The legacy of Theo Wujcik

The Ybor-based master will be remembered for not only his body of work but also his influence on other artists.

click to enlarge SKINNYDIPPING IN TIME: The artist by his 2013 work Swimming with Basquiat at Tempus Projects’ Theo Wujcik: On a Clear Day. - AMY MARTZ
SKINNYDIPPING IN TIME: The artist by his 2013 work Swimming with Basquiat at Tempus Projects’ Theo Wujcik: On a Clear Day.

Theo Wujcik, an artist revered for his prolificity, his collaborations with other artists as a master printer and his teaching as an art professor at the University of South Florida over 33 years, died on Saturday evening in Tampa at the age of 78. Wujcik’s artworks were collected by major museums nationally, but his local renown stemmed also from his role as a mentor to younger artists and his reputation as a tireless dancer at nightclubs near his Ybor City studio. The cause was cancer, which had spread from Wujcik’s abdomen to his lungs and brain since last fall, said Stanton Storer, a friend and collector of Wujcik’s artwork. 

Characteristically, despite limitations imposed by surgery and chemotherapy, Wujcik filled the final months of his life with artistic productivity as he completed a series of large-scale portraits of other artists for an exhibition in Dallas with the assistance of two former students, artists Peg Trezevant and Kirk Ke Wang. At a reception for the exhibition earlier this month, artists James Rosenquist and Ed Ruscha — Wujcik’s longtime friends and subjects of two of the portraits — joined Margaret Miller, director of the USF Contemporary Art Museum, in a conversation about Wujcik, who participated via Skype from a Tampa hospital. 

Wujcik was born in Detroit and trained as a master printer at the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles before arriving in Tampa in 1970 to oversee printmaking at the University of South Florida’s then-fledgling Graphicstudio. After a year as studio manager, he became a faculty member in the art department, where he taught until 2003. After achieving national attention and market success for his meticulously drawn portraits of other artists in the 1970s, Wujcik embarked on a stylistically diverse career that included the formation of a Tampa-based, Dada-inspired art collective called Mododado. The change caused Wujcik to break with his commercial galleries in New York and Detroit but established him as the main event in Tampa’s art scene, a position he occupied for the remainder of his life.

Wujcik’s gravitation toward printmaking, which he studied at the Creative Graphic Workshop in New York City before arriving at Tamarind in 1967, paved the way for collaborations with other artists. At Tamarind, he served as a printer for John Altoon, Billy Al Bengston and Ed Moses, then prominent Los Angeles artists. The following year, he printed for Jasper Johns at Gemini G.E.L., another major printmaking workshop in L.A. Then in 1969, Wujcik co-founded the Detroit Lithography Workshop, where he produced a portfolio of ten lithographs by Robert Morris before departing to become shop manager at Graphicstudio, where he worked with Ed Ruscha, James Rosenquist and Richard Anuszkiewicz.

The collaborations inspired Wujcik’s own artwork of the late 1960s and 1970s — subtle black-and-white portraits of other artists, most of whom Wujcik worked with as a printer or knew as friends, made as stipple engravings and metalpoint drawings. Technically virtuosic and uncannily lifelike, the portraits earned commercial and critical success, and were acquired by museums including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Brooklyn Museum, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the National Gallery of Art. An entry from Theo Wujcik's journal entry excerpted from the exhibition catalogue for Theo Wujcik: 30 Year Retrospective, 1970-2000 at the Gulf Coast Museum of Art in Largo, Fla., Sept. 8-Nov. 5, 2000, recalls the excitement of the time:

“What a day. In the wee hours of the morning, I started stippling the 24" X 36" plate of Robert Rauschenberg, which by the way is being produced as a single. [Art dealer] Brooke [Alexander] informed me that Hilton Kramer mentioned me in connection with the 30-year retrospective exhibition being held at the Brooklyn Museum, and sure enough there I was, name spelled correctly and everything, in The New York Times.

In 1979, Wujcik broke radically with his earlier style after his first marriage, which bore two daughters, Kathryn and Anna, ended in divorce. For a couple of years, Wujcik and a cadre of USF graduate students staged experimental performances and made temporary installations out of used furniture and other cast-off materials under the Mododado moniker. Wujcik became a familiar sight at Tampa punk venues, including the Buffalo Road House and Ms. Lucky Club, dancing in hand-painted gold boots.

Afterwards, Wujcik reinvented himself again, taking up the large-scale, Pop Art-influenced painting that occupied him for 30 years. Distinct series of paintings emerged around themes and visual motifs. In 1999, Wujcik’s chain-link fence paintings — populated by chain-link figures and comic book-style illustrations viewed through silhouettes of wire mesh — became the focus of a retrospective exhibition of his work, co-curated by Miller and Rosenquist, at the now-defunct Gulf Coast Museum of Art. During the same decade, Wujcik married Susan Johnson, with whom he opened an Ybor City art gallery and had a daughter, Frankie. (The couple later divorced.)

The question of whether Wujcik could have achieved greater success as an artist had he not stayed in Tampa, or had he adhered to a narrower approach to art making, followed him throughout his career. But mostly others asked the question; Wujcik himself seemed unconcerned by the possibility that he had missed out on something by not being somewhere, or someone, else.

Wujcik left his mark on several generations of Tampa artists, especially those educated at USF. Soon after Kirk Ke Wang arrived at the university as an exchange scholar from Shanghai in 1986, Wujcik became a touchstone as a professor, a friend and, from time to time, a collaborator. When Wang and a group of other artists formed the experimental art collective Titanic Anatomy and created an exhibition space inside an Ybor City cigar factory, they organized a neighborhood art walk with Wujcik, whose studio was located nearby.

More recently, Wang and Wujcik shared double billing at the Polk Museum of Art in 2012, when the exhibition Invisible Elephant featured paintings and other works by both artists in response to China as a theme. Wang, who became an art professor at Eckerd College in 1993, credits Wujcik with instilling in him a broad-minded sense of what art can be and a willingness to treat students as equals as much as possible.

“When I became a teacher, I wanted to be the same way,” Wang says.

Wujcik’s influence in Tampa’s art community didn’t stop at artists. In 2013, he worked with Tempus Projects, an emerging nonprofit artist-run space, to host a solo exhibition of his paintings and prints. Tempus Projects director Tracy Midulla Reller describes the effort as a charitable gesture on Wujcik’s part, since the space rarely garners much money for artists through sales of art to its youthful audience. Following the show, Wujcik became a friend and, in a sense, a coach, who called her routinely to keep track of Tempus’s progress. The conversations helped assuage Reller’s frustrations with juggling arts administration alongside teaching and studio practice.

“Somebody needs to do this, and you’re good at it,” she recalls Wujcik’s deadpan guidance.

Stanton Storer was another such informal pupil and friend. After purchasing one of Wujcik’s paintings at a HIV/AIDS benefit auction called Art for Life in 1999, Storer struck up a friendship with Wujcik, who sent hand-written letters and an invitation to visit his studio. (Wujcik’s habit of writing letters, which often contained drawings, was legendary; some of his friends attest to having received hundreds.) The exposure to art transformed Storer into an enthusiastic collector of contemporary art — including about 15 of Wujcik’s works — and a donor to organizations including Tempus Projects and the USF Contemporary Art Museum. The pair traveled together to Art Basel Miami Beach and to New York when Wujcik was included in a group exhibition at Gagosian Gallery last year. Last month, Storer gave $25,000 to USF to establish an endowed scholarship fund for USF MFA students in Wujcik’s name; he hopes other donors will contribute to the fund.
“What I know about art is largely due to my friendship with Theo,” Storer says.

One of Wujcik’s last projects was a suite of etchings made in response to the photographic books of his longtime friend Ed Ruscha. (The first of the books, which are famous for their banal documentation of architectural Americana, began with Twentysix Gasoline Stations in 1962.) The prints depict men and women who appeared to have fallen asleep in lounge chairs by a swimming pool while reading Ruscha’s books. After Wujcik sent a set to Ruscha as a gift, Ruscha included them in Books & Co., a 2013 exhibition at Gagosian Gallery devoted to his books and related works by other artists.

The exchange evoked their first meeting at Graphicstudio in 1970, when Wujcik helped Ruscha produce a suite of lithographs that portray his books as objects floating in space. (Those lithographs are on view at the Tampa Museum of Art through May 18 as part of the exhibition Uncommon Practice: Graphicstudio at USF, along with a 1996 stipple etching portrait of Ruscha by Wujcik.) During a phone conversation, Ruscha reminisced about catching up with Wujcik during periodic trips to Graphicstudio and watching his friend's art evolve.

“He exhibited a pure horsepower behind his work. It was like no looking back," Ruscha says. "He had basically given up printmaking and given himself a new life. It was inspiring to see that. So I just said, man, rage on.” 

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