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Wild at Heart 

A funny thing happened to Walter Anderson on his way to oblivion. He got famous, or close to it. For years after his death in 1965, much of what was written about him appeared in a diminishing number of "local color" stories in area newspapers, accounts of the eccentric and vagabond ways of our own "Van Gogh of the Gulf." That he was a talented artist was noted in passing, but it was not until 2003 that the scale of his accomplishment became known beyond Ocean Springs, Miss., where the Walter Anderson Museum of Art had opened a decade earlier.

The museum ensured that he would be remembered regionally, but Walter Anderson and America remained strangers, and it was only grudgingly that the Smithsonian Institution agreed to give him a retrospective on the 2003 centennial of his birth, and then only at a satellite facility, the Arts and Industries building. The way America reacted must have surprised the Smithsonian: Attendance surpassed 300,000, and critics from Washington, D.C., to Chicago responded with rave reviews. This show at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, an expanded version of the Smithsonian expo, is a popular success here as well.

Anderson must be fidgeting in his grave; when the Brooklyn Museum exhibited a sampling of his work in 1949, rather than bask in the glow of a Big Apple show as most other artists would have done, he set off for Tibet. Fame just wasn't his thing. He was, like Van Gogh, a little unhinged, and couldn't bear to be around people, even his own family, for very long. Consequently, he did much of his best work on uninhabited Horn Island, where he lived for weeks at a time like Robinson Crusoe with pelicans and crabs for sidekicks, spontaneously dashing off watercolors of what he saw, on typewriter paper, by the thousands. But these were no ordinary nature studies, and critical comparisons with Audubon are something of a stretch.

Hawks at Sunrise, circa 1960, is a good example of his fully developed style, an explosion of crimson, blue, yellow and black with hawks appearing as ecstatic bursts of color and light like geometric fragments of some rapturous natural order. As a young artist, his approach had been more restrained (as seen in his 1935 Pilieted Woodpecker, one of the few Andersons that actually was Audubonesque). Although the geometric patterning of his early career reflected the influence of cubism and art deco, the vibrant fractals of his later years are another story. Palmetto With Flowers, a 1960 maelstrom of undulating gold, green, violet and ultramarine, is a shimmering dance of color, light and form, visual trance music of the most hypnotic sort. As with Van Gogh at his most rhapsodic, it suggests a psychoactive state, a mescaline vision in which the esoteric patterning derives not from any formal style but is instead a natural expression of a deeply personal vision of nature in which energy and form are one, a condition known mainly to shamans and madmen. Anderson was a little of both. His lifestyle, apart from society but engaged intimately with nature, is shamanic and he was certainly a seer, as well as a dedicated naturalist, long before it was fashionable.

Of particular interest is an adjunct exhibit of his views of New Orleans, where he was born and raised. Here, in the earlier works, his formal patterning can look paranoiac, with regimented figures marching in lock step like the workers in Fritz Lang's 1927 sci-fi classic, Metropolis. Later views such as his 1962 New Orleans Street Scene, a view of Canal Street on a rainy Mardi Gras day, express the effortless buoyancy of his nature studies. Despite his troubled life, the art of Anderson's later years was joyous for the most part, reflecting a profound empathy with the wild. Rather than the soporific levity of "happy" waiting room art, his ecstasy came from "realization," the direct experience of a mystical union with nature, and art was his way of inducing that realization. Influenced by Sufi-inspired Turkish philosopher G.I. Gurdjieff, as well as the Buddhist sages of Tibet, Anderson was a master American transcendentalist artist on par with Joseph Stella and Charles Burchfield. Now, thanks to the Ogden Museum, the Smithsonian and several recent books, he is no longer the Gulf Coast's best-kept artistic secret.

click to enlarge Hawks at Sunrise, an explosion of crimson, blue, yellow and black, with hawks appearing as ecstatic bursts of color and light, is typical of Anderson's mature style.
  • Hawks at Sunrise, an explosion of crimson, blue, yellow and black, with hawks appearing as ecstatic bursts of color and light, is typical of Anderson's mature style.
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