On ViewMitchell-Innes & Nash
October 30 – December 6
Julian Stanczak’s solo show at Mitchell-Innes & Nash coincides with the 50th anniversary of his first New York exhibition at Martha Jackson Gallery in September 1964. Titled Optical Paintings, the young artist’s show was reviewed in Arts Magazine by Donald Judd, who offered a concise summary of the artist’s biography: “Stanczak was born in Poland and now lives in Cleveland.” He then described the works in the show (“His paintings are primarily fields of narrow, vibrating stripes”), discussed how they compared to works of other abstract painters (“not nearly as good as Brigitte Riley’s, which they resemble somewhat”), and ended the text by identifying a movement in painterly abstraction, primarily concerned with optical effects, geometry, and color. “Optical effects,” he wrote, “are one thing, a narrow phenomenon, and color effects are another, a wide range. Op art.” The last sentence is believed to have originated a new art term.
Stanczak’s biography was much more colorful than Judd’s review suggests. His itinerary between Poland and Cleveland included a labor camp in Siberia, wanderings in the Middle East, a Polish refugee camp in Uganda, the Polytechnic Institute in London, Cleveland Institute of Art, and Yale art school, where Stanczak studied under Josef Albers. But from Judd’s point of view, shared by most artists and critics until at least the late 1980s, an artist’s biography was irrelevant to the discussion of his work (not her work—for women artists, things have been different). For a male abstract painter, a peculiar biography could be a handicap, as it undermined the notion that the artist was revealing a universal truth, speaking from a “neutral” subject position on behalf of all humanity. Times have changed. The belief in universal narratives is much weakened, and today an artist’s identity appears as one of the few reliable paths to understanding art. Not surprisingly, the current show’s press release reproduces Stanczak’s life story with a conscientious attention to detail—as have most other reviews and articles about Stanczak in recent years. In another telling contrast with the 1964 show, the new exhibition is titled From Life, encouraging the viewer to see Stanczak’s “optical paintings” as reflections of the artist’s personal experiences rather than purely formal explorations of color and geometry.
The paintings on view span almost Stanczak’s entire career: the earliest date from 1968, the latest were made only last year. Today, his paintings produce dazzling perceptual effects through masterful manipulation of geometry and color, as they did 50 years ago. He paints with acrylic, building his imagery through successive applications of opaque layers of contrasting color. His visual vocabulary is simple: parallel lines, straight or curved, a variety of grids, and basic shapes such as circles, squares, and rectangles. Over the years, Stanczak has developed several distinct methods of painting, each producing a specific perceptual effect. In some works, he starts with a few large shapes, which are then broken and modulated by successive layers of hundreds of parallel lines in contrasting colors. The varying densities of these lines over the painted background create optical mixtures, giving the appearance of soft color gradations and hues that are not physically present in the work. In a variation on this method, Stanczak sometimes overlays his background imagery with thousands of small dots or squares. These semi-transparent screens create optical effects similar to those produced by natural phenomena such as atmospheric refraction. In the magnificent “Referential Circle” (1968), for example, the rhythmic fluctuations in the density of green lines painted over a red circle transform the abstract composition into an African landscape—a giant red sun suspended low over the horizon. In another of Stanczak’s methods, he painstakingly and methodically applies multiple precisely calibrated colors in consecutive layers of opposite colors, their values and hues shifting gradually from one part of the canvas to another. As a result, the surface is broken into thousands of small divisions, which, when viewed from a distance, merge to produce glowing, rippling, or pulsating sensations. The use of this method in “Equatorial” (1978) generates a fierce yellow glow in the center of the canvas and an almost tactile sensation of boiling heat.
Stanczak’s attraction to hard edge geometry and systematic method, coupled with his deep sensitivity to color, produces a body of work that covers the spectrum from purely formal painterly exercises such as “Addition” (1980) to wonderfully poetic, poignant works like the stark black-and-white “Stoic” (1983), which projects an air of noble and tragic reserve. Apart from such extremes, most of Stanczak’s works seem to accommodate both Judd’s formalist reading and the more personal, autobiographical interpretation suggested by the current show. This may be the consequence of the mysterious subject of Stanczak’s ongoing exploration. In the artist’s own words, from an interview with artist Julie Karabenick, “Color is abstract, universal—yet personal and private in experience.”