Past Exhibition

Leonard Nelson: A Life in Art

Saturday, May 12, 2001

Wayne Art Center is pleased to announce a very special exhibition of work by the late Leonard Nelson (1912-1993).  The Center is privileged in the opportunity to display the work of a first generation Abstract Expressionist from the New York School, which was comprised of such note worthy artists as Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky, Willem DeKooning, Mark Rothko, and Robert Motherwell.  The exhibition will be comprised of paintings collected by Colorfield Partners, collector and manager of the Leonard Nelson Estate. This special exhibition and sale of Leonard Nelson’s work will be held on May 12, 2001 from 4-7pm in the Wayne Art Center’s Ethel Sergeant Clark Smith Gallery.

This will be a gala event with a Cocktail Reception including live jazz music, wine, champagne, and hors d’oeuvres by Catering Inc.  There will also be a special lecture by Professor Sam Hunter on Leonard Nelson’s life and work at 4:30pm.  Professor Hunter is currently working on a monograph of Leonard Nelson, “Leonard Nelson: A Life In Art”.  Wayne Art Center is also honored to have Sam Hunter jury the 2001 National Spring Open Juried Exhibition. Admission to the reception and its corresponding lecture will be $25 per guest.  A portion of the event’s proceeds will benefit Wayne Art Center’s Capital Campaign, Enriching Our Community Through Art

About Leonard Nelson

When art critic for the New Yorker, Robert Coates, in 1946 coined the term “Abstract Expressionism” for the group of artists working in the “Splatter and Daub School of Painting” in New York, Leonard Nelson had already been painting in this style for several years.  Nelson had his first solo exhibition in 1949 at the Peridot Gallery and then a second one-man show in 1950 at the Hugo Gallery.  The Betty Parsons Gallery had shown Leonard Nelson’s work prior to selecting him to represent her gallery at the all-important Art Institute of Chicago’s Annual centered on Abstract Expressionism and Surrealism.  Nelson’s work was also exhibited for three years at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century.  Nelson stayed faithful to this style of painting throughout his career, turning his back on advice from others to stay with the times and adapt his style to the popular trends in painting.  He soon left New York in the 1950’s to return to Philadelphia where he began his forty years teaching career.

Nelson began his education by receiving his Bachelors of Art Degree from the Alabama Polytechnic Institute.  After achieving this degree, Nelson applied to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and was awarded the prestigious William Emlen Cresson award in 1939, which afforded him the opportunity to study for a time in Europe.  Nelson attended PAFA from 1936-1940 before earning his teaching degree from the Philadelphia College of Art.  He also studied for five years at the Barnes Foundation, where he received much inspiration, and received a certificate from the Philadelphia Museum School.  Like many other artists of this time, Leonard Nelson worked in the Works Project Administration during the war.  While working in the medium of printmaking to create posters for the WPA, Nelson developed several new techniques in block printing.  Nelson volunteered to serve with the Army during World War II as a camouflage artist but actually ended up painting murals as well as army generals’ portraits. 

In the 1960’s, Nelson created a series of works that expressed his rejection of the Pop Art movement and the Vietnam War.  These works used a type of collage technique and reflected the darker mood of the times.  Despite his prolific scholastic achievement, Nelson rebelled against the academic environment of this time and was once quoted as saying, “All of these ‘nice’ students painting ‘nice’ pictures…nudes…still lifes…while outside the world is at war.”The 1940’s and 1950’s were a very productive period for Leonard Nelson and his work centered on several different themes.  Nelson’s army experience exposed him to several new inspirational styles, such as Native American and Pre-Columbian art forms, which can be seen reflected in his work in the 1940’s.  He also produced a series of work entitled “The Mad Dogs of War”; using colorful and violent images as a statement which focused on protest of war, violence, fascism and social injustice.  Another series of work was done in collaboration with John Cage, which focused on music.  Many of the subjects of this musical theme where the bands that played at Billy Krechmer’s Jam Session, the notorious jazz club in Philadelphia. 

Nelson accepted a teaching position at Moore College of Art & Design in 1951 and later also headed their Study Abroad Program.  Nelson continued to teach there until 1980 and remained Professor Emeritus until his death.

Spanning Leonard Nelson’s career in both New York and Philadelphia, he has had 65 one-man exhibitions and has taught at many highly respected institutions such as, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, Moore College of Art & Design, The Hussian School of Art and The Museum of Modern Art.  His art work is also in several private and public collections including, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, The Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, The Dallas Museum of Contemporary Art and the sponsors of this exhibition, Colorfield Partners.

The most important aspect of Leonard Nelson’s work is the use of color.  His color field paintings, spanning some forty years, from the 1940s until his death in 1993, display a rare mastery of color, not easily duplicated, nor found elsewhere.  Those interested in learning more about Leonard Nelson and his work can visit .