The Absolute Genius of Julian Stanczak
Colorist. Op artist. Abstractionist. Illusionist. Landscapist. These are terms frequently associated with Julian Stanczak. And yet now, especially after his death this last March, they all feel sadly inadequate. What's worse, some of the terms, op artist and illusionist, for example, seem either absurdly reductive or completely misguided. The joy one experiences studying a Stanczac has nothing to with deceit or illusion. The images are entirely straightforward, in keeping with Stanczak's artistic vision and abhorrence of self indulgent art.
In Stanczak's early work, which is more literal than his mature work, one can see him struggling with his subjects. There is a kind of tension between the realistic and the abstract: the realistic seems somehow inadequate but is elevated to the level of art by Stanczak's early experiments with abstraction. In these works, Stanczak might have been searching for the "right" techniques to communicate his subjects, but already the desire to communicate subjects as art and not as objects seems foremost in his mind.
Ultimately, Stanczak sought to communicate what he called the "absolute" in his work. Seeing the absolute means looking past distraction to essential forms. Painting the absolute means using geometric abstraction and color. And this way of working is what makes Stanczak's art possible, and constitutes his artistic vision. There is only the absolute. Lines to denote fields. Color to promote visual activity.
In his mature work, Stanczak's art is entirely aesthetic and thus can be playfully satirical, showing us that human beings are funny. Seeking always what we cannot have, we nonetheless seek it so that we might know, grasp, possess, and keep it. But there is no knowing, no grasping, no possessing, and no keeping. His canvases insist. They insist that, despite our desires, there is only change without end and no purpose but to progress, always, through dissolvable moments, each one more precious and memorable than the last, and memorial, too, because, when we look, and seek to take account, what we think we are seeing and are looking for is already behind us, prelude now only for what is to come—what we will never find, never know, never reach, and never quite capture though we might spend a lifetime trying.
Creating art of this magnitude is difficult, for it requires ability borne of both artistic and human wisdom. The latter provides imperatives for the conduct of life, while the former constantly surprises us with new experiences and remembrances of things past. When these two kinds of wisdom combine, as they do in the majority of Stanczak's work, they become, what we might very well call, expressions of Julian Stanczak's unique personal genius.
John A. Haslem, Jr. PhD
Director, Center for Teaching and Learning
1948-50 Borough Polytechnic Institute, London, Englandpermanent collections include
1954 BFA, Cleveland Institute of Art, OH
1956 MFA, Yale University, New Haven, CT
Ackland Art Museum, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Akron Art Museum, OH
Allentown Museum of Art, PA
Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY
Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Canada
Art Academy of Cincinnati, OH
Art Museum, Princeton University, NJ
Asheville Museum of Art, NC
Baker Museum of Art, Naples, FL
Ball State University Museum of Art, Muncie, IN
Baum Gallery of Art, University of Central Arkansas, Conway
Birmingham Museum of Art, AL
Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas, Austin
Boca Raton Museum of Art, FL
Bryn Mawr College, PA
Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, OH
Canton Museum of Art, OH
Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, PA
Centrum Sztuki Studio in Stanislawa I. Witkiewicza, Warsaw, Poland
Cincinnati Art Museum, OH
Cleveland Institute of Art, OH
Cleveland Museum of Art, OH
Columbus Museum of Art, OH
Cranbook Art Museum, Bloomfield Hills, MI
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, AK
Dallas Museum of Art, TX
David Owsley Museum of Art, Muncie, IN
Dayton Art Institute, OH
Detroit Institute of Art, MI
Herbert F Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY
Herron Gallery, Herron School of Art/UPUI, Indianapolis, IN
Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian, Washington DC
Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH
Housatonic Museum of Art, Bridgeport, CT
Indianapolis Museum of Art, IN
Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, MI
Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City MO
Kendall Campus Art Gallery, Miami-Dade Community College, FL
Kennedy Museum of Art, Ohio University, Athens
Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois, Champaign
Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), CA
Lowe Art Museum, University of Miami, Coral Gables
Masur Museum of Art, Monroe, LA
McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, TX
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, MA
Miami-Dade Community College, FL
Miami University Art Museum, Oxford, OH
Milwaukee Art Museum, WI
Mint Museum, Charlotte, NC
Museum of Fine Arts Boston, MA
Museum of Modern Art, NYC
National Gallery of Art & Sculpture Garden, Washington DC
Neuberger Museum of Art, SUNY, Purchase, NY
Nevada Museum of Art, Reno
New Orleans Museum of Art, LA
North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh
Phoenix Art Museum, AZ
Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, FL
Oklahoma City Art Museum, OK
Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach, CA
Orlando Museum of Art, FL
Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, PA
Phoenix Art Museum, AR
RISD Museum, Providence, RI
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, CA
Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, AZ
Snite Museum of Art, University of Notre Dame, Southbend, IN
South Dakota Museum of Art, Brookings
Springfield Museum of Art, OH
Tamayo Museum, Museo de Arte Contemporaneo, Mexico City
Toledo Museum of Art, OH
University of Buffalo Art Gallery, SUNY-NY
University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor
Wake Forest University of Fine Arts Gallery (Hanes Art Gallery)
Frederick R Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota, MN
Frederick R Weisman Museum of Art at Pepperdine University, Malibu, CA
Winnepeg Art Gallery, Manitoba, Canada
Worcester Art Museum MA
Julian Stanczak, the Op art painter who, despite physical difficulties, managed to create canvases with vibrant geometries and hypnotic motion, died in his home in Seven Hills, Ohio on March 25. He was 88.
Stanczak was one of the leaders of the short-lived Op art movement in the 1960s. He was included in the Museum of Modern Art's 1965 exhibition "The Responsive Eye," which also featured work by Bridget Riley, Gunter Uecker, and Victor Vasarely. Although today considered groundbreaking for its emphasis on perception and its critical look at what a painting could be, the show was savaged by critics. Thomas B. Hess, writing for ARTnews, called the show a case of "acute Exhibitionemia," for the way it lumped together unlike artists.
Yet a few critics recognized that Stanczak was doing something different from the other artists in this show. Donald Judd, the artist and critic often credited with originating the term "Op art," once wrote that Stanczak's work had a "painterly expressiveness," making it different from other Op art that privileged formal experimentation over engaging viewers.
Stanczak's acrylic paintings often tended toward brightly colored shapes and grids. Typically made through contrasting unlike hues, Stanczak was able to create compositions that are jarring to the eye. They highlight the act of seeing, in the process showing that, when we look at two unlike forms put together, an unexpected element can result: movement. His paintings suggested Abstract Expressionism for an age of rapid technological innovation.
Many critics, Judd included, have been quick to see Stanczak's work through the lens of his personal life. Julian Stanczak was born in Borownica, Poland, in 1928. He and his family were forced to work on a labor camp in Siberia during World War II. In his time there, he developed encephalitis, which ultimately rendered his right arm unusable. When he started painting, he was forced to work solely with his left arm, yet despite his handicap, he always worked alone, obsessively piling lines and shapes of various densities on his canvases by himself.
Stanczak escaped from the labor camp when he was 14. He traveled through the Middle East and South Asia, ultimately settling in Uganda. The unnaturally bright colors of his paintings were inspired by the African sunsets he witnessed there.
After studying art in London, Stanczak immigrated in 1950 to America, where he studied at the Cleveland Institute of Art. At Yale University, where he would later receive an M.F.A., Stanczak took classes with Josef Albers, the modernist painter, who taught him about color theory and geometry.
Stanczak himself was a prolific teacher. He was a professor at the Cleveland Institute of Art from 1964 to 1995; his students included April Gornik and Dana Schutz. Yet even many who didn't study with him seem to bear his influence, including emerging artists whose digitally minded paintings create jarring juxtapositions between people, grids, and background elements.
For Stanczak, his work was always about color and its dramatic effects. He was a formalist at heart-a painter aware of the very mechanics behind his paintings—but one whose work had a surprising emotional undercurrent. "Color is abstract, universal," he once said, adding that, in addition to being a formal element, it's also "personal and private in experience."