The lead painting in this retrospective of artwork by Wols is startlingly alive. Blue Phantom was made in 1951 in France, where Wols, born Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze in 1913 and raised in Germany, lived from age 19 until his death in 1951. The canvas is, like most by the artist, only about 3 by 2 feet, but it is so heavy with blue impasto and a textured black form in the center that it seems to vibrate. The paint handling suggests Wols’s relationship with Art Informel, the French version of Abstract Expressionism, yet it is also particular to the artist. Finger smears and scratches attest to Wols’s specific actions with the medium, and the ambiguous central figure hints at his unique debt to Surrealism. Stare too long at this inky shape and it recedes into nothingness, and embodies the kind of existential anxiety ascribed to much post-World War II avant-garde painting.

Who knows where Wols might have gone with painting, which he did not take up until the late 1940s. Raised in a wealthy family, he studied art in Germany before rejecting his bourgeois roots and leaving for France, where he scraped by as a commercial photographer and focused on drawing, even while interned for a year at the start of the war as a citizen of a “hostile nation.” Wols, who married a French-Romanian milliner, battled poverty and alcoholism in the 1940s. Though he had critical success and gallery shows during his lifetime, it was not until after his death that his work became widely known and shown in large international exhibitions, including Documenta 1 (1955) and the Venice Biennale (1958).

The Menil retrospective, co-organized with Kunsthalle Bremen, is the artist’s first major exhibition in the United States. It surveys his oeuvre with roughly 20 photographs, 50 works on paper and 20 paintings, all titled and dated posthumously. The photographs, most taken in the late 1930s and roughly 8 by 6 inches, are black-and-white, Surrealist-inspired shots of isolated body parts and objects, such as lips, mannequins and sausages. More compelling are the drawings, most of which are no bigger than 12 by 9 inches. Made with pencil, ink, watercolor and even paint, their imagery is concentrated at the centers. The City on Stilts (1944) is one of many that swarm with geometric shapes suggesting a small city, here floating in thin air. A Thousand Problems in the Head (1939-40) is a dreamlike composition, depicting eyelashes, a wine bottle, triangular flags and other items dancing together amid a field of blue.

Wols’s paintings are more abstract and more substantial than his drawings, and since the vertical works register on a human scale, it is easy to become immersed in them. Butterfly Wing (ca. 1946-47) is one of several canvases that feature thin washes of brown and that are bisected by elliptical forms, this one outlined with streaks of black paint and topped with small pools of deep purple and red. Untitled (Composition), ca. 1946-47, is particularly haunting. Against a mottled gray background a black shadow emerges, but it has been repeatedly scratched at to reveal a spiney core that wastes the form away even as it comes into being. This gesture cuts to the heart of Wols’s skill: making artwork that reverberates far beyond its time, with themes that are universal.