice remarked, “I met Fred in the early '50s. Los Angeles, at that time, was changing, was gathering momentum in the process of becoming the major art center it is today. From this distance it is history, solidified, confirmed, factual, and accomplished--but what I remember most is the excitement and enthusiasm which accompanied those early undertakings. It was Fred's feeling for the adventure of stretching the limits of possibilities, of expanding the frame of reference. This required of him acute perception, tact and relevant strategy. I came to see that among Fred's many admirable attributes was wisdom, that condition of accumulated knowledge and experience which results in significant insight. Fred's compassionate understanding of human nature enabled him to maintain his equilibrium under stress, and with grace. This understanding was at the source of his abundant humor and central to the formation of his values, his integrity. He was able to see with a clear eye, without sentimental excess or indulgence in disillusionment. Fred was never condescending. I believe it had to do with his faith in people. He simply worked at making the very best in him appeal to the best in us.

“Fred was both public and private. It is in Fred's painting that we have a most direct view of his inner nature. From the first time I saw Fred's painting I responded strongly to an expressive inclination which surfaced intermittently early on and gradually grew to be the encompassing expressive condition--the visionary, reverent, and mystical. It continues to fascinate and move me that there is, in his late work in particular, such an inner vision, elemental, distilled, and unified; it has the vividness of a purity of feeling, full of wonder.”

Jascha Kessler Edith Tonelli William Brice