“Mountain Rhythm”, ca. 1950 | 16x24 - oil on canvas board
In true Sanderson style, the landscape is wiggling with color and form: mountains are layered projections in colors of red, rust, purple, yellow, green, and the clouds are pink and green and joyous. In this, a subjective description of Colorado mountains, Sanderson creates an undulating rhythm as the eye races over one curve and on to the next.
“Mining Town”, ca. 1950 | 30x24 - oil painting on board
Most mining town scenes are painted in the colorful summer; William Sanderson chose the winter cold and snow to emphasize the angular brown buildings, the steep mountain peaks, and the loneliness of an isolated town. The street on the right, with lines in the snow, carries the viewer’s eye through the town up to the mountains beyond. Blocks of white snow throughout the composition form a pattern that contributes to the stark feeling of the setting.
“Brief Encounter”, 1951 | 20x16 - oil on canvas board
In 1951, William Sanderson’s painting of a brief encounter between a white woman and a black man was surprising. The scene of a flirtatious woman with a strap of her green dress falling on her arm and a man attentive to her charms appears to take place in a bar. It is graphically and boldly painted with carefully chosen colors to tell a story of this couple.
The elder son of a construction engineer, he was born Wilhelm Tsiegelnitsky in a seaside resort near Riga, Latvia, then part of the Russian Empire. His father, Grigori Mojesevich (later Anglicized to Gregory) was of Russian-Jewish heritage, while his mother Berta (Bertha) came from a German-Jewish background. Because preference in awarding construction contracts at that time was being given to members of the Russian Orthodox Church, his father had the whole family baptized in that church which he kept a secret from Sanderson’s grandparents.
His father’s profession took the family to a number of cities in various parts of the Russian Empire, including Warsaw, Kharkhov, Kiev and Samarkand in Asia. To his mother’s annoyance, he scribbled on anything within easy reach, deciding by age ten that he would make art his lifetime goal. During the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 the family lived with relatives in Rostov-on-the-Don where his mother enrolled him in the local Chinyenov Art School, marking the first step in his art career.
Feeling that they would have no place in the new Communist political reality, in 1921 the family left Rostov for Kiev, emigrating to Italy and Greece on short-term visas before arriving in New York two years later, sponsored by Gregory’s relatives in New Jersey. The Tsiegelnitsky surname was changed to the more pronounceable Siegel. Experiencing the frustration shared by most immigrants seeking to establish themselves in a new, unfamiliar environment, Sanderson sufficiently mastered English by 1924 to attend the Fawcett School of Industrial Art in Newark (later the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Art) where he studied with Ida Wells Stroud, herself a student of William Merritt Chase and Arthur Dow and part of the early twenty-century Arts & Crafts Movement.
Seeking a more challenging curriculum, he enrolled at the National Academy of Design in Manhattan (1924-1927), studying painting with Charles Hawthorne, etching with William Auerbach-Levy and life drawing with Charles L. Hinton. Sanderson won the Suydam Medal for Life Drawing, First Prize in Composition, and Honorable Mention in Etching. He also briefly attended the Art Students League in New York in 1928, studying lithography with Charles Locke who in 1936 taught a summer course in the medium at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. However, Sanderson quit the League when he could no longer afford the tuition.
With his art studies behind him, he began a successful career in illustration in New York. Briefly associated with the Evening Graphic, he maintained a decade-long affiliation with the New Masses, honored to be in the company of such established artist-contributors as Jean Charlot, Stuart Davis, Adolf Dehn, Louis Lozowick, Reginald Marsh, Jan Matulka and Boardman Robinson – some of whom later were affiliated with the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center in the 1930s and 1940s. As a young immigrant he came to share some of the popular views of the left-wing intellectual community in American in the 1920s and early 1930s; but in 1936 he severed his connections with the New Masses because he did not like the direction it had taken by that time.
In 1929, the year of the Stock Market Crash and the onset of the Great Depression, he began doing commercial book illustration in New York which he continued until being drafted during World War II. However, his steady income disqualified him from participation in the WPA-era art projects. A barometer of his success was his inclusion in the Fifth Exhibition of American Book Illustration in 1935 sponsored by American Institute of Graphic Arts whose jurors included Edith Halpert of The Downtown Gallery in New York. Among the book titles he illustrated were: Marian Hurd McNeeley, The Jumping Off Place; P.N. Krasnoff, Yermak the Conqueror; Joe Lederer, Fanfan in China; Fay Orr, Freighter Holiday; and The Cavalcade of America. His images of a covered wagon and a Daniel Boone prototype in the last-named publication anticipate subjects he later explored more fully in his easel painting in Colorado with likenesses such as The Woman of the Plains and Hombre.
In the 1930s and early 1940s he also produced illustrations and covers for leading American magazines such as The New Yorker, Esquire, Cue, and Harper’s. In 1931 he became a naturalized U.S. citizen in Manhattan and by 1936 began informally using Sanderson as his surname, making the change official in 1941. In 1937 he was given a solo show at the A.C.A. (American Contemporary Art) Gallery in New York.
The following year he became art director at the McCue Ad Agency in New York where he worked until after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Looking forward to the day when he could give up illustration for the fine arts, his career change was set in motion when he was drafted into the U.S. Army in March 1942. After basic training at Kessler Field near Biloxi, Mississippi (where the Tuskegee Airmen also trained) he shipped out at his own request to Lowry Air Force Base in Denver, becoming part of the Army Air Corps and taking an instant liking to Colorado. At Lowry his humorous drawings of barracks life were published in the base newspaper, The Rev-Meter.
In the summer of 1943 he had his first solo exhibition in Colorado at the Denver Art Museum-Chappell House that consisted of black-and-white drawings of Army life. He also began painting watercolor scenes from memory of his previous life in the East. His two visits to Vance Kirkland’s studio in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, while stationed at Lowry, occasioned a lifelong friendship and professional association. On Sanderson’s excursion in 1943 to the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center he met his future wife, Ruth Lambertson from Cedar Falls, Iowa, whom he married eight weeks later, initiating a union lasting forty-seven years.
His fluency in Russian landed him an assignment as an interpreter with the American ground forces meeting up with the Soviet Army marching westward toward Berlin in the last months of World War II. His impressions and photos of the bombed-out city formed the basis of his montage, Berlin 1945, painted in Denver in 1947. Its palette and collage-like quality and that of some of his other paintings from this period reflect the influence of American modernist, Stuart Davis.
Following his military discharge and some brief design work for the Kistler Stationery Company and the A.B. Hirschfeld Press in Denver, Sanderson swapped commercial art for academia in 1946 when Vance Kirkland hired him as Assistant Professor of Advertising Design at the University of Denver, which subject he taught until retiring in 1972. Along with Kirkland and other faculty artists, he became a charter member of the 15 Colorado Artists. Founded in 1948, the group comprised some of the state’s leading contemporary artists seeking to distance themselves from much of the traditional imagery then being produced and exhibited in Denver and elsewhere. Reflecting the viewpoint of his fellow charter members Sanderson said, “I’m very taken with the nature scenes in this region, but it’s not the function of the artist to paint them when there are photographers around.” Paraphrasing Picasso, the leading representative of contemporary art at that time, he added: “The painting is the artist’s representation of what nature is not.”
The financial security and stability of his teaching position at the University of Denver (DU) gave him the freedom to develop his easel painting. He produced a large body of oils and watercolors in both stylized realism and surrealism depicting, respectively, Colorado-inspired subject matter and social criticism of modern life and industrial civilization. One of his first canvases, Steamship Ruth, titled in honor of his wife and incorporating elements remembered from the port of Rostov in Russia has large, precisely-arranged areas of flat color with crisp edges seen in many of his Colorado paintings in the 1950s and 1960s. Similarly, Mountain Rhythm employs a bright palette and undulating lines, conveying his fascination with the overall composition of irregular mountain and cloud shapes.
Trailer Park near the foothills west of Denver, provided abundant material for a geometric form study, while Composition with Fried Eggs in the Denver Art Museum’s collection essentially is a semi-cubistic arrangement of interlocking planes and spaces that was reproduced in the August 25, 1952, issue of Time Magazine. His work was also shown in group exhibitions outside Colorado at the Dallas Fine Art Museum, Museum of New Mexico (now, New Mexico Museum of Art) in Santa Fe, Joslyn Memorial Museum in Omaha, San Francisco Art Association, Salt Lake City Art Center and the Cedar City Art Museum Association in Utah. The positive notice accorded his work in the early fifties earned him a commission from the Ford Motor Company to illustrate an article, Fort Garland, by Marshall Sprague in the June 1954 issue of Ford Times. (Similar commissions were also given at that time to Denver’s Vance Kirkland and Richard Sorby.)
In the mid-1950s Sanderson also executed several murals in different techniques for secular and religious buildings in Colorado, reminiscent of artists’ commissions under the Federal Arts Projects during the Depression era: the Graland School lobby and the Colorado Tobacco Building, both in Denver; St. Joseph’s School, Salida; Mesa Elementary School, Cortez; as well as the Andrew Jackson Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee.
Sanderson’s life in Europe and illustration work for the New Masses in New York made him very aware of ethnic and racial prejudice. He said, “I believe the artist is first of all a human being with the ability to see and depict the hope, aspirations and the despair of other human beings.” In the 1950s he recorded the political movement for Black racial equality in paintings such as Noon Hour, Whites Only and Brief Encounter showing an inter-racial couple seated at a tavern table.
A decade later the search for group identity by young, politically active Chicanos in Colorado and elsewhere was reflected in Tierra y Libertad (Land and Liberty) and La Pulqueria (Pulque Drinking). The latter images reflect the Socialist Realist style of Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera, whose work became widely known in the United States in the 1930s. On the occasion of a DU faculty show in 1964, Sanderson explained the social commitment in his art, “Unfortunately most artists today are concerned only with textures, brushstrokes and technique. It isn’t very fashionable to be involved. But my feeling is that a painter has a responsibility to society.”
In the mid-1950s his work began critiquing the alienation, pressures and potential destructiveness inherent in the urban experience with Beginning of the End. In it a single individual looks up out of his window at a heady admixture of big business and politics intertwined with amusement and consumerism suspended mid-air with the potential of crashing down at any moment, sweeping away everything in its path. No Way Out (1961) graphically expresses the utter feeling of helplessness experienced by a driver whose car is poised on the jagged edge of a serpentine mountain road. In American Afternoon a lone female figure sunbathes with her radio and picnic basket, dwarfed by a huge revolving radar dish and a large billboard advertisement along an empty road hurtling across a treeless plain.
By the late 1950s Abstract Expressionism made significant inroads in Denver, reflected in some twenty-five paintings he did during the 1960s in a hard-edge abstract style not previously seen in his work. Emphasizing pure color, balance and design, he derived the non-representational subject matter from a variety of sources: the port of Rostov-on-the-Don, Hebrew letters, and the ornamental patterns used by the Northwest Indian tribes to decorate their ceremonial objects and distinctive wooden houses. Regarding these paintings as a personal experiment to see if he could paint that way, he soon returned to more traditional imagery.
After teaching at the University of Denver for a quarter century, he retired as Associate Professor Emeritus in 1972. Maynard Tischler, Director of the School of Art, described him as “one of the mainstays, one of the people who helped build the School of Art. He had a keen wit, tremendous knowledge and outstanding wisdom.” Sanderson and his wife spent the balance of their years in Fort Morgan on the eastern Colorado plains. The relocation wrought changes in his subject matter and style which he noted:
I’ve done hard-edge paintings because I was always interested in typography and shapes and forms but then I finally decided I wanted to make…a record of things before they are completely inundated by shopping centers, highways and pizza parlors….The isolation, the loneliness of life on the plains is not that dissimilar from the isolation and loneliness one feels living in New York City.
His output assumed a more regionalist style as his new environment challenged him to paint the broad panorama of Colorado’s high plains dominated by the sky, clouds, seasonal changes, windmills and ranches. In the process, he took on the “myth of the West” with his own brand of humor and irreverence:
I have a dislike for what usually passes as Western art…It’s terribly repetitious. Most of it is just an imitation of what Russell and Remington did…What I’ve painted about the West is not reality; I’ve painted the West as it never was and I know it. I’ve taken the romantic, wild image – bad men, shootouts in the street – done it in an exaggerated style. Some of the subject matter are clichés – and worn out clichés at that. But I’m not mocking the West so much as I’m exaggerating it.
About five years before he died of complications from leukemia and Alzheimer’s, he candidly summed up his long and varied career, “I’m very happy that I am in a position to devote all my time to painting…I don’t give a damn that, to date, I’ve neither fame nor fortune.”
He nevertheless occupies an important place as a modernist artist in Colorado’s art history in the second half of the twentieth century. Born and raised in a different culture half a world away from the American West, he successfully assimilated over the years to his adopted country. He maintained an abiding belief in the timeless, universality and spiritual sustenance which art provides. As he stated in an interview in the University of Denver’s newspaper Pioneer, “Because I feel that art is fundamentally humanistic, that it has its roots in a concern with man – not with the machine, the computer nor the rocket – I believe that the artist can use his multiple abilities of communication to offer men spiritual release and infuse meaning into what is often a meaningless existence.”
Solo Exhibitions: American Artists Gallery, New York (1931); A.C.A. (American Contemporary Art Gallery), New York (1937); Denver Art Museum (1947); Saks Galleries, Denver, (1956); Brass Cheque Gallery, Denver (1976); Stuhr Museum, Grand Island, Nebraska (1978); Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, Arvada, Colorado (1983); Savageau Gallery, Denver (1981, 1985, retrospective); University of Denver (1989, retrospective); “The Centennial of William Sanderson,” Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art, Denver (2005-06).
Group Exhibitions: “Annual Western Shows,” Denver Art Museum (1945, 1950); Colorado State Fair Art Exhibit, Pueblo, Colorado (1948, 1950); “Second Annual Exhibition of Painting,” California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco (1947); Gilpin County Art Association, Central City, Colorado (1947, Helen Bonfils First Prize); “Artists West of the Mississippi,” Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center (1948); “15 Colorado Artists,” Denver Art Museum (1948-49, inaugural exhibition and subsequent annuals); “Made in the U.S.A.” Hackley Art Gallery, Muskegon, Michigan (1950) and Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center (1952); Haig Art Gallery, Denver (1952); Denver Art Galleries, (1964); “Faculty Show,” University of Denver (1964); Bernardi Studio Gallery, Denver (1971, 1973); International House, Denver (1972); “The D.U. School of Art Faculty-1968,” Denver Art Museum (1968);
Museum Collections: Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Washington, DC; Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, New Hampshire; Ford Motor Times Collection of American Art, Dearborn, Michigan; Northeastern Junior College, Sterling, Colorado; Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, Colorado; University of Denver; Denver Art Museum; American Museum of Western Art-The Anschutz Collection, Denver; Denver Public Library Western Art Collection; Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art, Denver.