Kurt Wenner attended Rhode Island School of Design and Art Center College of Design before working for NASA as an advanced scientific space illustrator. Wenner eventually left NASA for Italy in order to pursue his love of classical art.
My interest in Renaissance classicism started with the simple desire to draw well. I was struck by the vast difference between how students and teachers drew in the 20th Century and the way artists drew 500 years ago. It seemed to me that artists of the past had abilities far beyond those of today. My curiosity about this discrepancy took me to Rome in order to seek out and master drawing and painting within the “language” of western classicism. During this time I isolated myself from 20th century art in order to explore the ideals and concepts practiced in earlier centuries. It has since become an ongoing mission to rediscover classical traditions and communicate them to a contemporary audience.
In the spring of 1982, Wenner moved to Rome, where he studied the works of the great masters and drew constantly from classical sculpture. The drawings he made brought him in touch with the language of form in Western figurative art and provided him with the neoclassical training necessary for the style he was pursuing. Through his studies he became particularly interested in the Mannerist period; finding in the monumental scale and sophisticated decoration a direction for his own artistic expression. For several years Wenner traveled extensively in order to experience firsthand most of the major masterpieces and monuments throughout Europe. During these first years abroad he experimented with traditional paint media such as tempera, fresco, and oil paint. In order to finance his travels and studies he became a “Madonnaro” and created chalk paintings on the streets of Rome. Within several years he had won numerous gold medals at European competitions and become officially recognized as a master of this art form. In 1985 his artwork was the subject of an award winning National Geographic documentary titled Masterpieces in Chalk.
I am continually challenged to rediscover, transform, and share neglected ideas of the past. When creating large artworks at public events I’ve been able to evaluate the reactions of large and diverse audiences. This information has provided me with invaluable lessons in human perception. While lecturing on my work or other art-related topics to professional and amateur artists, as well as art educators, I have had the opportunity to engage a vast number of people in a dialogue which has shown me that while my ideas about art, education, and classics are often markedly different from established views they are nevertheless welcome. I believe that while the patrimony of great masterpieces from the classical tradition belongs to history, the artistic process they propose is eternal.
Eventually, Wenner’s knowledge of Renaissance classicism provided a foundation for his own art, as well as material for numerous lectures and workshops given throughout the US. Always a firm believer in arts education, Wenner taught more than a hundred thousand children over a 10-year period and received the Kennedy Center Medallion in recognition of his outstanding contribution to arts education. He has lectured at corporate events and conducted seminars and workshops for organizations ranging from the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian Institution to Disney Studios, Warner Bros. Studios, Toyota, and General Motors.
Because the classical tradition that fascinated me was lost, part of my studies was scholarly. I spent many months looking through libraries and archives for texts written centuries earlier on the artistic subjects that most fascinated me. Artistic geometry was the most fascinating subject. It amazed me to learn how ideas and concepts were transformed through the centuries, sometimes flourishing, sometimes being lost. In one century theories of proportion are hotly debated and in another they are ignored entirely. The study of linear perspective is fantastically creative and inspiring until the invention of photography, when it becomes static and rule-bound.
In 1984, Wenner invented an art form all his own that has come to be known as anamorphic or 3D pavement art. A form of perspective, known as anamorphism, was used by the great European Masters to give the illusion of soaring architecture and floating figures in ceiling frescoes. Inspired by this use of perspective, Wenner invented a new geometry to create compositions that appear to rise from, or fall into, the ground. Like anamorphic perspective where painted forms appear three-dimensional when viewed from one point in space, Wenner’s geometry corrects the specific distortion caused by viewing large images at an oblique angle. This type of perspective has come to be known as Wenner’s Geometry.
Any work of figurative art, even a picture in a frame, employs some illusion. The two major types of illusion are conventional and optical. A framed picture is a conventional illusion. The viewer can choose to see the frame as a window; a starting point from which to visually enter the painted world, also referred to as “a willing suspension of disbelief.” The frame can also be a border that safely separates the real world from an imaginary one. The viewer recognizes the work as a painting on a wall long before looking at the subject. Optical illusions blur the distinction between what is real and what is imaginary by literally fooling the viewer.
I juxtapose both types of illusion in my work. In photographs my pavement art can appear as “real” as the audience. I use the photograph’s “objective documentation” to question if the contemporary world is really more substantial than the worlds of history and imagination. Although I employ an arsenal of visual tools to create illusion, the classical language of form is the most essential. Classicism is vastly superior to other forms of realism for the creation of illusion because it is based on human perception. Every stroke has the purpose of communicating form and space to the viewer. Classicism enables new, unseen illusions to be composed through the use of an optical and geometrical link to contemporary surroundings.
Wenner’s Geometry, along with the success of the National Geographic documentary, inspired many communities to create their own pave-ment art festivals. Wenner worked with the organizers of the first festivals to prepare the surface and materials, as well as train artists. Today there are countless pavement art events and festivals throughout the world that attract scores of artists, children and spectators. Over the past twenty years, hundreds of millions of people have either viewed, or participated in, a pavement art event or seen televised images on their local and national television channels.
When Pope John Paul II arrived in Mantua, Italy, Wenner was commissioned to create an original composition for a 15’ x 75’ street painting based on the Last Judgment. Under Wenner’s direction, thirty of Europe’s best street painters worked for 10 days to create the image. On the last day the Pope signed the mural, officially recognizing the art as a form of Sacred Art.
Ever since their inception, art galleries have modeled themselves after museums and present art in a finished form. Although they seek to give importance to the work by this association, more often than not a wall is created between the public and the artist. In past centuries artists have had a more direct link to their patron or the public. Pavement art events and festivals fill the need for artists and the public to communicate with one another, with many artists finding that sharing the process of their work enables them to set aside any fears or self-doubt they may have had. The public delights in having the process of art accessible and being able to ask questions directly to the artist.
During his first years abroad, Wenner began executing permanent works of art such as altarpieces, a family chapel in Puglia, and a church ceiling (6,000 square feet) near lake Como. Wenner found he especially enjoyed working on very large-scale projects. Most of his work is found in corporate high-rises, government buildings, private homes, hotel lobbies, as well as churches and museums.
My paintings invite rediscovery of many artistic traditions, as I often incorporate mythology, allegory, literature, and theater into my compositions. I find that even if a viewer cannot reference the story I’m telling, they sense that one exists and are curious to know more. I enjoy challenging my audience with a wealth of allusions — historical, stylistic, and perceptual. While some recognize and appreciate the content, others admire the richly embellished surfaces, or are caught up in the technical ability. This approach allows me to utilize drawing, painting, and composition as I manipulate the array of materials and techniques each work requires. I especially enjoy working on large pieces that “encompass’” the viewer, that is combining painting with sculpture and architecture, so that I can blur the distinction between them. By pushing the limits of form, technique and materials the viewer is forced into interacting with the art in new ways. The traditional appearance of my work is my strongest illusion, as most completely fail to see and understand that no one has ever painted at any time in history with the perspective I employ.
Wenner’s mural work brought him in touch with architects and clients who were building large homes in traditional styles. Soon he was asked to create architectural details, along with vaults and coffers in sculptural relief, as well as figurative sculptures for private residences. Such commissions enabled Wenner to go beyond the two-dimensional world of paint and canvas and tie his art into three-dimensional spatial environments. For the Villa Zeffiro in Santa Barbara, he was commissioned to design and paint more than 3,000 square feet of oil paintings and create sculpted plasterwork. Shortly after its completion, the house was featured in Architectural Digest.
During the Renaissance, the decorative arts were considered the highest form of art, even the Sistine Chapel is a work of this genre. In addition to paintings and murals, the great masters often designed ceramics, tapestries, wood inlay, silverware, and jewelry. Drawings for their finished works exhibit the masters’ great enthusiasm and imagination; sculptors like Cellini might spend years on a single piece. Even though artisan apprentices and journeymen executed many of the great decorative works, there were always masterful drawings that directed them. We are now in a period where generations of students have not been taught classical drawing; consequently this amazing tool is not available for them to use when making their art. My years in Italy have given me a special understanding of and appreciation for this important heritage. Although I began by creating coffers, moldings, and architectural details to accompany my paintings and murals, I soon found great enjoyment in designing them for their own sake. Combining painting with sculpture gave my work a unique multi-dimensional approach.
After working many years on private residences, it was inevitable that Wenner would be asked to design them. His years in Italy imbued in him a special understanding of and appreciation for architecture, as well as the important legacy of architectural ornamentation. Wenner spent several years designing large residences, bringing a profound knowledge of historical geometric techniques and proportion to each project. Wenner’s vast experience with materials and techniques gave him complete flexibility of design. By designing and executing all the details, including columns, capitals, moldings and facings he achieved a full range of artistic expression.
Architecture provided me with the ultimate means to combine different areas of study. When I designed a residence I liked to think of it as a unified vision. I wanted it to express the optimism and exuberance that I try to achieve in my painting. The goal of my work has always been to alter and manipulate the environment; I want the work to “encompass” the viewer. I created spaces in which people can live within a work of art and become part of the rich cultural continuum of the classical tradition. Whether simple and devout, natural and rustic, or audaciously sumptuous, I’ve worked to bring large spaces to a human scale. Understatement and subtlety provides the background for all my art and comes as the result of positive aesthetic decision-making, rather than out of fear or timidity.
From the beginning of my career, my main artistic motivation was to rediscover, transform and share neglected ideas from the past. I have been fortunate to be able to share my work with millions of people and work in a number of mediums. I hope my work will inspire other artists to learn about the vast and rich patrimony of classicism, so that others can enjoy the wealth of ideas that are hidden with the passage of time.