It is common to find people drawn to the majesty and mystery of animals. Our bond with animals is strange, however, because no matter how close we may feel to them, animals must use tactics other than speech to communicate with us, always leaving some things up for interpretation.
Artist Walter Addison spent his life surrounded by animals, using them as muses for his art during a time when other artists were rejecting literal subjects in their work. This month, a new exhibit at Cade Tompkins re-introduces the artwork of Walter Addison to the public and celebrates his legacy as an outstanding animal artist.
As a teenager in the 1930s, Addison moved from the forests of Washington state to the bustle of growing New York City to become an artist. After several years creating work and earning notable fellowships, Addison was hired to paint the animals that inhabited the largest metropolitan zoo in the country – the Bronx Zoo.
Dr. William G. Conway, who came to the Bronx Zoo as an assistant curator of birds in 1956, said, “Addison’s art seems to capture the very essence of the animal soul – the intrinsic living, fructifying Holy Spirit captured by the ancient painters at the Lascaux Caves 30,000 years ago.”
Addison captures the birds’ vibrant colors and mannerisms as if you can hear them squawking; his monkeys each have a captivating look in their eye, as if the viewer is being watched rather than the other way around.
With the city in a period of physical change in the 1930s, Addison’s animals became stylized and began to capture the essence of the art deco trend emerging throughout New York. Addison’s depiction of sea lions appears to be carved out of stone, with chiseled features and minimal detail. Addison regularly used watercolors versus other mediums for his work since even though watercolor can be difficult to master, it can be easier to set up and tote around locations such as a zoo. It’s easy to envision Addison wandering around different areas of the park with his sketchbook and watercolor palette in tow to set up at a moment’s notice, capturing the animals at their various enclosures.
Addison eventually moved out of New York and into a converted blacksmith’s barn in Washington Depot, Connecticut. He passed away in 1982, leaving behind not only his family, but also his work, which remained in storage until now. This exhibit is a bit of a rescue mission and perhaps isn’t a complete retrospective of Addison’s work (since there is no knowing how many sketches were actually made and how many have been lost due to time and damage). Even some of the images in the show have required repair. The work in this show varies in detail and level of completion. Even if we are only seeing a small portion of his entire body of work, we still are able to see the artist’s creative spirit behind every animal in the room.
The common visitor to New York City in the ‘50s, walking through Macy’s (where his animals sculptures spent time in the window displays) or past his mural at the New York City Aquarium, would have instantly recognized that they weren’t looking at the typical work of the abstract expressionists. This could also explain why Addison was forgotten by art history; commercial can be such a dirty word. Even though Addison’s work may not be hanging in any of the major museums, it does not take away from the treasures he has left behind.
Walter Addison: Wild Things is on view at Cade Tompkins Projects June 8-July 28.