Léon Wuidar is a strange and captivating painter, famous in his native Belgium, but still little known here. His art is generally described as a form of geometric abstraction, but the description seems wholly inadequate. His paintings are slow, meticulous, exquisitely conceived in their balance of shapes and colors against the rectangle of each canvas, but they all carry a depth of memory and emotion, and often a questioning humor that transforms them into something closer to stories. .
Born in Liege in 1938, Wuidar worked for many years as a drawing professor before allowing himself to paint full-time from the age of 60. His early works seem to carry childhood memories of the Second World War.
A splendid painting called Efflorescence, from 1964, shows what appear to be moonlit cultivated fields: a series of pale gray stems in a bright glow. It only occurred to me, looking closely at the very fine streaks of his brushstrokes, that the light could be artificial and perhaps even sinister, something closer to the magnesium flash of an explosion.
Victory, the following year, is a series of squares and triangles in ethereal grays, punctuated here and there by a darker crescent or disc. There are hints of architecture – a tiny arcade, the sense of a town square from above – so that the clear triangles seem evocative of spotlights. But the painting also reads irresistibly as a face with a mustache and an upturned smile, an ambiguity that gives it an air of tragicomic satire.
The small painting next to it evokes a triangular series of medals, except that the discs are all in ash gray and brown, as if these after-effects of courage were themselves dead. Below them, however, is a single dot that turns the whole image into a subtle exclamation point.
Wuidar works with scrupulous care on inexpensive canvases, the texture of which can sometimes be glimpsed. He makes his simple wooden frames. There are shades of Belgian surrealism of the 1920s, by Max Ernst and Magritte. The first painting at the White Cube, from 1962, blends hints of organ pipes, theatrical stages and orchestra stalls, all in an exquisitely condensed bundle of uprights and horizontals in sepia, chestnut and burnt umber. A morceau de musique is the spicy title of this small, low-key song.
In the mid-1960s, Wuidar switched to a painting style “devoid of any realism”, as he put it, “but without denying me the occasional allusion to the visible world.” This is a humorous understatement. Because it is the coming and going between abstraction and figuration that defines his entire production. A small painting called Vanity creates a concatenation of geometric shapes in silver-blue and gray that alludes to specular reflections on a dressing table, as well as shadows all around in a bedroom. Les images quotidiennes, 24 September 69 evokes easels and canvases, windows and curtains, studio lights and street lamps, playing with the heavy black contours you might see later in a Patrick Caulfield. Everything about composition and colors – from neutral to black with a sharp cobalt triangle – stands out of time, so much so that it could be Liège in 1969 or right here and now today.
In Belgium, Wuidar has long been associated with the brutalist architecture of his hometown, and in particular with the work of his longtime friend, the leading Belgian architect Charles Vandenhove. He has carried out works for the Vandenhove university hospital in Liège, together with Daniel Buren and Sol LeWitt. Wuidar has lived for decades in a house designed by Vandenhove, and there is no doubt that an architectural vein runs through his work.
A secret passage, a bunker, a side view in a dead end, the place in a house where a person could hide: there are allusions visible, albeit extremely oblique, to all in this show. Yet you could never place them, so to speak, in any real building or place. They are more like clues, or maps, or something like dreams of places in Wuidar’s head.
The more recent works here, from the 1980s, do away with titles altogether in favor of dates. Perhaps they function as a kind of visual diary for the artist. These paintings are astringently geometric, with their sharp-edged panels of acid color. The metaphorical connections with our world seem a bit lost.
But even with a purely rectilinear composition, Wuidar can play a delicate game with lines and contours, playing against color and shape. In a long and narrow canvas, the width of a line varies according to the volume of color it encloses to make the eye perceive bright gold seams from nothing but shades of green and pink. A line of light, a triangle of salmon, a couple of gallons of darker pinks and greens, and you start to see something like the back of a silk tie, with its two-tone origami. The form of the painting becomes pleasantly significant. And sure enough, the title is Crease.