The exhibition On land, in the air, at home and at sea: the world of Frank Walter at David Zwirner (June 2–July 29, 2022), curated by Hilton Als, is an incomplete introduction to the brilliant biracial Antiguan artist and writer Francis Archibald Wentworth Walter (1926–2009). Plagued by visions, Walter chose to spend the last 15 years of his life in seclusion, living in a home he designed and built on a hilltop in Antigua, surrounded by his writing and art.
For those interested in learning more about Walter, I recommend visiting the Ingleby Gallery website in Edinburgh, Scotland, which hosted Walter’s first exhibition, and the very informative catalogue Frank Walter: The Last Universal Man (Radius, 2017) by Barbara Paca, his most articulate advocate. The catalog was published to coincide with its exhibition in the Antigua and Barbuda National Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale, which was the first time the country had been represented at this important international venue. Als first became aware of Walter’s work at the Venice Biennale, as he tells us in his curatorial essay.
On land, in the air, at home and at sea comprises more than 30 small landscapes and portraits painted in pencil and oil paint on found and discarded materials such as photographs, cardboard, Polaroid film cartridge cases and photographic paper (Walter briefly ran a makeshift photographic studio in St. John’s, Antigua’s capital).
Walter’s landscapes are deserted or people can be seen from afar and mostly covered by a layer of paint. The feeling of isolation, of being alone in the natural world, is omnipresent. And yet there is also a muted calm, as in “Untitled (Pinkish-Red-And-Grey Tree)” and “Untitled (Pink Sky, Green Field)” (all works undated). In Untitled (Pinkish-Red-And-Grey Tree) two large boulders rise about a third of the way up from the bottom edge. Behind the right side of a boulder appears a green tree trunk topped with pink spots. Behind the tree is a dark green band indicating a field. A cluster of gray patches can be seen on the horizon, cropped at the right edge of the painting; The sky is a mixture of green and white. The boulders make this more than a painting of a tree. What are we standing on and how will we overcome these obstacles? We can see the tree, but it’s unlikely we can reach it.
Feelings of distance and separation permeate a number of paintings, including Untitled (View of sea through trees), Untitled (Craggy Mountain With Meandering White Path) and Untitled (Mountain View Through Tree Branches). Although the works are modest, the atmospherically glowing views suggest that you are alone in the deserted landscape and elude the gaze. Often the sky is dark and reminds of evening or night. The solitude is not simply that of an individual in a landscape. Rather, the sea and sky made me think that Walter – aware that he was alone in the universe – was focusing on tangible things, even when they were out of reach. But this is only part of his diverse oeuvre.
One of his landscapes, Untitled (Scottish Tree) reflects his time in Scotland, which was part of an eight-year tour of the UK and Europe to study new technology for his job with the Antiguan Sugar Syndicate. The exhibition also features two line drawings made in pencil on pressboard and cardboard. As with the paintings, nothing appears to have been reworked – it is as if each piece had itself drawn or painted without being adjusted, reworked or much fuss made. In two other works, the painting “Untitled (Red Hibiscus Flower)” and the line drawing “Untitled (Palm Tree)”, Walter focuses on one theme.
The largest work and the only outlier of the exhibition is “The Right Side of The Milky Way Galaxy”. Installed prominently above a marble fireplace, the painting depicts a tubular symmetrical form, swollen on the left side and tapering to a point on the right edge. The volumetric shape with its black teardrop opening feels as if it has been squeezed into the rectangular format. A series of lines extend from the point. I found this work mysterious, mesmerizing and utterly compelling; it was something Walter saw in his mind. This should alert us that Walter was a visionary and shares something in that regard with Forest Bess, who wrote down what he saw when he closed his eyes. The difference is that Bess was fixated on a single theme, immortality, while Walter cast a broader net.
Focusing on Walter’s landscapes and no longer including his works dealing with cosmology, his investigations into his biracial genealogy, which he could trace back 12 generations, to the mid-16th century, not to mention his sculptures and writings (over 25,000 pages), Zwirner gives a partial overview of an extremely interesting and multifaceted artist whose subjects have included ancient Antigua and Arawak history, the island’s indigenous people, class and race, seals of family history, and real and imagined portraiture. As satisfying as this show was, it also whetted the appetite for more.
On land, in the air, at home and at sea: the world of Frank Walter continues through July 29 at the David Zwirner Gallery (34 East 69th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan). The exhibition was curated by Hilton Als.