Julian Stanczak: Voices Fashioned from Light–Two new books examine the life and work of an under-appreciated Clevelander

Julian Stanczak—surely Cleveland’s greatest living artist–presents a notable case of a painter who is at once famous and unknown—indeed, curiously unknown, even in his home town. He originally burst onto the national scene in 1964, when the New York art dealer Martha Jackson staged a show of his “Optical Paintings” and the artist/art critic Donald Judd shortened the phrase to “Op Art.” “Op Art” quickly became the successor to Pop Art, and it also became apparent that a group of artists world-wide were pursuing somewhat similar concerns in dazzling paintings that made pupils vibrate.


Julian Stanczak: From Life, catalog from the exhibit of the same name at Mitchell-Innes & Nash Gallery, New York

Julian Stanczak: From Life, catalog from the exhibit of the same name at Mitchell-Innes & Nash Gallery, New York

In fact, three of the most notable figures of the Op Art “movement” were based in Cleveland and had connections with the Cleveland Institute of Art—not only Stanczak but Ed Mieczkowski and Richard Anuskiewicz (who was Julian’s room-mate at the Yale School of Art). Not long afterward, Julian and a large number of others were corralled into an enormous exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Of course movements always inspire counter-movements, and figures like the art critic Barbara Rose mounted an attack, maintaining that Op Art was really very light-weight and superficial—nothing more than dazzle. It probably didn’t help that Op Art caught the fancy of the general public, and its electrifying patterns were adopted for dresses, umbrellas and bikinis.


Julian Stanczak with Agnes Gund at Mitchell-Innes and Nash Gallery, New York

Julian Stanczak with Agnes Gund at Mitchell-Innes and Nash Gallery, New York

Roughly half a century later, Stanczak has produced a very substantial, and cumulatively rather amazing body of work. But its understanding among most museum curators and the art-world press hasn’t advanced a great deal. He’s participated in a hundred or more exhibitions; his work is held by major museums and corporate and private collections. But he’s viewed as part of a movement, and his work is generally shown in the company of other masters of “Op Art”–often figures whose work has only superficial connections with his own.


What’s been lacking is a view of his personal development as an artist. I’d argue that his is one of the great spiritual journeys of 20th and early 21st century art. The notion of a journey is paramount. His work forms just the sort of sequence from one painting to the next that a figure like Barnett Newman was seeking to capture in his “Stations of the Cross”—with the difference (if I may venture a personal opinion) that Newman really had just one thing to say, whereas Julian has been steadily, sometimes painfully pushing forward toward an ever-more complex but luminous form of expression, a sort of Bach fugue with voices fashioned from light.


Tracing this journey makes a complicated story, since it’s really several stories, among which are a personal journey, a philosophical journey, and an artistic one. Julian’s personal story, as is well known, is an astonishing one. Born in Poland in 1928, he was imprisoned during World War II in a Soviet work camp, but managed to escape and make his way to Africa, enduring beatings, disease, hunger and hardship along the way, and losing the use of his right arm. After the war, he managed to get to America, arriving with just fifty dollars and a suitcase. A major purpose of his art has been to turn his back on all that, to move beyond pain, anger, despair, or self-pity, into some sort of higher realm of thought and feeling. One might even propose that his art has a sort of philosophical or religious aspect, in its quest for “abstract” or spiritual absolutes, things that stand above the world of suffering into which we’ve been cast.


There’s an intellectual story as well. Going back to the 18th century philosopher Bishop Berkeley, the act of vision has always stood at the fore when asking whether the world is actual and real, or is something more elusive—a perception of the mind. The issue has been pushed forward by philosophers like Ludwig Wittgenstein, who often referred to color in developing his arguments about the limits of language and knowledge, as well as by the Gestalt Psychologists, who were interested in the fact that vision seems to take place “all at once,” rather than in discrete, definable steps, and thus, that “interpretation” seems to be an integral part of the act of perception from the outset. Julian’s art is a bit scary, in the way it probes the deepest questions of existence and being—and at the same time, wonderfully uplifting, as it reveals the oddly spiritual qualities of ordinary daily existence.


Finally there’s a story about the exploration of color over the last century or so, by scientists such as Michel Eugene Chevreuil, and artists such as Georges Seurat or Stanczak’s teacher at Yale, Josef Albers, who were interested in the fact that we see color in relationship to other colors, and it changes according to its context. As a sort of technician of color relationships, Julian has developed a precision and expertise that has never been achieved in painting before.


Recently, two notable and somewhat contrasting exhibitions and their catalogs have moved in the direction of an integrated look at Stanczak’s achievement: the exhibition Julian Stanczak: From Life at the Mitchell-Innes and Nash Gallery in New York, with a catalog written by Eileen Costello, and the monograph Julian Stanczak: Op Art and the Dynamics of Perception, by Marta Smolinska, a professor at the University of Arts in Poznan, Poland, with text in both Polish and English.


The first is much the briefer of the two—just eleven pages of text and just over thirty well-reproduced examples of Stanczak’s work. While it is a well-crafted narrative account, much of what’s new and provocative is distilled in the title—“From Life.” The phase touches on a philosophical question that’s somehow central to Stanczak’s work but not easy to resolve. Are his paintings purely non-representational? Or do they picture actual states of being, but in a manner somehow deeper, more profound than actual experience?


One of the curious things about Stanczak’s work is that it awakens—at least in me–a sensitized interest in the daily world in a way that most abstract painting does not. After looking at a Stanczak painting, I apprehend more intensely the colors of a sunset, the pattern of ripples of a stream, the undulations of a road, or the flickering flashes of leaves rustled by the wind. For that matter, in some curious way, his paintings awaken inner feelings as well: feelings not easy to describe, perhaps, but specific feelings nonetheless, and ones as distinct as those awakened by different chords in music. In some odd way Stanczak’s paintings seem to capture the true nature of a sunset, or a flowing stream, or some other actual thing, more completely and accurately than the work of most realist painters, who merely give us an exact copy of them.


Sadly, there’s not much discussion of the individual works, although they’re nicely reproduced and presented in chronological order.


Far more ambitious is the Marta Smolinska book, which at more than 300 pages, with several hundred illustrations, is surely the most complete and informative discussion of Stanczak’s work to date. While arranged for the most part chronologically, the text is often a little hard to follow, since it veers from one topic to the next, and tries to provide not only a sense of the development of Stanczak’s work, but of the complex artistic and philosophical history that lies behind it. Some of these discussions seem pertinent and on the mark, often amazingly insightful; others feel more tenuous, or veer off into outer space. What’s best about the book, in my judgment, is that the author took the trouble to talk at length with Stanczak and his wife. There’s biographical data more complete than what we’ve had before; and the discussion of the paintings describes Stanczak’s working process with wonderful precision and detail.


As both authors stress, Stanczak’s process is astonishingly conceptual. Optical vibration can produce a series of relatively distinct effects: it can make a uniform line of the same pigment change color because of what it’s next to; it can make lines vibrate; it can make a glow that seems to float in front of the picture surface; it can even create textural illusions, for example making a matte surface develop the shininess of metal. Illusions of shape and spatial relationship can interact with this sort of dazzle. Shapes, such as cubes and steps, for example, can be made to read ambiguously, so that what’s a floor suddenly becomes a ceiling, or what’s the back of a box flips and becomes the front. Lines can read as flat lines, or, by varying the spacing, can seem to modulate and shade the form, so that flat circles become three-dimensional spheres, and seem to project or recede in space. Many of these illusions are affected by focal distance, and this makes the experience of a Stanczak painting a peculiarly fascinating thing, since its appearance changes as we move in or out, or as we scan different regions of its surface.


In a fashion unlike any other master of Op Art, Stanczak plays these peculiar effects against each other. He loves calibrated relationships, whether of space or color. In fact, he often spends several days of work–before starting a painting–simply developing a scale of color notes, in precise relationship to each other like a musical scale.


Stanczak creates his paintings through an elaborate process of masking areas with tape—which is necessary to get such clean lines—and then applying the colors in exact sequence, often with several coats of paint to get the richness of color he wants. As both authors make clear, this makes it necessary for Julian to plan every aspect of his paintings in advance. In fact, he often begins his paintings by staring for days at a blank canvas, while planning what to do at each juncture in his head. Because of the complex layering of tape and pigment, he doesn’t know for sure whether the painting is working until he gets to the last step.


One of the greatest virtues of Smolinska’s densely written book is that she describes this process in some detail, basing her descriptions on Julian’s own explanations of his procedure. While it takes careful reading to absorb, her descriptions of the paintings are more complete and exact than anything I’ve seen in print. Rather than generalized jargon, we get to stand over the artist’s shoulder, as it were, and follow his thinking. Indeed, we discover that there’s an aspect of his artistic process that, like the proof of a geometric theorem, almost seems to transcend physical sensation: it’s an orchestration of mental operations into a harmonious sequence. This she brings nicely to life.


One of the things that’s sad, of course, is that while there have been some well-meaning low budget attempts in this direction, Cleveland has never staged a full-scale retrospective of Julian’s work, and the efforts here to collect his thoughts have been somewhat piecemeal and haphazard. In fact, more is being done in New York and Poland to further understanding of his work, than in his own city. Hopefully someday that will change.



Julian Stanczak: From Life by Eileen Costello is available through Mitchell-Innes & Nash Gallery at miandn.com.



Julian Stanczak: Op Art and the Dynamics of Perception, by Marta Smolinska, Muza SA, Warsaw, October 2014. 317 pages, illustrated, ISBN: 978-83-7758-819-2.

is available at the Cleveland Museum of Art bookstore, Zubalbooks.com, and Amazon.com.