Steve Wheeler (1912-1992) was born Stephen Brosnatch in Slovakia and emigrated with his family to New Salem, Pennsylvania, when he was a young boy. In 1932 Wheeler began studies in New York at the Art Students League and with Hans Hofmann, who played an integral role in shaping Wheeler’s ideas about art. Ultimately, however, Wheeler became dissatisfied with simply reworking the ideas of older artists. He wanted to expand on the Cubist’s concept of space and needed a new pictorial language with which to do so.
By the early 1940s, Wheeler had found the ideal visual language for his work in the art of the Northwest Coast Indians, an ideographic art in which image, symbol, and myth came together. Wheeler began to produce paintings that gave equal weight to positive and negative space and eliminated any differentiation between foreground and background. This element, characterized by a flattening of the picture plane and an all-over design, came to be known as Indian Space painting, and became the common philosophy for the artists who joined the Indian Space Painters group. Wheeler was linked with the Indian Space Painters at the height of his career during the 1940s and 1950s. The group, which included Will Barnet, Robert Barrell, Peter Busa, Gertrude Barrer, and others, was a loose federation of New York artists offering an alternative to the emerging Abstract Expressionists.
While American Indian art served as Wheeler’s formal framework and was the philosophical foundation upon which he built his theories, it was by no means his only source. Other visual sources for him included American folk art, Slovak folk art, decorative patterns, cartography, mechanical drawing, and calligraphy.
Wheeler’s work is a crystallization of the many ideas and theories that were in the air in New York City in the 1940s, and which affected an entire generation of artists. Now, after decades of anonymity, Wheeler’s paintings have again gained attention as an important yet long overlooked moment in the development of twentieth-century American art.