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Elof Wedin, a Swedish American Artist

Elof Wedin, 1958

1,773 words

Elof Wedin (1901–1983) enjoyed a long career as an artist from the 1920s to the mid-1970s, supporting himself as a boilermaker in industrial hot water plants, painting on nights and weekends.

Today his paintings, pastels, and sculptures are housed in 52 private collections and 19 organizations, including the Walker Art Center, the University of Minnesota’s Weisman Art Museum, the Minnesota Historical Society, the Mayo Clinic, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Dayton family.

Wedin exhibited in 130 shows, 27 of which were one man shows, many in the Midwest at venues such as the Walker Art Center, but also in Chicago, Detroit, Florida, Colorado, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Rockefeller Center and the Hudson Walker Gallery in New York City. (Hudson D. Walker, the grandson of Minnesota timber magnate and founder of the Walker Art Center Thomas B. Walker, was one of his many portrait subjects.)

In 1996 Wedin was one of 33 artists whose work was featured in the exhibition “Pictures for a New Home: Minnesota’s Swedish-American Artists,” at the James J. Hill House Gallery in St. Paul, sponsored by the Minnesota Historical Society.

A Swede in the US

Wedin was born in 1901 in Härnösand, a northern village on the Gulf of Bothnia, an arm of the Baltic Sea, located on Sweden’s east coast opposite Finland. His father was a shopkeeper. In Sweden he was educated and learned his lifelong trade of insulating and lining boilers. But even as a youth he spent every moment he could painting and drawing.

Arriving in the US in 1919, Wedin journeyed to Minneapolis, a Swedish immigrant haven, because he had a cousin who lived there. By 1910 Swedes constituted the largest ethnic group in Minneapolis, one-quarter of the city’s population, and the second largest in St. Paul.

Wedin studied at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Art Institute of Chicago.

In a 1940 profile of the artist, journalist Vivian Thorp wrote:

He fell in love and got married so that the things for which he had to spend his boiler earnings were extended [from self-support and art materials] to providing for a wife and baby.

“I found out,” said Elof, “that just being an artist wasn’t going to be enough. A man has to have three meals a day and a little happiness; and to be happy he must have a wife and family. I have, and life would be pretty stale without them. You can’t just keep on dreaming; not with the bread-box empty; you want to live as well as paint. I wouldn’t like to paint every day. I don’t know enough, nobody does; you’d just keep on repeating yourself. And I like work, too. Paint and sweat go together. I never turn down a good job insulating to paint.”

Thorp described Wedin as “typically Swedish in looks. He is about five feet 11 in height, has sea-blue eyes and a long nose. His hair is very blond, very straight and rather long. He pushes it back off his forehead often.”

She called him “laconic:”

Having been warned that Elof Wedin would be as hard to crack as a clam shell, I was somewhat prepared; but must confess that he was difficult, to say the least. I could not get any high-falutin’ sentences out of him on beauty in the abstract or the concrete. The Ruskin touch was conspicuously lacking; art patter was out like a light. I couldn’t dig up any picturesque stories of childhood in Sweden, except that he skied “just average” in winter and liked to sail in summer. He would like to do some reading but has no time for it because every precious hour he can spare after boiler hours goes into painting.

Three Phases

Despite significant chronological and aesthetic overlap, Wedin’s art falls naturally into three phases—early, middle, and late—each marked by a distinctive style. The most significant shift is a continuous evolution away from representationalism to abstractionism. In Wedin’s art the mirror of reality crack’d from side to side until it shattered completely.

In the first phase, from the 1920s to the mid-1930s, the style is representational—though not the dazzling kind of realism exhibited by magnificent American expatriate painter John Singer Sargent, whose works Wedin believed were “too perfect; there’s nothing left to the imagination.” Of course, that was the received opinion in Wedin’s time. Sargent held a negative view of modern art and was deeply out of favor.

Major influences during this period were Rembrandt, Jewish figurative artist Amedeo Modigliani, and the Impressionists. Wedin’s favorite classical painter was the Renaissance artist Titian.

Pioneer Mother (Kasja Johnson, 1927), Oil on Canvas

Many of Wedin’s portraits were executed in representational mode, including such oils as A Double Portrait (1929), Nude (c. 1935), Wife and Son (1935), Self Portrait (San Francisco World’s Fair, 1939), Portrait of Lillian (1940), Alice E. Pohl (1941), and Dr. John F. Pohl (1942).

Wedin did many portraits, which he enjoyed. “Merely pretty people don’t make the best pictures. They’ve got to be interesting.” He liked women best; his wife often sat for him. “I never get tired of painting her; she’s never the same person twice.”

Under the auspices of the Works Projects Administration Wedin painted Minneapolis street scenes, scenes at the Itasca State Park CCC camps, and US Post Office murals in Litchfield, Minnesota and Mobridge, South Dakota.

In 1933 he traveled to Sweden and painted canvases of fishing villages. By 1940 he had visited many of the famous galleries of Europe, spending the most time in London.

Works from Wedin’s middle period, 1935 to 1957, exhibit striking experimentation with textures, free form, and pastel colors. They are distinctly modernist, but not (yet) completely abstract. Major influences include Cezanne, Picasso, Braque, and Cubism.

Gravel Pit (c. 1933-34, WPA), Oil on Canvas

During the Depression Wedin and a group of Swedish American artists painted together in Twin City backyards. A member of the group who taught at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts was B. J. O. Nordfeldt. According to Mary Towley Swanson, Nordfeldt’s “strong, Cezannesque-influenced forms, which flattened and geometricized landscape shapes” recognizably influenced Wedin’s paintings during this period.

Examples of this work include the oil paintings Mills at Minneapolis (Pillsbury Mills, c. 1934-35), Beaver Bay (North Shore of Lake Superior, c.1935), and Back in Sweden (c. 1935). Pigeon Farm, Shakopee (1949) approaches the abstract.

Abstract Expressionism

River Town (c. 1940), Oil on Canvas

In his final phase, 1958 through the mid-1970s, Wedin’s art became anti-figurative and nihilistic. Raw colors were applied using a palette-knife technique. Brilliantly colored areas, which appeared to be broken up at close range, fit together at a distance, producing what Wedin called a “hidden abstract” composition. “Once I was a gray painter. Now I use the colors pure—right out of the tube.”

Representative works are Black Harbor, Grey Moon (1953), View of a Modernist House (Pastel and charcoal on paper, 1955), Fish House Bay (c. 1956) and Boats and Fish Houses, Norway (Fish Houses of Norway, 1963–67).

My father and grandfather knew Wedin, and my Dad once asked him about this radical stylistic shift. Wedin’s simple response: “It was the only way I could sell anything.”

Kinetic Rhapsody (1962), Oil on Canvas

One of my father’s vivid recollections of Wedin had nothing to do with art. Wedin needed some black dirt for his yard, and my grandfather owned several acres of land on the (then) outskirts of the city, and so had plenty available. When Wedin arrived to pick it up he had a brand new car and shoveled the dirt directly into the trunk without using a container or trunk liner of any kind. This made a big impression on Dad, who took meticulous care of his property and would never have dreamed of doing such a thing.

The Other Wedins

Wedin had two sons, Swedish Americans (Wedin, who never divorced, married a Swedish American woman), Winslow (b. 1933) and Gary (b. 1942).

Gary, an artist, adopted his father’s occupation as a commercial insulator of pipes, boilers, ducts, chillers, and other components of mechanical systems, working for forty years in the trade.

Winslow Wedin became a full-time architect who worked in graphic design, product design, painting, sculpture, jewelry, ceramics, and interior accessories. He has been called “a practicing architect, urbanist, artist, and futurist.” Winslow taught architecture at Auburn University and in Florida and Saudi Arabia, and designed a Buckminster Fuller-influenced polyurethane foam house that was featured in Life magazine in 1970. (To view the Life article online, Google “Flowing Space That’s Sprayed on Burlap.” Here are two video clips that provide good interior and exterior views of the structure. Numerous color photos here.)

The house, called Ensculptic-III (see Winslow Wedin, “The Ensculptic Story,” 2010), looks like a light-suffused, Mod-Sixties version of a set from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919). Winslow was a “better” art academic than artist. While the house has some die-hard admirers, most are less than appreciative, viewing it as an oddity of its era—the long-term price one pays for the lack of a strong personal vision.

Winslow’s essential trendiness is evident throughout his work: Happy Holidays (2001), Merry Christmas and More (2005), Alien Robot (Sculpture, 2009), and even the appealing, but globalist, sketch of Buckminster Fuller’s proposed Minni Earth Location at U.N. Building, N.Y. Much of Winslow’s work, like Ensculptic-III and Alien Robot, is notably ugly. The aesthetics of contemporary art and architecture too often externalizes the interior of the collective soul: barren and unhuman.

Elof’s Swedish-born brother Peter Wedin (1894–1980) (see p. 28 of the PDF) lived in Canada and Minnesota. Employed days as a wood carver in a furniture factory, he created wood reliefs—carvings to achieve a raised effect, which he then painted. This was Swedish folk art.

Peter Wedin's Pensionärernas Bal (Pensioners' Ball, 1956), Wood Relief

Peter’s little-known work, which never achieved the following Elof ‘s did, is difficult to evaluate because it is scattered among obscure private collections if it survives at all. But if Begravnings kringlor (Funeral Kringlor, Wood Relief) from 1926, Immigrants (Wood Relief on Paper, 1930), and Pensionärernas Bal as late as 1956 are representative, then Peter attained greater authenticity and produced less intellectualized, conformist work over many decades than did his better-known brother—appropriate for a dedicated folk artist.

But, as Elof’s unsentimental remark to my father indicates, post-WWII, ruthless cultural Darwinism imposed its own demands: change, or be condemned to ridicule, shunning, and banishment from the art market (access to galleries and paying customers)—artistic oblivion.

Wedin’s willingness to adapt to radically changing, elite-formulated and -imposed aesthetic demands enabled him to exhibit and sell his work across his entire productive career.

Elof Wedin died in 1983 from complications due to prolonged asbestos exposure.

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