Entries about Minnesota history from MNopedia are made available through a partnership with the Minnesota Historical Society and with funding from the Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

A Minnesota modernist: the art of Elof Wedin

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Elof Wedin, 1958.

Elof Wedin was a Swedish-born Minnesota painter active from the 1920s to the 1970s and best known for his abstract geometric style.

On June 28, 1901, Wedin was born near the town of Härnösand in the central Swedish province of Ångermanland. In 1920, he immigrated to the United States and made his way to Minneapolis.

Like other young artists in the Twin Cities, Wedin was unable to study art full time and so began his career by taking night classes at the Minneapolis School of Art. During the day, he worked as a laborer, covering pipes with asbestos.

In 1926, Wedin spent a semester at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago before returning to Minnesota and his day job. On July 5, 1929, he was the subject of a front-page article in the Minneapolis Morning Tribune that stressed the compelling contrast between his job covering pipes and his life as an artist.

Wedin participated in his first major exhibitions in 1926, at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Minnesota State Fair. After a decade of showing his work, he boosted his status as an artist in November 1936 when he showed twenty paintings at the Hudson Walker Gallery. This show, in the prestigious and gallery-laden district of midtown Manhattan, was a step up even from the best galleries in Minnesota. Although no works sold, the show’s reviews were positive and from well-known publications such as the New York Times and ARTnews. During his career, Wedin had several solo shows, including another at the Hudson Walker Gallery and seven in Minneapolis (five at the Harriet Hanley Gallery; one at the Kilbridge-Bradley Gallery; and one at the Walker Art Center).

Like many other Minnesota artists of his time, Wedin painted in the American Regionalist style, sometimes tinged with his own version of geometric abstraction. In the 1948 work Beaver Bay, Wedin paints a standard landscape scene of Lake Superior, with slightly tilted and oddly proportioned shapes hinting at a more abstract treatment.

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
“Boats and Fish Houses,” oil-on-canvas painting
by Elof Wedin, 1963–1967.

Wedin is best known, however, for his more modernist works. At the very beginning of his career, Wedin showed the influence of modernism in works inspired by European masters like Paul Cezanne and the Italian modernist Amedeo Modigliani. As Wedin developed as an artist, his style evolved. His movement towards abstraction is evident in two other works, both also called Beaver Bay. In Beaver Bay (1935), boats, buildings, docks, trees, and water jumble together in a pile of shapes and lines. A similar use of line, shape, and especially color shows up in Beaver Bay (1949).

Wedin’s use of jagged lines and interlocking planes of color is found in many of his works. In Self-Portrait (1939), his face and clothing jut toward the top of the frame, making it a different work than a portrait like his Wife and Son. Many of his works from the 1950s and 1960s are fully abstract. Boats and Fish HousesNorway barely hints at the shape of a fishing shack, and Kinetic Rhapsody and Summer Landscape are simply strong lines of color. His career was not a progression from realism to abstraction but a decades-long mix of various styles.

Wedin died in Minneapolis on February 28, 1983.

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