“Mystery of Metempsychosis in the Last Years of Man”
Winslow Wilson/Pico Miran—Part Two
During the summers of 1956 and 1957, I had my first job in journalism editing the Cape Ann Summer Sun, a weekly eight-page supplement to the Gloucester Times. Drawn to contemporary art, I often reviewed the shows of the Cape Ann Society of Modern Artists, whose gallery was located in the old Red Men’s hall in Rockport.
While covering the exhibitions of what was then considered controversial art as compared to the traditionalism of most Cape Ann painting, I became interested in the work of an artist who called himself Pico Miran. Whenever the occasion arose, I wrote about his paintings, which I felt were uniquely distinct from the rest of the work displayed at CASMA. It turned out that Pico Miran had another name—his real name, actually—Arthur Winslow Wilson. Wilson, a native of Texas, had been the poet E. E. Cummings’ classmate at Harvard in 1911-1915, where each served as editor of the Harvard Monthly. After college and the war (Wilson served in the air force, Cummings drove an ambulance), they moved to Paris in 1923 to paint and then back to New York, where they shared a studio in the Village.
Cummings, whose poetry is just now experiencing a resurgence of interest, was one of our finest early Modernist poets (the late Stephen Scotti set some his poems to the most beautiful music). He was also a considerable painter, who showed in major galleries. Wilson, who retained a studio at Carnegie Hall in New York and another on Cape Ann, beginning in the 1940s, taught portrait and landscape painting classes at the Rockport Art association and showed portraits and seascapes in Rockport. But he also did a radically different kind of painting, which, in a catalog for a 1951 exhibition of his work at the American Art Gallery in New York, he called “Post-modern art,” employing a term which the poet Charles Olson brought into currency at the same time.
In his catalog essay for the exhibition, Wilson wrote: “The new art will be Gothic American, in the sense that it will brush aside all soft precedent in the whole life span of art, and treat forbidden truth, and be moltenly ductile to the shape of realities never before considered proper for painting.” Wilson also showed this highly experimental new work at CASMA, where he exhibited as Pico Miran, a name he derived from the Florentine Renaissance humanist philosopher and poet, Pico della Mirandola.
“Human Conception of God”
At first glance one might consider the paintings inspired by Surrealism, but Wilson-Miran eschewed the term. “My drawing is straight classical naturalism,” he wrote in a letter to the editor from that summer, “the very kind that surrealists have violently rejected. . .My art has no relation to that of Salvador Dali, whom I knew in Paris.”
Wilson appeared to like my attempts at understanding his Pico Miran paintings and wrote a letter to the editor indicating his appreciation. I responded to Wilson’s letter and we exchanged several communications before he invited me to his studio in the Bradford Building on Main Street. What I discovered was a conventionally dressed older man, with thinning hair and a brown beret. He ushered me into his sparsely furnished two room apartment in an old Gloucester redbrick downtown building that would sadly be demolished after a fire in the early 1960s, a conflagration in which Wilson lost the only copy of an autobiography he had been working on for years, and a man whose portrait he had painted perished. We sat in a front room. There were no paintings in evidence. He gestured at the door to another room, where, he said he painted. At the time I did not know that Winslow Wilson and Pico Miran were the same person.
We sat and talked in a room that smelled faintly of turpentine and linseed oil. He told me about his friendship with Cummings, with whom he was still in touch (Cummings had been the poet I discovered and read principally during my first year in college). He asked me if I had read anything by Samuel Beckett and I told him I had read Waiting for Godot and Beckett’s trilogy of novels, including Molloy and Malone Dies, which had been recommended to me the previous summer by painter Albert Alcalay. He told me that living in the Bradford building among single old men was like inhabiting a Beckett novel or play. He also told me that he had been corresponding for a long time with the American philosopher and critic Kenneth Burke.
Wilson’s conversation was as literate and knowledgeable as his letters. He explained to me that one of the themes that lay behind his paintings was the fear of a nuclear holocaust and its subsequent annihilation of all forms of life. He said it was the reigning anxiety of our age and that Beckett’s novels, written in French during and after the war, were the primary art of our post-war, post-atomic bomb world, reflected in the title of his painting, “Apocalyptic galaxy with the little doors to Nowhere.”
My meeting and talks with Wilson-Miran brought to a close the summer of 1957, after which I returned to college, graduating in 1959. Wilson and I corresponded over the next several years. He sent me two books by Kenneth Burke, Permanence and Change, and A Philosophy of Literary Form, which had a significant impact on my thinking about literature. During those years I left the Times to work on the waterfront, a job more lucrative and more directly engaged in the city’s maritime life I had once only reported about. We would run into each other on the street or at the post office, where Wilson maintained a post office box while continuing to teach at the RAA.
Wilson had moved from the Bradford Building to the bottom floor of a house on Ivy Court near the Fitz Henry Lane house, a house soon to be demolished during urban renewal—what the poet Charles Olson called, “renewal by destruction.” I visited him there several times but was not shown the room in which he painted and our talk was mostly literary. Wilson was one of the most well-read artists I had met, especially in the avant-garde literature of Europe that I was also immersed in, including the novels and plays of Beckett and the “theater of absurd” plays of Eugene Ionesco, many of whose images would recur in the paintings he showed under the name of Pico Miran.
Before I left for Europe in the fall of 1959, Wilson invited me for lunch at the Gloucester Hotel, once located approximately where Walgreen’s is now. He often took his meals in the dining room, where he was known and respected. I remember that we ordered chicken croquettes, then a staple of New England cooking. And we talked long after our empty plates had been taken away. We did not correspond while I was in Italy; but immediately upon my return I looked him up again, finding him back on Main Street in an apartment that was located where the present courthouse and police station had been built. Like the former Bradford Building, it too became a casualty of urban renewal. I often wondered about the effect on Wilson and his art of his having repeatedly been forced to leave the spaces where he lived and worked.
During the following years Wilson seemed to have dropped out of sight, though I learned that he continued to teach at the RAA and show at The Cape Ann Society of Modern Artists, until the group disbanded sometime in the late 1960s. as it members gradually died or ceased to spend their summers on Cape Ann. One day in the early 1970s, I received a call from my friend Peter Parsons, with whom I was preparing an oral history of Gloucester. Peter was cleaning out an evacuated apartment on Main Street across the street from W.G. Brown’s department store for use by a program of Action, Inc., the city’s antipoverty agency, where Peter worked as a youth counselor and I would soon begin my career as a social worker.
“You gotta come down here,” Peter said. “I’ve found something you’ll be interested in.”
When I arrived I found the floor piled with books, papers and old bank statements. As soon as I began looking through them I realized that they had belonged to Wilson, who had apparently left the apartment in haste. Among the possessions was a two-volume autobiography of Emma Goldman, the American anarchist writer and activist, who had been an early influence on Henry Miller. There were notes and other jottings in what I immediately recognized as Wilson’s characteristic calligraphy, and a trove of newspaper clippings about nuclear testing and related subjects I had previously discussed with Wilson. What we found of especial interest were sets of collotype prints, (a gravure-like photo reproduction process), of several of Wilson’s postmodernist paintings done under the name of Pico Miran. I was as stunned by them as I had been when I first saw the actual paintings, beginning in 1956.
Peter tried to find Wilson in order to return his abandoned possessions. Tracking him down to a rooming house (was it on Webster Street?), he found the painter apparently sanguine about having walked out of his previous apartment and possibly his life in it.
“They’re no longer mine,” I recall Wilson having said to Peter, who offered him what we had gathered from the Main Street apartment. Peter left what he had brought in a suitcase or trunk with Wilson’s landlady. I retained the collotypes and some of Wilson’s notes, along with the catalog of Wilson’s 1951 show of the Pico Miran paintings at the American Art Gallery. I also saved a copy of Wilson’s “Manifesto for Post-Modern Art,” composed for the New York show because I believed these documents needed to be of preserved no matter how vehemently Wilson had refused them.
I saw Wilson once again, a year or two later at the post office in Gloucester. I stopped to greet him and we exchanged a few brief words, but he seemed distracted and eager to terminate our conversation. Perhaps he saw me as a person from that past he had walked away from, leaving behind the evidence of an extraordinary productivity, beginning with his Harvard writings.
It wasn’t until I met Claudia Howard, Wilson’s granddaughter and the conservator of his legacy, that l learned of the final years of Wilson’s life, which you can read about on the fascinating website she has created to celebrate her grandfather’s life and art. Winslow Wilson/Pico Miran
There is no doubt in my mind that Wilson is an important American artist. His seascapes and portraits painted under his own name compare with the finest paintings in that genre that have been exhibited on Cape Ann, or, for that matter, anywhere else in the US. His paintings done under the name of Pico Miran, as strange and disturbing as they may seem on first viewing, may now more than ever reflect the turbulent times—the Cold War, the nuclear threat, Korea, Vietnam—in which they were first painted, not to speak of their significance for our own age of terror and displacement.
It is my hope that Wilson’s work from the entire range of his singular productivity will again be shown, as it was when I first encountered it in the 1950s and it stimulated my thinking about the role of art in our understanding of who we are as a people and a species, and also about the remarkable person who created that work.
Please visit the website for much more about Winslow Wilson/Pico Miran
“Science Ends in a Scientific Ignorance (docta ignorantia) which Speaks in Three Tongues”