“Seeing The World Within” is the first exhibition to focus on the paintings and drawings Seliger created early in his career. Seliger was a precocious talent who became a professional artist when he was still in his teens. He was especially influenced by the fantastic imagery, inventive processes, and the creative freedom of Surrealism.
Although his work was rooted in the same basic principles and ideas explored by a group of his peers who came to be known as the Abstract Expressionists—many with whom he exhibited during the 1940s—Seliger sought a distinctly personal voice and artistic vocabulary and, typically, made more intimate pictures than many of his colleagues.
His first solo exhibition took place at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery in New York City in 1945, when Seliger was just 19 (he was among the youngest in the exhibit). For pictures in that show Seliger employed the Surrealist technique of automatism to paint, scrape away and layer opaque and transparent abstract shapes, colors, and lines that were intended to reveal the hidden structures and networks that exist beneath the surface of the visible world. For several years Seliger further honed this technique and the small, visually dense and spatially complex pictures he was making at this time came to define his work until his death in 2009.
The show is the first museum-organized exhibition of Seliger’s work in 30 years. It brings together approximately 35 of his best works from the 1940s, borrowed from the artist’s estate, as well as from 17 private and public collections in the United States, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Regular Museum visitors will recall seeing displayed in the galleries from time to time one or more of the eight small paintings and drawings from the mid-20th century by Seliger that were part of a large collection of modern American art the pioneering collector Edward Wales Root bequeathed to the Museum in 1957. Seliger’s affectionate recollection of Root’s personality and his conscientiousness as a collector was one of the highlights of the Museum’s recent 50th anniversary commemoration of Root’s gift. Root met Seliger during the late 1940s when the young artist was receiving favorable critical attention and developing his mature style. Root, then in his mid-60s, had recently become aware of a group of young American abstract artists who, in his words, were making “a serious effort to develop new modes of expression.”
The exhibition was organized by Jonathan Stuhlman, Curator of American Art at The Mint Museum in Charlotte, N.C., where it premiered before being shown at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, Italy, last summer. A fully illustrated catalog, with essays about Seliger’s artistic development in the 1940s, and the rich artistic milieu that characterized that decade, authored by Jonathan Stuhlman and Michelle Dubois, is available for sale in the Museum’s Gift Gallery for $35.
Exhibition admission is free to MWPAI Members. General admission is $5.
Combination admission packages for Shadow of the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt and Its Influence and Seeing the World Within: Charles Seliger in the 1940s are available for $13- students $7.
Illustration: Seliger’s Cellular Mansion, 1945, Oil on canvas.