We’ve all had the feeling: that vertiginous queasiness that follows a late night of heavy drinking, when everything seems too bright, too weird, too cloying. Jean-Paul Sartre described it in his 1938 novel Nausea, and that same year his friend, the German-born artist Wols, gave the feeling visual form in a photograph of a split-open kidney laced with white fat, glistening on a damp paisley tablecloth.
Wols was known for years as a painter and founder of the Art Informel movement—a turgid European counterpart to abstract expressionism—until the mid 1970s, when a cache of his early photographs surfaced and was exhibited in Germany. Now on display at Ubu are 32 rare vintage prints, many pleasantly crumpled or creased, much like Wols himself. There are a number of close-up portraits of his friends in Paris from the 1930s, including a vaguely sinister self-portrait of the artist with a cigarette dangling from his lips, his features almost entirely shrouded in darkness. There are a few surrealist-influenced photographs of mannequins and several lackluster street scenes and abstractions.
But the real gems here are Wols’s kitchen still lifes—quietly disturbing shots of chicken and rabbit carcasses, pieces of cheese, garlic cloves, and sausages, all pinned down by a pitiless glaring light. If seeing Edward Weston’s pristine photographs of peppers makes you swoon when you pass a vegetable stand, these pictures will have the opposite effect. Wols dwells lovingly on the inexorable processes of decay and putrefaction: His flayed carcasses seem almost alive with bacteria. Yet the pictures also have an irresistible down-and-out allure, an unsublimated baseness, a captivating vision of the world through the eyes of an unshaven insomniac existentialist when he flips on the light in the wee hours of the morning.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 27, 2001