Photo by Mira Stout.
Frank Stout’s life was an engagement in realities seen and shaped. To say that for him there was no alternative, needlessly multiplies possibility. Even when voiced—the exception—his speech was mute, and the muteness and muttering of the broadly framed, black-haired painter could make his students uncomfortable. I remember relaxing with him once, while discussing Corot in common admiration. After teaching at Marlboro College for decades, the last years of his life went by in a two-room flat above the Brattleboro Theater, a red brick building in the eponymous Vermont town, but most of all a part of Sherwood Anderson’s mind, set between pool halls, some kind of Army Navy shop, and a tributary to the Connecticut River that shoots heavily along a rock and concrete culvert; Frank was down the street from a Korean restaurant he could sometimes afford. He had no interest in the town he had painted endlessly. Whether he was happy or not, I did not know him well enough to say, but he was waiting it out, with failing kidneys, in a living room/kitchen that amounted to all he had to set up a large easel and enough space for an extra chair. He was painting from photographs and a mirror because there was nothing else this man who once carried seven-foot canvases into the Vermont woods could dependably get to. The kitchen table was a surface for miniature sculpture; another work table and several voluptuously turned and pinned up screen sculptures were—if I remember correctly—in what would have been the bedroom along with stacks of canvas set against the walls; another half dozen recent canvases could somehow be pried out of a narrow hall closet, as we did one afternoon. Frank Stout’s lifework ended up, as a rarity, in the homes of close friends. Wolf Kahn, most of all, with relentless generosity, repeatedly intervened to save the day and keep Frank out of poverty; he did what he could to find an audience for a man he liked to describe as having “throw away talent” and as the country’s “most important unknown painter.” The rest of Frank Stout’s work, the last time I saw it, was in a rented Vermont barn and a warehouse owned by another friend where many of the paintings were already blotched by weather, scuffed and moldering. Frank Stout is gone; for some, a kind and much valued enigma remains. A considerable body of work deserves protection.