The Work of Stephen Mueller (1947 – 2011)

It is not quite a year ago that I wrote about the abstract paintings and watercolors of Stephen Mueller. That particular text discussed his recent solo exhibition at Lennon, Weinberg Gallery, a stunning show that presented the artist at the height of his talent and made clear that many of his late works can be counted among his most accomplished. They are a sophisticated manifestation of Stephen’s career-long ambition to capture a unique form of radiance, a spiritual luminosity that is initiated by unusual interplays of color and form. Until the end, his work pushed onward.

Stephen Mueller, “Chavela,” 2010. Acrylic on canvas. 50 × 60”. Courtesy of Lennon, Weinberg, Inc., NY.

After abandoning gestural abstraction in the late 1980s, and with it a focus on earth tones, Stephen turned to color wholeheartedly. By the early 1990s, his unabashed embrace of succulent hues found little parallel. Including bright yellow, pink, turquoise, and orange, for example, his palette was as saturated as a cartoon, a graffiti-covered train car, or the display in a candy store. It is one of the artist’s striking achievements that his work, despite all spectral indulgence, never seems flat. Rather, it breathes and radiates when bathed in natural light, reflecting the conditions of the artist’s studio. Stephen’s experience, gathered through years of careful study, allowed him to evenly contrast harmonies with discords. He employed opposites as a means of establishing an equilibrium that would begin to resonate.

Aesthetically, Stephen’s paintings are hybrids, acting as fertile meeting grounds for cross-cultural references and citations. Islamic art, Indian miniatures, Mexican ceramics, Tantra painting, the color theory of Philipp Otto Runge, the spiritual aura found in German Romanticism, music, textile design, and a profound knowledge of Eastern philosophy all contributed to shaping his vision. While comfortable with larger scale formats, Stephen consistently worked on small and medium sized square canvases. Evocative of the basic structure of Hindu and Buddhist mandalas, each of these paintings contains a circle with a center point. They are the most literal illustration of the fact that his practice evolved around meditation. In fact, much of Stephen’s spark stemmed from his unwavering search for enlightenment.

“Chavela” (2010) is one of the last of Stephen’s compositions that I had the opportunity to study intimately. It is dominated by its background’s rhythmic gradation from deep burgundy to blood red and faded orange. An iconic form made of intersecting ovals, a circle, and a cylinder appears on the stage of this soothing set-up. It is hard to define if it is emerging from behind the curtain of infinity or receding into it. Its mirage-like presence is mysterious and yet, in its delineation, it is as undeniable as the monolith in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is a symbol, an indicator of some kind of functional use. In Stephen’s work, shapes, which are part geometric, part biomorphic, become keys to contemplating the inner life of the work. Whereas at first glimpse the composition might seem two-dimensional, it slowly morphs into a more complex invitation: to embark on a cosmic journey, entrusting ourselves to our imagination. The otherworldly light of the painting, evocative of a Caspar David Friedrich sunrise (or is it a sunset?), further underlines the theatric drama of the moment. As is the case in so many of Stephen’s works, this composition strikes one immediately, but leaves plenty to be slowly revealed.