Contributed by Laurie Fendrich / Understanding the work of the mostly overlooked artist Benjamin Wigfall (1930–2017) requires looking at far more than the art. Over the course of his lifetime he made numerous paintings, assemblages, collages, and prints, a number of which are on display in the large, thoughtfully curated survey exhibition “Ben Wigfall & Communications Village” at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at SUNY New Paltz. Wigfall’s art is handsome in its sensitivity to color, shape, form, and composition. Much of his early work, produced in the 1950s, was quite edgy for its day. Although his art wasn’t sharply original, that is almost beside the point. What was original, and prescient, was his holistic understanding of art, which essentially repudiated the egotism of the art world in which he operated. To him an artist’s main purpose was to bring art to broader communities. He regarded himself primarily as a teacher and mentor, especially for Black artists, and declined to prioritize his own studio work.
In an online presentation accessible on the exhibition website, curator Drew Thompson, associate professor of Visual Culture and Black Studies at Bard Graduate Center, offers insightful commentary on Wigfall’s art and life. He grew up in a Black working-class neighborhood in then fully segregated Richmond, Virginia. His visual talent was recognized early and though his high school didn’t offer art classes until the second half of his senior year, he took an art class (segregated, of course) at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts that proved pivotal. Moved by a Lionel Feininger painting he saw hanging in the museum, Wigfall made his first abstract painting; before he turned 30, he gave up figuration entirely.
He attended the historically Black Hampton Institute, about 80 miles from Richmond, where he earned a degree in art education (the school then had no studio major). While still an undergraduate he won a competition juried by Stuart Davis. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts purchased the winning painting (Chimneys, 1951), its first acquisition of a work by an African American. Wigfall went on to attend the University of Iowa before earning an MFA from Yale in 1958; he was one of the first African Americans to do so. From that point, his professional life was almost entirely devoted to teaching – first at Hampton and then at SUNY New Paltz, where he was a professor of printmaking from 1963 until he retired in 1991.
Wigfall saw art as an expression not of individuality but of community. That many works in this exhibition are not by Wigfall but by artists who worked with him or were influenced by him reinforces this viewpoint. So does the fact that Wigfall devoted most of his art practice to printmaking rather than painting. Traditionally, the painting vocation involves individuals striving for originality and exhibiting their unique canvases in hopes of selling them, so it is well-suited to egotists. Printmaking smacks more of egalitarianism. It takes place in a communal setting where artists and technicians work together to produce multiple iterations of works, and most prints are far more affordable than most paintings.
This explains why a good portion of the Dorsky Museum exhibition – and this essay as well – is devoted to Communications Village, the not-for-profit center founded by Wigfall in 1973 (it closed in 1983) and housed in an abandoned livery mule barn in Ponckhocki, a Black working-class neighborhood of Kingston, NY, that put Wigfall’s ideas about art’s social utility into practice. Wigfall originally bought the barn with the intention of making it into his own printshop, but once he began renovating it people in the neighborhood – especially younger ones – began dropping by and offering to help him. The idea of a private studio soon gave way to a community printshop for the underserved Black community in Kingston. Wigfall chose the name because he saw the center as a means of enhancing communication between artists and the society in which they lived. It was in spirit (though not distance) far removed from the almost entirely white community where Wigfall taught, and where he never felt quite at home. Joe Ramos, a fellow printmaking professor, noted that in the 1960s and 1970s, SUNY New Paltz “was no place for artists of color.”
The Dorsky Museum press release calls Communications Village “a major conceptual artwork within [Wigfall’s] larger body of paintings, assemblages, and prints.” To my mind, however, “conceptual” isn’t quite the right word. Communications Village was in fact Wigfall’s real art. Richard Frumess, founder and owner of R & F Handmade Prints and a co-founder of the Kingston Midtown Arts District and the Kingston Arts Commission, who has taken it upon himself to help preserve Wigfall’s legacy, has written much the same. For Wigfall, Communications Village was at least as important as his paintings, assemblages and prints.
There artists and audiences met not as disparate makers and observers, artists and audiences, but as equals in a joint effort in which all participants were in the thick of art. Many in the Black community had their first exposure to art there, and Wigfall’s genius lay in knowing how to get them to see its relevance to their lives. A remarkably wide range of cultural activities – printmaking, photography, poetry, and oral history, yes, but also driving lessons, fence-building and cooking – were pursued at Communications Village, with Wigfall and others guiding the younger generation. The Village became a destination for artists in New Paltz and New York more broadly. Wigfall invited such well-known Black New York City artists as Benny Andrews, Romare Bearden, Robert Blackburn, Mel Edwards, and Mavis Pusey to come. Assisted by those who gravitated around them, they made prints. But they also gave lectures and performances and, most critically for Wigfall’s project, interacted with people in the community.
The French art critic Nicolas Bourriaud wrote in the 1990s about the avant-garde idea of “relational aesthetics.” Yet decades before he made his observations, Communications Village embodied his belief that art emerges from artists working “in relation” to others and in response to historical and social forces. In his eschewal of the essential artificiality of the studio, whereby individuals distance themselves from the rest of society and work alone, occasionally surfacing to show and sell their works, Wigfall was a notable iconoclast and perhaps an outright visionary.
The Dorsky exhibition also includes documentation of a second major Wigfall project, the Watermark/Cargo Gallery in Kingston, founded in 1981, that lasted about two decades. There he showcased the brilliance of African art by exhibiting mostly his own collection, and curated several exhibitions of international contemporary art. Also presented at Dorsky are clips from numerous recorded Wigfall interviews of Black people about their life experiences, and a few of the vibrant collages he made on the basis of those interviews in what he called his “audiographic practice.”
Wigfall was a rare bird of an artist – confident of his talent and teaching skills while at the same time modest about them. Despite his early successes – the museum acquisition, a Yale MFA, being featured as a young talent in Art in America –Wigfall never promoted himself in the usual manner. Although he appeared in group shows throughout his career, he remained ever true to his communitarian outlook: he never had a solo exhibition. It’s not that he couldn’t have. Chimneys, the early Wigfall painting that the VMFA acquired, is a quietly stunning piece with slightly wobbly black-and-white lines, bulging shapes and a few bits of color. That it was painted when Wigfall was still an undergraduate boggles the mind. It brings together the humanity of the artist’s hand and his acutely distilled perceptions of urban life. In an interview, he said the painting was inspired by smokestacks emerging through chimneys that he saw as he walked to and from school through his all-Black neighborhood. “Things are abstract but at the same time quite real,” he said, adding that there’s a “nobility in something very common.” Although the pain and indignity of segregation prompted the painting, Wigfall’s work transcends them.
“Ben Wigfall & Communications Village,” The Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, SUNY New Paltz, 1 Hawk Drive, New Paltz, NY. Through December 11, 2022. Organized by the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art in partnership with the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Curated by Drew Thompson at the Dorsky Museum in consultation with Sarah Eckhardt at the Virginia Museum, where it will travel in Spring 2023. Catalogue forthcoming.
About the author: Laurie Fendrich is a painter, writer, and professor emerita of fine arts at Hofstra University.