An Interview with Artist Julian Stanczak (1928-2017)

May, 2012

Julian Stanczak was born in Borownica, Poland in 1928. He attended the Borough Polytechnic Institute in London from 1949-50. He received a BFA in 1954 from the Cleveland Institute of Art in Cleveland, Ohio, and an MFA in 1956 from Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut where he studied with Josef Albers and Conrad Marca-Relli. In 1963 he married artist, Barbara M. Meerpohl. From 1957-64 Stanczak taught at the Art Academy of Cincinnati and the University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, Ohio. From 1964-95 he held the position of Professor of Painting at the Cleveland Institute of Art. He retired in 1995 after 38 years of teaching. Stanczak has exhibited his work across the United States as well as in Japan, Canada, the UK, Kenya, Poland, and Spain. He has had over 100 solo exhibitions. His work is found in more than 90 museum collections, including: in New York City, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art; in Washington, D.C., the National Gallery of Art and Sculpture Garden (Smithsonian Institution), the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and the Hirshhorn Museum; the Butler Museum of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio; the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York; the Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio; the Detroit Institute of Art, Detroit, Michigan; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, California; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts; the RISD Museum, Providence, Rhode Island; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, California; the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK, and many others across the US. Stanczak is represented internationally by Mitchell-Innes & Nash of New York City. He lives and works in Seven Hills, Ohio with his wife, the sculptor Barbara Stanczak.

Julie Karabenick: You have often said that color is the central concern of your art making.

Proportional Mixing
Proportional Mixing, acrylic on 30 panels, each 41 x 41 cm (16 x 16 in), 2011
(Unless otherwise noted, all images courtesy of Julian Stanczak and
Danese, New York City, NY)

Julian Stanczak: Yes, my primary interest is color—the energy of the different wavelengths of light and their juxtapositions.

Kitra's Light
Kitra’s Light, acrylic on canvas, 178 x 178 cm (70 x 70 in), 1988

The primary drive of colors is to give birth to light. But light always changes; it is evasive. I use the energy of this flux because it offers me great plasticity of action on the canvas.

Line Up
Line Up, acrylic on canvas, 127 x 178 cm (50 x 70 in), 1978

To capture the metamorphoses—the continuous changing of form and circumstance—is the eternal challenge and, when achieved, it offers a sense of totality, order, and repose.

Rites of Spring
Rites of Spring, acrylic on canvas, 5 panels, each 203 x 112 cm (80 x 44 in), 1988

Color is abstract, universal—yet personal and private in experience. It primarily affects us emotionally, not logically as do tangible things.

Spring GreenWoods, Evening Light
Spring Green, acrylic on panel,
61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 2009
Woods, Evening Light, acrylic on panel,
61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 2009

Color is non-referential. By itself, it cannot easily be measured or quantified.

A Blush for Krzys
A Blush for Krzys, acrylic on canvas, 127 x 244 cm (50 x 96 in), 1999

For our sense of order and self-preservation, we grasp for measurements, fixed entities, and control in order to formulate our relationship with our environment.

Lineal Formation, Blue
Lineal Formation, Blue, acrylic on canvas,
152 x 152 cm (60 x 60 in), 1989

Sizes and locations are scrupulously observed and remembered to satisfy the logic of the brain, which inquires, “What is it that I am looking at?” and “Where is it in space?”

Forming in Space AForming in Space B
Forming in Space A, acrylic on canvas,
152 x 127 cm (60 x 50 in), 1988
Forming in Space B, acrylic on canvas,
152 x 127 cm (60 x 50 in), 1988

So I ask, “How can I dish out colors—colors that create beautiful melodies—without forms that will contain them?” As a colorist, I have to have the means to measure the density of the actions of one color against another. I must have form.

Procession in Pale Light
Procession in Pale Light, acrylic on canvas, 127 x 152 cm (50 x 60 in), 1987

Yet in the end, I do not want form for form’s sake. I want to shout or whisper through colorants acting against each other and create experiences that are more than they are factually. That is how visual poetry can be achieved.

Environmental, acrylic on canvas, 127 x 112 cm (50 x 44 in), 1987

JK: How have you arrived at your preferred forms?

JS: I have looked both inward and outward for shapes and defining boundaries. I have searched for the correct containers for my colors and for interactive relationships where one shape does not dominate another in order to fine-tune a particular psychic response for the viewer.

Shared Center
Shared Center, acrylic on canvas, 127 x 127 cm (50 x 50 in), 1983-99

I freely explore shapes and boundaries as carriers for transformed memories and situations and give them new meanings in the pursuit of the color experiences I envision.

Zip Me Up Please
Zip Me Up Please, acrylic on canvas,
178 x 127 cm (70 x 50 in), 1995

Thus in my work, known formal facts—shapes and boundaries—debate with emotional or psychological energies—colors—on the canvas as they do in life.

Constellation in Green
Constellation in Green, acrylic on 36 panels,
each 41 x 41 cm (16 x 16 in), 2003

JK: What sort of color experience do you wish to create for the viewer?

JS: I want to fuse many colorants and their gradations into a single color experience—a “color meltdown,” as I call it.

Mystical Seven
Mystical Seven, acrylic on canvas, 203 x 178 cm (80 x 70 in), 1985

I am interested in the glow of colors as they interact and intermix, as they give to each other. And there are many factors I must consider to achieve the desired meltdown.

Sharing Yellow
Sharing Yellow, acrylic on 3 panels, each 41 x 41 cm (16 x 16 in), 2003

For example, I must ask, “How many containers do I need?” “How many opposing wavelengths must I use?” “What should their relative proportions be?” “Can I control a fused glow or color radiance toward the desired experience?”

Lumina, Cool Red
Lumina, Cool Red, acrylic on canvas,
241 x 178 cm (95 x 70 in), 1991

So whether I am dealing with the individual containers and their multiplication into grids, or if I am employing straight or curved lines and their repetition, the aim is the same —an interactive fusion. In this fusion, multiple parts unite in a singular action.

Fire Dance, acrylic on canvas, 152 x 229 cm (60 x 90 in), 1999

Of course any interactive process involves change. In the process of change, visual elements lose their individuality for the sake of the totality.

Accumulating Chroma I
Accumulating Chroma I, acrylic on canvas,
142 x 142 cm (56 x 56 in), 1986

And, as you know, unlimited actions are continuously entering our eyes. I am trying to find a way in this confusion of actions—this tsunami—to bring about order.

Spatial Description
Spatial Description, acrylic on canvas, 198 x 198 cm (78 x 78 in), 1968

JK: What types of forms or boundaries best allow you to achieve order?

JS: Anything that possesses order appears to us to be controlled. Geometry, the primary color wavelengths and the primordial action of line and edge all play important roles in this ordering.

The compositions of artists from all different backgrounds and times have utilized geometry to obtain visual order, an order reinforced by the drive for simplicity of reading. I use geometry because of the clarity of its visual notes and divisions.

Submissive to GreenSubmissive to Green detail
Submissive to Green, acrylic on canvas,
152 x 152 cm (60 x 60 in), 1982-83
Submissive to Green detail

Any referential aspect of the shapes or lines is totally secondary to me. I am not painting them for that kind of information. Rather, I am interested in how I feel about and respond to these shapes and boundaries as a visual person. If their order is clear, it offers a clear response.

Offering, Purple
Offering, Purple, acrylic on panel, 41 x 41 cm (16 x 16 in), 2004

Lines and edges can form shapes with astonishing simplicity. And fewer elements and groupings combine for a more singular expression as can be seen, for example, in Color Field painting and Minimalism. The key is to be as economical as possible, as minimal, with the utmost clarity.

Uninterrupted Blue-Green
Uninterrupted Blue-Green, acrylic on panel,
41 x 41 cm (16 x 16 in), 2005

To be selective is the problem. How much is enough? What is too much? When do the divisions and elements melt down into a homogeneous experience? These are the questions!

Tidal, acrylic on canvas, 244 x 183 cm (96 x 72 in), 1972

As you know, Nature conceals its order, which under the microscope is mathematical or geometrical. In the process of change— transformation, permutation—Nature produces new physical forms. I try to melt geometry down and make it sing. I love the order inherent in all the sciences, and I admire the human capabilities involved, but that is not art to me. It is science for science’s sake first, while art should reflect the human spirit and responsiveness first.

Relief, acrylic on canvas, 127 x 127 cm (50 x 50 in), 1973-74

I want to touch the real truth. Consider Malevich and his Suprematism. Why did he paint a black square and hang it in the corner of a room? Think about it. He took the balanced forces of the vertical and horizontal that define the measure of a field; it is monumental because of its reference to the totality of the world. By putting a square in the corner with its diagonals, he is forcing the horizontal and vertical to a standstill. But they are not dead, not dead at all! They are in momentary repose, going but not going.

Or take Mondrian. He would say that the relationship between the vertical and horizontal—not a curve or an organic wiggle, but these utmost energies of up and down—are colliding against one another, creating myriad variants of our life experiences.

JK: You, too, make abundant use of verticals and horizontals in your work.

JS: To find my own way, I had to pay attention to the physical world around me. For example, what makes me stand vertically? How can I lift my leg and still retain my balance? All these physical forces and their syntheses have preoccupied me.

IntercessionIntercession detail
Intercession, acrylic on canvas,
203 x 127 cm (80 x 50 in), 1984
Intercession detail

I love the vertical line, perhaps because it brings me closer to my own experience in life, which is being erect. Understanding the dynamics of experience confirms the poignancy and power of the vertical. It affirms a position or placement: “I am here.” It compares itself with the left and right and right and left; it measures the interval.

And the vertical invites the horizontal—active looks for passive—in order to establish equilibrium. The vertical is “here”, the horizontal is “there”; the vertical is “now”, the horizontal is “later.”

Structural, acrylic on canvas, 71 x 86 cm (28 x 34 in), 1969

JK: Quite often you cross verticals and horizontals to form a great variety of grids.

Rhythmic OverlayRhythmic Overlay detail
Rhythmic Overlay, acrylic on canvas,
145 x 94 cm (57 x 37 in), 1987
Rhythmic Overlay detail

JS: The meeting of vertical and horizontal forces offers a standstill at the intersections. Because of this principle, I use the grid—the “hold/stop” in time.

Echo II
Echo II, acrylic on canvas, 127 x 127 cm (50 x 50 in), 2010

And if the gridlines are unconnected or broken, we close them up visually—again for the sake of simplicity of reading and for identification, for the sense of “I know what it is.”

Homage, acrylic on canvas, 76 x 61 cm (30 x 24 in), 1990

JK: So you seek a hold or stop in time, but certainly nothing static, given your fascination with transformation and permutation.

Spring Color—Light
Spring Color, Light, acrylic on canvas,
127 x 112 cm (50 x 44 in), 1983

JS: Yes. And movement is there because of the way our visual apparatus functions. Make a dot on an empty piece of paper: it does not stand still, it moves. Knowing this and ascribing units with their stops and closures, then repeating them over and over, we are forced to compare them. This comparison can be very fast like a staccato and establishes a sense of movement within a particular framework.

Cool LightOffering Red
Cool Light, acrylic on panel, 41 x 41 cm (16 x 16 in), 2005Offering Red, acrylic on panel, 41 x 41 cm (16 x 16 in), 2005

JK: For many years, you’ve established rhythms across the canvas using repeating vertical lines.

Structured, acrylic on canvas, 127 x 178 cm (50 x 70 in), 1978

JS: Again, how do you arrive at a unified color experience—a color meltdown as I’ve called it? I can achieve this by using the rhythmic aspect—our heartbeat. Both grids and intervals provide this. We grasp the structure immediately through repetition and symmetry.

Soft Light
Soft Light, acrylic on canvas, 127 x 203 cm (50 x 80 in), 1984-85

The repetition of similar actions offers a rhythmic effect, which we might call movement or vacillation. In any visually active, complex situation, we pick up the simplest element—it could be a line, position or shape—and immediately we look for similarities to the other elements. For the viewer, the drive for simplicity of actions is primordial. In the search for totality and mental satisfaction, we group and re-group pictorial elements, trying to order them.

Side Step
Side Step, acrylic on panel, 61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 2008

We are compelled to enjoy repetitive action, the beat. It parallels the life around us; it is the heartbeat of our actions. And the power of repetition offers the viewer the awareness of time. Time and the registration of interval echo our involvement with Nature, our actions like walking or talking.

Suspended in Grays
Suspended in Grays, acrylic on canvas, 178 x 239 cm (70 x 90 in), 1975
(Collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.)

I like to compare this sensation of repetitive action to the Baroque music of Vivaldi, Bach, or Scarlatti—again, it is our heartbeat. Whether listening to a Bach cantata or a tam-tam drum in the jungle, repetition is in time and over time, and, as in perception, we human beings are drawn to it.

Crystalloid Green
Crystalloid Green, acrylic on canvas, 122 x 122 cm (48 x 48 in), 1973

In order to evoke the comparison of lines and their colorants, I multiply them, and again, you get caught up in the staccato rhythm. Now you might compare this sensation to listening to a quartet, where one instrument—or colorant—gives itself up and becomes part of the other voices—or wavelengths. I am fascinated by this behavior, and I use the term “metamorphoses of actions”—elements fusing or changing their identities.

Lavender, acrylic on canvas, 152 x 178 cm (60 x 70 in), 1984-85

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