Refinement can be crude. Consider a fine patchwork grid of fields that wave across the landscape—beautiful, abstract—always a wonder to see from an aircraft. Their precise borders also display the demarcation of ownership and the pacification of wilderness. Separated plots preserve a crop from invasive plants, yet monocultures deplete the soil’s nutrients. Maintenance is toil. The paintings of Myron Stout indicate that reduction and order do not translate into simplification or claims on moral clarity; the painter understood that meeting places are pressurized, and accumulated his strokes into thickenings along them.
In Stout’s great works, the black and white ones you can’t classify as “geometric abstraction,” the whites shift from painting to painting—sometimes layered and smooth, sometimes thick and cakey, or thick and dabbed—always different, “for the painting comes to life for me in the vibration, so to speak, of the heights and depths of the texture.”1 Vibration of this sort is like light flicker on an ocean’s scalp, you see the surface but feel the swell. Painting a pulse does not require any particular mode of handling or even image; it requires awareness.
Stout’s black is generally deadpan flat. Combined with white, the two colors oscillate spatially. The drawing bends in and out, becomes a profile of slopes and valleys, or an aerial view of a lung expanded. They are monumental in the way a brain in the skull is, snug but not squished, powerful. He worked in an era when purity was a realistic interest—now a dated notion; they hold up because they’re not trying to be pure.
From his Journals, in the rare use of the exclamation point, Stout wrote: “To see openly, frankly!”2 The absence of affect is refreshing as style.3
- Stout, Myron. Dickey, Tina, ed. “Selections from the Journals of Myron Stout,” Midmarch Arts Press, 2005: 209.
- Ibid, 208.
- Aegis (1979)—a word that means the protection, backing, or support of a particular person or organization—is currently on display at MoMA on the second floor, in the Agnes Gund gifts exhibition. Fitting.