The work of Wharton Esherick just asks to be ignored. Sitting in Van Pelt amongst angrily buzzing computers and tired students buzzed on caffeine, an art exhibition doesn’t stand a chance. Hover in the gallery for over seven seconds and you'll feel the guilt of not working slither in from every study lounge and nook. To take in art when there are books to annotate is a brave and foolish thing to do. People slide by it, with necks locked to avoid any accidental viewing of that which is not homework. And so, Wharton Esherick's ouevre sits alone in Van Pelt, the last place he’d want it to be.
Esherick’s life is on display until February in “Wharton Esherick and The Birth of the American Modern,” currently on view in the Kamin Gallery (directly in front of Weigle Information Commons). The 20th century sculptor, illustrator and dance enthusiast was born in 1887 in Philadelphia. He left the city, literally taking to the hills when Penn student housing razed his home on 39th and Locust. And so, more than just a celebration of his art, this exhibit is a memorial to an accidental victim of Penn.
The gallery's location places art in an unexpected context, while Esherick’s biography juxtaposes Penn and rural Pennsylvania. Implicit in Esherick's struggle is the competing impulses of dogged achievement and the desire to hop off the grid. Esherick spent years on a farm, painting, sketching and making furniture; when I am in Van Pelt, I want nothing more than to move to a farm, paint, sketch and make furniture.
Esherick is best known for his sculptures that are both raw and sleek, a happy meeting of man and nature. In a photo of his studio, stone walls and a staircase spiral up a fat beam like a Locust Walk squirrel climbing a tree. In its exuberance, it is simple, with efficient lines and a hewn–from–hand finish. A wooden monkey swings from a pole, a three–dimensional cartoon whose smile looks sad behind the glass case.
There are also the sketches, pieces that may have taken mere minutes to create but transform into lively artworks under Esherick’s pencil. In one, "Ford Madox Ford," the author is featured piling his plate with food and waddling away beneath his considerable heft. The whole hallway follows this pattern, and many tiny revelations prove that, yes, Esherick was also friends with that guy that you learned about in high school. It seems that, at the time, the path to fame for a writer or artist was to befriend Esherick.
Details like these reinforce the significance of the exhibit’s title as the “Birth of the American Modern.” Esherick and his extremely modern Philadelphian friends hung out at the Centaur, a bookstore, coffee shop and speakeasy dedicated to modern literature. He summered at Adirondack dance camps, where turn of the century hippies went to eat vegetarian food and perform lyrical dance in meadows. There he was, mid–Sun Salutation or chilling with the intelligentsia at a locally–owned book store, and he didn’t even get to blog about it. History can sometimes seem like centuries of societal repression that only very recently bloomed into liberation, but in his life and in his art, Esherick seems way ahead of his time.
But all of this means nothing in a hall that is ignored. As the saying goes: if a sculpted monkey swings in Van Pelt and no one sees it, did it ever really swing? The gallery is almost sheepish about announcing itself. In dark grey and matte gold, it takes more than a few moments to capture what’s going on. “Nowadays, people are into colors and patterns,” said Nicole Ward, a College sophomore. “That would make them stop.”
Lonely as the gallery is, it offers an imaginative counterpoint to the furious workings of Van Pelt. Fall into Esherick’s world, where there are more cheeky porcupine woodblock prints than problem sets. So waste some time, because art in a library is better when seen.