Ernst Wilhelm Nay
Lilly Wei
November 2012

Rarely seen in the United States since the 1960s although well-known in Europe, German painter Ernst Wilhelm Nay (1902-1968), a master of color, was the subject of an exciting three-venue show at Michael Werner and both Mary Boone spaces. Two galleries were dedicated to the artist’s exuberant paintings, and one to his luminous, equally animated if more delicate, works on paper, including a study on cardboard. The study’s penciled abstract pattern is dabbed with bright colors, whose names are scribbled next to them, suggesting a color scheme in formation. Condemned as a “degenerate artist” by Nazi officials in 1937, Nay was forbidden to show his work in Germany after that time. However, he was rehabilitated when the war ended. He participated in Documenta in 1955, had his first solo show in New York, and represented Germany at the Venice Biennale in 1956. The works on view at Mary Boone were all from the 1960s, long after Nay had become a nonrepresentational artist. Nevertheless, the influence of Matisse, Kirchner, Munch, and the Surrealists remains evident, as do figurative implications. 

At Michael Werner, as at Mary Boone, Nay’s vibrant colors lit up the room. The artist’s charged palette accompanied shapes that were for the most part ovals and circles, with the circles cut in half at times to become eyes, as in his “Augenbilder” (Eye Paintings). A fine black-and-gray example from 1963 was at Boone in Chelsea. The shapes are rhythmic, repetitive, and embedded in undulant bands of color. They reverse profiles, so the tightly interlocked forms function as positive or negative. While this Chelsea show was gorgeous—with twice as many works as the Werner uptown space—it seemed more imperious, while the nine paintings uptown created an immersive environment of exceptional intimacy. Altogether, these works provided an overdue and welcome reintroduction to an inordinately gifted artist.