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John Wehmer unveils collection

Wehmer's abstract expressionism collection is on display after 40 years in storage

February 14, 2013 | 12:00 a.m. CST

Artist John Wehmer signs a painting from his "Unseen Forces" collection. After Columbia, his show will move to a gallery in Chicago. Photo by Greg Kendall-Ball.

A bell chimes on the front door as each person enters the Melissa Williams Fine Art gallery. John Wehmer’s eyes light up, and he wanders through the room, pensively looking at each painting. Wehmer can recall each piece’s origin and inspiration. His “Unseen Forces” collection is finally having its public debut even though he created it more than 40 years ago.

Wehmer, 85, is a Missouri native whose art spans various media, including watercolor, printing, drawing and painting. In the 1940s and 1950s, he studied at Washington University in St. Louis and in 1959 began teaching at Lindenwood College. He created new works for display at the Saint Louis Art Museum and the Painters’ Gallery. He found, though, that taste for the abstract style had faded. “This kind of painting is a whole new language,” Wehmer says. “It’s not to be appreciated the way you appreciate traditional art. It’s poetic.”

"Unseen Forces: The early works of John Wehmer"

WHERE: Melissa Williams Fine Art
WHEN: Fridays through Feb. 22, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
COST: Free
CALL: 268-3146

Opting to experiment with different styles, he put his pieces in storage. They were only shown once, at a Lindenwood retrospective in the 1990s.

In May 2012, upon hearing that Wehmer was the last living member of the Painters’ Gallery, Williams set up an interview at his home in St. Louis. Wehmer disclosed that he still had his paintings and showed her just inches of his pieces at a time until she finally convinced him to reveal them completely. Apprehensive at first, Wehmer didn’t quite understand the appeal of what he believed to be outdated pieces, but Williams’ enthusiasm persuaded him otherwise.

“It’s an excavation,” says Richard Baumann, art historian at Columbia College. “The pieces are as vibrant as the day they were made. They’re still alive.”

Williams was surprised to find this style of art in Missouri as important works of expressionism usually came out of major cities such as New York. “It was a surprise to find avant-garde being done in the Midwest,” Willliams says.

At the show’s Feb. 1 public premiere, Wehmer paces around the room and greets those who have come to relive his art career. He glides his fingers across the frames of the paintings in a fatherly fashion. Williams’ excitement is tangible. She smiles and explains that the gallery hasn’t been empty since the show opened.

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