Born In 1943, Sockwell grew up in segregated
Washington, the youngest son in a military family. Despite his
family's relative prosperity, Sockwell led a troubled childhood and
It was not until his artistic talents were recognized by Elinor
Ulman, a noted art therapist and teacher at the Corcoran School of
.Art, that Sockwell gained the confidence to pursue a career as an
artist. At the age of seventeen he struck off for New York City
where he immersed himself in the art scene of the time, meeting
artists of the abstract expressionist movement and others beginning
the expansion in Pop Art, Minimalism and conceptualism.
Upon his return to Washington in 1963. Sockwell found a city that
itself had become an important art center. More than a place that
housed great collections of art, it was a place that fostered a
growing community of working artists from which the highly
influential art critic Clement Greenberg had developed the
Washington Color School. The Phillips Collection became a
lodestone for Sockwell as he developed a deep appreciation for the
Modernist works assembled there, especially Klee. Dove, and Braque.
In a recent letter, Willem de Looper, former curator at the Philips,
commented that Sockwell, "knew the collection as well as I did -and
I worked there."
Sockwell then worked as a curator at the Barnett-Aden Galiery, the
nation's first museum of African-American art, which was established
in 1943 by James Herring and Alonzo Aden. He later exhibited at the
Jefferson Place Gallery, then under the direction of Nesta Dorrance.
Jefferson Place, founded in the late 1950s by Alice Denney (who
later founded Washington Project for the Arts), was a nexus for
Washington artists as well as avant-garde artists from outside the
By the early seventies, Sockwell's art was recognized by several
museum curators, notably
Walter Hopps, Roy Slade, and Jim Harithas, culminating in a solo
exhibition at the Corcoran
Gallery of Art in 1974 and group exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum
and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. These successes
were followed by exhibitions at several
Washington galleries. including Middendorf Gallery, Barbara Fiedler
Gallery, and, in 1983. at Harry Lunn Gallery.
Sockwell belongs to a somewhat later generation of Washington
artists than that embodied by the Color School, with whom he
maintained ties. While artists in his generation are more
Sockwell's influence extends to a younger generation of Washington
artists who hold direct mark holding abstraction in high regard.
To the extent that Sockwell can be placed in the
Modernist tradition, it is important to recognize that , his vision
is not so much a product of Modernism, but comes from a more seminal
place within his own psyche. His enjoyment and appetite for Modem
art and by extension for jazz, were sources of personal confirmation
and empowerment as he sought to realize his own creations within the
overall context of Modernism. His art brought considerable
sophistication to several classically modernist questions. One
recurring issue in his work is the integration of geometric and
gestural abstraction. The painted constructions in particular
reflect a sense of completion and a successful fusion of these two
disparate strains. Their highly crafted imagery demonstrates
solidity and confidence which result from a shamanistic mastery of
essential elements. Sockwell's greatest strength lies in his ability
to hold polar opposites and contradictions in his mind and resolve
them visually in his art.
Throughout his work, especially in recent works, personal and
troubling motifs appear. Appearing almost as automatic writing,
these works take the viewer into violently rent territory at the
edge of darkness and oblivion. There is an interesting parallel in
this regard between the work, "Crisis of the Sixties from 1960"
and his most recent work, "The Wrecking of the Berlin Wall".
Both date from historical periods of drastic social change and both,
in their respective ways, quantify the historical moment in their
Like much abstract art, Sockwell's work was eclipsed during much of
the 1980's. But changes in the trends of the art world did not stop
Sockwell. He continued to develop his intensely personal work
despite economic straits.
Two emblematic figures-heroes in Sockwell pantheon, have died:
Francis Bacon and Marlene Dietrich. As different as they were, these
artists epitomize the difficult struggles and tenuous triumphs over
adversity and pain that lies at the heart of Sockwell's art.