Dan Wingren: The Wizard

Mary Vernon, professor emerita of art, SMU, was a colleague of Dan Wingren. As such, she contributes this blog piece on the artist and further commentary in the exhibition, Dan Wingren: The Image and Magic, on view at the Hamon Arts Library, 2nd floor, until May 31, 2021. 


“My head is somewhere near the intersection of the fields of art, history, psychology, engineering, and religion.”
Dan Wingren, (Daily Campus, Southern Methodist University, June 21, 1988). 

One of our names for Dan was The Wizard. Dan Wingren – the experimenter, the rationalist, and the reserved man of wisdom, seemed to stay ahead of us, his colleagues. His self-assurance seemed mixed with introversion. In his handsome loft on lower Greenville Avenue (the whole top floor of a commercial building), he painted and developed photographs, listened to music on the finest audio system, and built his own computer as soon as the components were available. Dan wanted to know things, and the reasons behind the things, all the way down to first causes. 

He was particularly kind to me, a true gift, since he suffered no fools lightly. He grasped that my cluelessness was well-intentioned, and he saw over my head to the work I could do as a colleague. His fierce protection of his privacy was not simply a foible of character, but rather the survival strategy of a gay man in the mid-20th Century. He loved his partner Hal, but they lived, apparently, in separate houses. They traveled, and talked and dined together, watched the stars through a telescope in Hal’s backyard, and never spoke of their lives to the ordinary world. 

Dan Wingren’s devoted students, hundreds of them, could speak of his insightful lectures and critiques, his remarkable knowledge and his advice. He valued honesty more than empathy, and, in that way, clung to an old model of the university teacher. In many of the artists he taught, one can see the influence of Dan’s way of thinking and of painting. He could be kind, as he was to me, or he could show a haughty impulsivity, a state in which concepts ruled and people suffered.

How he saw himself I will never know. He knew he was a gifted researcher in the history and workings of design. He held to a rationalist and scientific understanding of ideas, and eschewed mysticism. He loved to explore the oddities of Manly Palmer Hall or Madame Blavatsky, more because they shed light on our taste for murky quackery than because he might agree with them. Yet he respected shamans, declaring them to be the real thing. It is in his painting that I understand him rather than in his other scholarship. Wingren’s compositions draw from the models of the 1930s – the salient form is a near-central block that sails or floats among a rectangular set of proposals. The lovely news in a Wingren painting is connected to the salient block – to its being more saturated in color than other forms or distinguished by strong contrast of light against dark. Even when Dan Wingren employed photographs as prompts for his paintings, his compositional choices remained. His photo-based paintings were demonstrations of what paint could do even more than they were comments upon a modern way of seeing. Each painting grew as an adjustment of geometric plot, practiced tricks of illusion, and exact observation of color. Dan Wingren had mastered, as well, the taut but flexible surface of properly prepared canvas, its leanings toward opaque paint and a texture of right angles.  

Dan Wingren’s instinct was to turn to general or popular culture, fleeing elitism. He found the latter, by way of contradiction, both silly and weak, and way too powerful. Where could we find the vital and new ideas? In the vernacular and in science. In his last days, while he made studies of fractal geometry and continued to do very fine drawings.

Blog post: Mary Vernon, professor emerita of art, Southern Methodist University
Image: Photograph, Dan Wingren in his studio on lower Greenville Avenue, c. 1970s, Gift, Mary Vernon

Courtesy of the Dan Wingren Collection, Bywaters Special Collections, Hamon Arts Library, Southern Methodist University. 

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