ST. PETERSBURG, FL — One of Tampa Bay’s best-known artists, Theo Wujcik (1936-2014), spent a decade creating a series drawn from the dark and profound literary classic, Dante’s inferno. Now, those paintings are the theme for Theo Wujcik: Cantos, a special exhibition organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg and inspired by two works in its collection.
Gates of Hell (1987) and Canto II (1997) are centered around Inferno, the first part of the epic poem Divine Comedy by Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265–1321). The painting Gates of Hell was acquired by the MFA in 2017, but has never been publicly shown at a museum in the Tampa Bay area until now.
Other art institutions that own Wujcik’s work include the Art Institute of Chicago; Detroit Institute of Arts; Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
The exhibition at the museum, 255 Beach Drive N.E., is on view April 13 through June 2.
Addressing select cantos from the poem, the 10 paintings on view range from 1987–1997, and showcase Wujcik’s literal and symbolic interpretation of the captivating journey of Dante through Hell, guided by the ancient Roman poet Virgil.
Many artists have been inspired by the moral drama of Dante’s Inferno, including English poet and painter William Blake (1757–1827) and French illustrator Gustave Doré (1832–1883). In the late 1950s, American painter and graphic artist Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008) created a contemporary response to Inferno, which is what inspired Wujcik to begin his own approach to the literary piece.
The exhibition is as much of a celebration of Wujcik’s works of art as it is homage to the man himself. Quiet visionary by day and dancing punk rock clubster by night, Wujcik’s talents and persona were synonymous with Tampa’s Ybor City. He spent more than 40 years in Tampa as an artist, collaborator, teacher, mentor and influencer, becoming iconic in the city’s art and music scene.
He studied lithography in Los Angeles and New Mexico before working as a Master Printer at the University of South Florida’s renowned Graphicstudio. There, he worked with artists and lifelong friends Rauschenberg, Ed Ruscha (b. 1937), James Rosenquist (1933–2017) and Richard Anuszkiewicz (b. 1930). Wujcik also taught at USF from 1970 to 1993. His aesthetic was inspired by what he saw in Ybor City, the multi-layered fliers and posters stuck on telephone phones and buildings throughout the neighborhood in which he lived and worked.
Wujcik, typically partying in metallic cowboy boots, immersed himself with the people and punk music of the Ybor scene, and the pulse of the community became an integral part of his life as an innovative artist. He loved to experiment with dimensionality with textures and layering, as evident in the newspaper and paper towel collage elements seen in the large-scale works of art in the exhibition.
Visitors will also see Wujcik’s signature “wire fence” motif, inspired by the industrial landscape of Ybor City. Wujcik’s widow and keeper of his estate, Susan Johnson, worked with the MFA to bring a personal touch to the exhibition.
Visitors can view selections from the artist’s journal and his detailed notes on experimenting with media, such as his process of combining drawing and painting using polymer emulsion and charcoal, resulting in Canto II (1997).
In addition to the two paintings in the MFA collection, the remaining paintings are on loan from public and corporate institutions as well as private lenders.
“We are honored to present this focused exhibition celebrating an important aspect of Theo Wujcik’s powerful portfolio,” said Kristen A. Shepherd, executive director of the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg. “We hope this exhibition will introduce his work to a new audience who will learn about and appreciate his impact on the arts in this region and beyond.”
There will be a “Theo’s Inferno” Dance Party Fundraiser Friday, May 17, 7-10 p.m. (galleries close at 8.p.m.)
The MFA’s Marly Room will transform into 1980s Ybor City to celebrate Theo Wujcik’s popular dance parties with a fundraiser hosted by the MFA’s support group, The Contemporaries. DJ Gabe Echazabal will play Wujcik’s favorites music from that era—punk and new wave—as guests enjoy libations, Ybor City-themed food and decor replicating Wujcik’s awe-inspiring motifs.
The cost is $30 for members of The Contemporaries and $45 for non-members. A VIP social for $60 includes early entry to the exhibition at 6:30 p.m. and a private gallery talk by Wujcik’s widow, Susan Johnson, and MFA Curator of Contemporary Art Katherine Pill.
All proceeds benefit contemporary programming at the Museum of Fine Arts.
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