WITH ALL DUE RESPECT: Cleveland-based Op-Art pioneer Julian Stanczak should have an honorary doctorate

Recently the internationally acclaimed master of Op Art, Julian Stanczak, who has lived and worked for the last forty years in Cleveland, was nominated for an honorary doctoral degree from Case Western Reserve University. We can’t  think of a painter who has ever received this award. The man responsible for this initiative is Richard Hanson,  istinguished Professor of Biochemistry at Case Western Reserve University, and the world’s leading expert on the  hormonal and dietary control of glucose homeostasis. Hanson has produced 275 publications for scientific journals,  holds six patents, has received dozens of prestigious awards for his research and teaching, and served as graduate  advisor to Shirley Tilghman, president of Princeton University, who was his first doctoral student. He is also an enthusiastic collector and supporter of Cleveland art. We publish here the formal letter of nomination. We’re hoping  that there will be an announcement on this matter soon. –H.A. 


July 24, 2012
The Honorary Degree Committee
Case Western Reserve University
Office of the Provost, c/o Lois Langell
Adelbert Hall 216, 2040 Adelbert Road
Cleveland, OH 44106


“Lumina Violet,” by Julian Stanczak

Dear members of the Honorary Degree Committee:

We are writing to nominate the world-renowned painter Julian Stanczak for an honorary doctorate from Case Western  Reserve. The degree is awarded by the university to individuals who exemplify in their work the highest ideals and  standards of excellence “in any valued aspect of human endeavor, including the realm of scholarship, public service and  the performing arts.” Julian Stanczak is just such an exceptional individual, whose personal story and career  accomplishments make him an ideal candidate for this award.



Julian Stanczak’s career is one of triumph over  unbelievable obstacles, hardship, mistreatment and adversity. Born in Eastern Poland in 1928, the son of a workman  with varied construction skills, Stanczak was imprisoned in a Siberian labor camp during World War II, where he suffered  from freezing cold, life-threatening illnesses and near-starvation. At the age of twelve he was so severely beaten that he  lost the use of his right arm. At the age of thirteen, he escaped from Siberia to join the Polish army-in-exile in Persia. Unable to fight because of his injuries, he eventually made his way to a Polish refugee camp in Uganda, where he, his mother  and brother spent the next seven years. His youthful ambition had been to become a musician, but his damaged arm  made  this impossible. While naturally right-handed, in Uganda he turned to art and taught himself to paint with his left hand.

After the war, Stanczak lived for a time in London, where he, his mother and his brother rejoined his father. He moved to  the United States in 1950 and settled in Cleveland where his father had found factory work. Despite severe financial  challenges, Julian Stanczak received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the Cleveland Institute of Art in 1954, and then  went on to study under Josef Albers and Conrad Marca-Relli at the Yale University School of Art and Architecture, where he received his Master of Fine Arts in 1956. Most of his professional career has been spent in Cleveland, where  from 1964 to 1995 he taught at the Cleveland Institute of Art.



He and his family have many ties with Case Western Reserve. His wife Barbara, who has had a distinguished career as a  sculptor, received her B. A. and a Master’s Degree in art education from Case Western Reserve. Their daughter Danusia  Maria attended Case during her first year of undergraduate study, and their son Krzyz Mikolaj – as a precocious high  school student– conducted research during a summer internship at University Hospital. One of  Stanczak’s major  paintings is in the collection of the medical school of Case Western Reserve.



Organic Flow, by Julian Stanczak

Julian Stanczak’s art has been the product of a very conscious decision to leave the horrors of the war behind him and to  focus on positive things. Amazingly, it has all been produced with just one usable hand. He still suffers from pain due to  the injuries inflicted on him in prison camp seventy years ago. His very substantial body of work has all been produced  in a modest, immaculately neat house and studio in a suburb of Cleveland. He himself built much of the furniture (with  just one usable arm), including flat file cabinets, coffee tables, and an elaborate desk and drawer set for his son.



Stanczak’s early geometric paintings were executed  freehand, but now he generally uses tape to make sharp edges, cutting the tape into thin strips with a rotary slicing device of his own creation, powered with the motor from an old  washing machine.



An artist of national and international stature, Julian Stanczak was the principal originator of one of the major art  movements of the 20th century, Op Art, which was named for his first major show, Julian Stanczak: Optical Paintings,  held at the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York in 1964. The term, which of course rhymes with “Pop Art,” was coined in  a review of the exhibition in Time Magazine, and shortly afterwards was picked up by Life and other major national  publications. In the following year Stanczak was featured in the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition The Responsive Eye,  and in 1966 he was singled out as a notable “new Talent” by Art in America Magazine. Op Art quickly blossomed into an  international phenomenon, with  practitioners in England, France, Germany, Israel and the United States, and also  entered popular culture as Op Art patterns were exploited for posters, dresses, pillows, and more. While he doubtless benefited to some extent from all of the hoopla it stirred up, Stanczak himself has never been comfortable with the  phrase Op Art, preferring to label his work “Perceptual Art.” He regrets that such labeling transformed his work into a  sort of fashion statement, a temporary fad, while overlooking its deeper artistic, philosophical and spiritual impulses.  While pressured to move to New York to cash in on his celebrity, Stanczak decided instead to pursue his career in Cleveland, where he could focus on his art rather than on the game of being famous.

The use of visually dazzling effects can be traced back to Roman mosaics, and in the 19th century the chemist and  scientist Michel-Eugene Chevreul carefully studied and analyzed the interaction of complementary colors. Such effects  were also studied at the famous Bauhaus School in Germany in the 1930s, and Stanczak was clearly influenced by the  work of his teacher at Yale University, Josef Albers, a former teacher at the Bauhaus: indeed, he contributed to Albers’s  famous book The Interaction of Color (1963), which explores how color changes according to its visual context. Before  Stanczak, however, visually dazzling effects had been on the sideline of serious artistic endeavor. Stanczak was a pioneer  in making them the central focus of his work and in exploiting them to create an uncanny and transcendent visual  experience.



“Conducting Light,” by Julian Stanczak

It seems particularly appropriate to celebrate Stanczak’s art at Case Western Reserve University, since the  work stands at a boundary between art, psychology, mathematics,  science, and metaphysics. While the extraordinary precision of Stanczak’s art suggests something mechanical, in fact the creation of his paintings entails mysterious choices that can only be made by the human eye and mind, working in a responsive, intuitive way. In particular, color perception is still not perfectly understood from the scientific standpoint. Among the practitioners of optical art, Stanczak has a peculiar  gift for creating layered patterns of color, with effects of transparency and semitransparency, and for creating a sort of  hovering aura that floats above the picture surface. His paintings move, though in a gentle way, like the wind blowing  through the leaves of a tree. Through some miraculous property of optics, his paintings seem to exude light.

Such effects cannot be created by means of mechanical formula: they require constant adjustments based on the  vibrating patterns created by the act of vision. Among practitioners of optical art, Stanczak stands in a class by himself.  His mastery of the complex relationships between rhythmic visual patterns brings to mind the sort of complex  counterpoint that we find in the music of Bach. All his work has a deeply metaphysical aspect, asking us to think about  what is real and what is illusion. It seeks to lift us from our mundane experience into the realm of the transcendent. Stanczak’s work has been extensively exhibited in America and Europe and is represented in the collections of over  thirty major museums, including the National Gallery of Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cleveland Museum of  Art, The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Museum of Modern Art. In the Cleveland area he has been honored with  numerous exhibitions, most recently at MOCA Cleveland (2010), in an exhibition of distinguished practitioners of Op Art  at the Cleveland Institute of Art (2011), and alongside other perceptual painters at the Cleveland Museum of Art (2012).


Julian Stanczak has also had a distinguished career as an educator. In 1970 he was honored as the “Outstanding  American Educator” by the Educators of America. Thomas Lyon Mills, who has served for more than twenty years on  the faculty of the Rhode Island School of Design, comments of his experience as a student with Julian Stanczak:


“I transferred from the College of Wooster to the Cleveland Institute of Art to study with Julian Stanczak. While at  Wooster I used to hitchhike to the Cleveland Museum of Art on weekends where I fell in love with Julian’s work. The  museum had several of Julian’s paintings on view, one of which seemed to me to be an “impossible” painting.  Monumental in scale, it was a bright, dazzlingly luminous yellow, a color we all learn as children is a primary color, i.e.   a color that cannot be mixed from other colors. But this painting had no yellow in it–it was a combination of oranges and greens. 


Julian’s paintings are transcendently alchemical. They levitate. They redefine all things beautiful and ephemeral, and  make visual the unseen forces that philosophers and mystics contemplate. To this day, I think that if Julian had not been  an artist, he would have been a first-rate theoretical physicist. So, in 1975, I made the decision to transfer to the  Cleveland Institute of Art. … I can sum up his deep  and varied approach to teaching as a rich, often hypnotic invocation  to reach for the unreachable, and never stop, for therein lies our hope as human beings. Speaking for myself, I finally  found an artist and teacher I revered without qualification.”


Julian Stanczak in his studio, with Barbara Stanczak. Photo by R. Muller

For a variety of reasons, Stanczak is surely worthy of an honorary degree from Case Western Reserve University. 1) He is  an artist of international stature, whose work is represented in major museum collections and who is renowned world- wide as the founding figure of Optical Art. 2) He is an award-winning teacher of national distinction  who has transformed  the lives of his students, not only through superb technical training, but by expanding their intellectual, sensory, spiritual and moral consciousness. 3) He is a figure who connects the disciplines of art, science, mathematics, and  metaphysics in a way that provides a model of the kind of creative thinking exemplified by Case Western Reserve  University. His work has also challenged people in these disciplines to think in new ways. 4) He has a uniquely  inspiring  life-story that provides a model of how hard work, intense focus, courage and creativity can overcome horrors and  dversity. 5) He would provide particular inspiration to the people of the Cleveland  region, since he has shown that an  individual here can live a rich personal life and can be a valued member of his local community while also producing  world-class accomplishments. A central purpose of honorary degrees such as this is not simply  to honor a particular  individual but to provide a model of excellence which can inspire us to raise our own goals and to push for a higher and  nobler level of achievement. The life and accomplishments of Julian Stanczak provide exactly such a model.


Henry Adams, Ph. D.
Professor, Department of Art History
Case Western Reserve University

Richard W. Hanson, Ph.D.
Distinguished University Professor &
Leonard & Jean Skeggs Professor of Biochemistry
Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine