An Interview with Artist Julian Stanczak (1928-2017)

May, 2012

JK: You have worked in black and white since quite early on.

Provocative Current
Provocative Current, acrylic on canvas,
169 x 135 cm (66 x 53 in), 1965

JS: The collision of black and white is so simple, yet so direct and rich at the same time.

Suspended, acrylic on canvas, 91 x 178 cm (36 x 70 in), 1990

What we remember primordially, we remember through shapes. Darkness and lightness in their simplest forms describe and sculpt the environment for us. When making a black and white painting, one depends on this clash of forms, this confrontation that screams at us.

Shimmering Pass Black
Shimmering Pass Black, acrylic on canvas,
81 x 81 cm (32 x 32 in), 1990-91

Black and white are loaded with information and suggest, with their many cues and symbols, the world around us.

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

My love for black and white is no different than my love for red, green, blue, or yellow. One tries all sorts of ways to squeeze out the mysteries of the formal elements.

Two Verticals
Two Verticals, acrylic on panel,
61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 2008
(Collection of the Akron Art Museum, Akron, Ohio)

The whispers of dark and light are as rich as the modulations of sounds or colors. I am thinking of Picasso’s line drawings or Sumi painting, both enriching the experience of what is transpiring in front of you, the viewer, through the seductive use of black and white.

Revversal White
Reversal White, acrylic on panel, 61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 2008

A shape’s position, form, edges, and size all have implications for its speed of reading and suggestions of space. It exerts power and has its own right to exist. The purity of line as edge needs very few cues before forming stories or familiar recognizable patterns. In order to understand the power and needs of form, I stayed with black and white paintings for quite a while, and I return to them from time to time.

Twist in Black
Twist in Black, acrylic on canvas, 81 x 71 cm (32 x 28 in), 1999

Here I’d like to mention Ad Reinhardt’s black on black paintings. He was a quiet man who drowned in his philosophy of analysis. As I understand it, he said something like, “The perfect light exists in the absence of light.” I feel his black on black paintings embrace the temporal element by applying different dark mixtures over and over again on the surface. My own attitude toward the use of black and white— or color—is for the viewer to become submerged into its action.

Trespass in the Light
Trespass in the Light, acrylic on canvas, 102 x 213 cm (40 x 84 in), 2004

JK: Let’s talk a little about your working methods.

JS: I have to be ordered in my painting because my life is not ordered. I strongly believe that a concept or idea can only be as good as its successful execution. So my art is not one of whim or trial and error. It is based on stored visual and technical information brought together into a new experience of totality.

Here are some of my challenges when I begin a work. First, will the canvas be horizontal or vertical? What will be its size? I determine its height and width, determine its measure by my own human measure. What type of color meltdown requires what size, density and placement of line? Do I want the painting to whisper or to shout?

Ideas about the work’s divisions—the number, density and placement of lines—will endlessly bombard my mind, and usually a couple of them will want to be executed now. I make brief notes in the form of sketches. By making this commitment, these notes become a protection against further interferences from my mind, which always wants to talk me out of this single possibility. So with a sketch, I commit myself.

When working on a sketch, it is like knowing a bunch of notes that you want to put into a composition, but what instruments will play them and to what end? A shape, line or edge calls for another. They call for distance and measure, and if there are several, they want to touch and complete themselves in the utmost simplicity of reading, as we ask, “What is it?”

So we reach for primordial visual clues that offer a sign or symbol—the way we read Nature. This grouping of actions has to work hand in hand with the colorants—like distant music, they have to be brought together on the canvas. So line looks for line for the sake of repetition, for rhythm, which also confers a temporal aspect to the viewing experience. During all of this, I hold onto the concept of the totality, and aim to make the painting correspond to it.

JK: And the actual making of the work?

JS: The canvas or panel gets three or four coats of gesso until it is as smooth as paper. My sketch guides the next steps as I attack the pristine canvas.

GessoingPreparatory drawing
The panel is covered with layers of gesso until smooth.A preparatory drawing on paper

The sketch is now drawn to scale on the canvas or panel. The first coats of paint—often involving many colors—are applied freehand within the shapes outlined by the drawing until the paint is opaque and without texture. The shapes are then covered with the tape cut to achieve the proportional optical mixes I desire.

As I place the first sequence of lines of tape, the painting is committed. Only what is being covered with tape will maintain its original color after the next layer of paint is applied. This tape and paint application process might be repeated many times.

Tape is appliedThree densities of tape
Tape is applied according to the drawing. The lines of tape are applied over areas that are to remain as
they are. In this particular two-color panel, the tape is applied in
three different densities of spacing in order to achieve the three
desired optical mixtures.

The tape is sealed and a coat of paint is applied.

Sealing the tapePainting the top coat
Sealing the tape          Painting the top coat

In this black and white painting, the paint application is now complete. The tape is carefully removed to reveal the underlying layer.

Removing the tapeThe completed panel
Removing the tapeThe completed panel

I am only content if my concept of totality is achieved exactly as I had anticipated. If I fall short, I have to obliterate everything in order to make adjustments, removing the canvas from the stretcher or overpainting everything with gesso, remixing the colors and beginning the taping again.

Four panels from a multi-panel work in progress

JK: Turning to your childhood, you were born in Borownica, Poland in 1928. Were you exposed to the arts growing up?

JS: As a young kid, I was by nature fascinated with what was going on around me. I remember I always fought the idea of going to sleep—I just might miss something! I was especially attracted to several members of my family who were interested in music and played in the village band. Since I was too young to participate, I simply enjoyed their playing greatly. I do not recall anyone around me making drawings, but I witnessed a lot of dexterous abilities such as building, construction, forming three-dimensional things as well as how to be totally efficient. In my family there were farmers, builders, cabinetmakers, and I was always eager to assist, let’s say, in making an axe or any other tool. I did not have to draw objects—I made them! Whatever was needed or desired I could figure out how to make it. So three-dimensional thinking and doing were dominant in both my exposure and performance. And the ability to be self-reliant, inventive and dexterous benefitted me well through all the difficulties and hardships of later life. I might have become a craftsman or a musician if life around me would have been more normal—instead of war.

JK: The Germans invaded Poland in 1939, and the world you knew began to unravel.

JS: My house was on a hill overlooking the city, and I remember the planes coming over. The sirens were blowing, and the two bridges over the San River as well as the railway station were bombed. Evening was coming, and in the distance we heard the approach of heavy artillery. Some hours later, gunfire was everywhere, and bullets were jumping across the unpaved road in front of my house, making a strange noise and leaving a trail of dust. It was fascinating to me. When the bullets began to come closer and were hitting our house, my mother dragged me inside. The Germans did not take the town; mainly Czechoslovakian units were engaged to do that job.

Next the German soldiers arrived wearing black uniforms and riding motorcycles and tricycles with Maschinen Gewehrs—machine guns—mounted on the front, and they finished the attack. One soldier came to our property and shot my dog, which made me very sad. We continued to go to school and were told not to go to the basement because there was an unexploded bomb that had fallen through the roof, leaving a huge hole in the four story building. We were taught German.

JK: Next the Russian army arrived, and you—at age 11—and your family were forced into a labor camp in Siberia where you lived from 1940 to 42. Why this deportation?

JS: Why? That’s a good question! Perhaps because I was born a Pole! My father asked the Russian officers the same question, ”Why are you dragging us off to Siberia?” The answer was, ”To liberate you!” So in 1940 we were “liberated”—from everything! Before I could dream of a personal future, I found myself in a concentration camp.

JK: Conditions were harsh in the camp. There you suffered from serious illnesses and terrible abuse, and the latter would result in the permanent loss of the use of your right arm.

JS: Yes, this loss ruled out the possibility of ever becoming a cellist.

JK: How did your family manage to escape the camp?

JS: In 1942 we received partial amnesty with the understanding that we were to stay within 100 kilometers of the camp and find work. The idea was to recruit able men to fight the German invasion. In the dead of night that winter with the temperature at minus 65 degrees Celsius, we escaped and managed to reach the railroad station in Perm, now Molotov. We headed south, jumping trains and walking. The cold and hunger were hard to bear.

In order to survive, we had to split up. My father joined the Second Corp of the Polish Army in Exile in Baku. With heavy heart my mother left my younger brother in an orphanage so he could get food. The British were trying to move all the refuges from the war zone to Teheran. Even though I wasn’t of legal age, I joined the Cadets—the youth organization of the Polish Army in Exile—because they had provisions. However, my right arm was deteriorating badly, and I was in great pain, so I deserted and followed my brother and the orphanage to Teheran by hiding in the engine room of the boat that was transporting them. My mother and sister traveled there separately. Reunited in Teheran we traveled to Karachi, Pakistan, from there to Mombasa, Kenya, and finally to a camp of Polish exiles in Masindi, Uganda where I would spend seven years at the equator.

JK: You were detained in the camp from 1942 to 48. While in Masindi, you made drawings and watercolors.

JS: Some of the people at the camp liked me, and some adults had money and the ability to get around. I was able to obtain some tubes of watercolors and a pad of cheap paper.

JK: Your ability to draw at a young age was very impressive. You made the drawing below when you would have been only about 15 years old, having as yet received no instruction in art. Also remarkable is that, although you grew up right-handed, you drew this with your left hand, having by this time permanently lost the use of your right arm.

JS: In this 1943 pen and ink drawing from Masindi, I tried to meticulously copy the contours of leaves and trees and the light falling on them.

Jungle, pen and ink drawing,
25 x 15 cm (10 x 6 in), 1943

JK: Here is another remarkable drawing from this time.

Makindu, Uganda, pencil on paper, 19 x 27 cm (7.5 x 10.5 in), 1946

You did receive a few drawing and watercolor lessons while in the camp.

JS: Yes, a Polish artist named Henryck Frudist took an interest in me and other youth in the camp in order to cultivate in us an interest in the visual arts. We met for a few weeks in an open air shed, and he showed us how a face, a chair were structured on a page. Drawing, he thought, was the most essential tool to support observation and the skill of note-making. None of the images shown here were done under his direction, but I did benefit from his prioritizing of developing drawing skill and understanding the basic structure of things.

First art lessons, Masindi
First drawing lessons in Masindi, Africa.
Photo taken in 1947

JK: Let’s look at a few watercolors you made while in Africa.

JS: In the watercolors, I was trying to hold onto the translucent quality of the existing light.

Masindi, African Landscape
Masindi, African Landscape, watercolor, 20 x 25 cm (8 x 10 in), 1947-48

I enjoyed observing the haze of the lifting dew and the fog of the rainy season.

After the Rain, Uganda
After the Rain, Uganda, watercolor, 23 x 30 cm (9 x 12 in), 1947

In the watercolors you can see that detail was subordinated to the quality of the light that I observed.

Study of the Dry Season, Masindi
Uganda, Wet Season, watercolor, 12.5 x 25 cm (5 x 10 in), 1948

JK: Do you think that these activities served as a refuge for you during these difficult times?

JS: Perhaps psychologically, yes, the drawings and watercolors were an escape in that they offered me time to be with myself, my worries and delights. Maybe no, as I pushed myself hard. I always had to test myself—how to survive without a right arm! As such, drawing was a test for survival. My feelings for my drawings and watercolors run very parallel to my feelings for music, which at that time I had to do without. It took a lot of patience and persistence, but I enjoyed it immensely when my marks and brushstrokes on paper would become a substitute for the reality.

JK: In what ways do you feel that you were influenced by these two dramatically different environments—the harsh cold of the Siberian woods and the tropical jungles of Uganda?

JS: Being an impressionable youth, both outside and inside influences form you for life. During my short “visit” to the gulag, I remember the weather—light glistening and reflecting everywhere, the aurora borealis, the colored haze embracing you. Then being dumped into the jungle in Uganda, I recall the sounds of the forest, the cry of the animals at night, the tam-tam drums in the distance, flowers in the tropical light. Of course, those experiences are unforgettable. They shaped me, but they also confounded me. With such extremes, it is hard to know who you are.

JK: It’s rather remarkable that at such a young age, you already were so sensitive to the behavior of light and were intrigued by how atmospheric conditions such as fog or haze affect our perception of color and form, an interest that would continue as you matured.

JS: Correct. Nature always fascinated me and was my best teacher. Observation is the key to understanding.

Dry Again, Masindi
Dry Again, Masindi, watercolor, 22 x 29 cm (8.5 x 11.5 in), 1948

JK: Did you realize that you had artistic talent?

JS: No, I had nobody and nothing to compare myself to. I did not even have books from which to study and admire the masters. What drove me on was my desire to do something about the wonders surrounding me and to satisfy—to a certain degree—the human need to be part of something greater and more meaningful.

JK: Since your father had fought with the Polish Second Corps under British command, your family was allowed to settle in England. But before you left Africa, you had a solo exhibition of some of your watercolors and drawings.

JS: I believe that officials at the Office of Resettlement of Refugees in Nairobi were responsible for arranging my show at the now famous Stanley Hotel before we flew to London. They must also have put an article about me in the Kenyan paper. I was so perturbed about the uncertainties of my future that I do not remember the details. The proceeds from the sale of my watercolors benefitted an orphanage.

JK: In yet another dramatic change of surroundings, you would spend the years 1949 through 1950 in England.

JS: I moved from one camp in Russia to another in Uganda to a third in Checkendon, England—from one forced, miserable situation to another. In England we lived in barracks that had been used by the British Air Force. Though free to move around, my exposure to life outside the camp was minimal. I did not know English well—I tried to learn a Polish-English dictionary by heart—and I had no money or connections. At 20 years old with 7 shillings of pocket money, I rode a bus to London to the Home Office, Division of Education. In my best English, I tried to find out how I could go to school as a “displaced person.” I had to take a two day college entrance examination and, to my surprise, I passed it. I chose the Slade School of Art, but after two months, I was kicked out, accused of being “too Continental,” and of having no respect for British tradition. I had no idea what they were referring to.

I managed to get into the Borough Polytechnic and was enrolled in the Department of National Teacher Certification majoring in Book Illustration. After the war, everything had to have a practical application in the interest of the national recovery. I enjoyed book illustration because it required scrutiny of observation, discipline and control.

JK: Here is an example of a work you made during this course of study.

England, Church
England, Church, ink on scratchboard,
~20 x 10 cm (~8 x 4 in), 194

JS: This image of a church entrance was done on cardboard prepared with gesso, then black ink was applied and scratched through, creating a network of fine lines. While in London, I met the artist, Victor Passmore, and a Polish court artist, Felix Topolski, and they impressed me greatly with their technical abilities. I also visited the museums in London and was particularly fascinated by Francis Bacon’s Mad Dog. It touched me deeply with its powerful strokes and flamboyant gestures. These three artists were my major artistic stimuli during my time in England.

JK: Your family moved to the US in 1950. How did this come about?

JS: I found myself in a predicament. I could not go back to Poland because it was Communist and my father had served in the Polish Army under British command, which fought against the Russians and Communism. Even in England, my father was in the resistance to liberate Poland from Communism—the fight for him was not finished. But I did not want to stay in England either. We as a family had to find a place to live and work, and since we had close relatives in the US, the American Embassy in London offered us the possibility of joining them.

JK: Your father found work in Cleveland where you enrolled in the Cleveland Institute of Art and would earn a BFA in 1954.

JS: Yes. Roofs was my first painting done there. Having experienced one kind of jungle, I now saw in the belching factories and smokestacks another kind of jungle.

Roofs, oil on board, 66 x 127 cm (26 x 50 in),1950

At the time, Abstract Expressionism was establishing itself as a leading art movement. It fascinated me for a while, but I abandoned it as my mode of expression. I began to feel more comfortable as I found I could begin with subject matter, but then abstract it by removing the illustrative information that was not essential. Geometry and Cubism showed a way to do this, as can be seen in Red Christ.

Red Christ
Red Christ, oil on board,
124 x 58 cm (49 x 23 in), 1952

I was becoming more analytical in the early 50s; however, my four years at the Cleveland Institute of Art did not help me become clearer about what direction my art should take. I was rapidly drifting away from elements that had realistic or referential connotations. I was always testing, tasting, experimenting. My teachers accused me of having no personal style. I was advised to draw from my experience, something from which I wanted to escape! So it was mainly a long process of searching and self-analysis that brought me to my present convictions about my art. My teachers in Cleveland were excellent at facilitating my skills in drawing and painting, but they saw nothing in my geometric reductions and simplifications.

Female FigureFemale Figure
Female Figure (5 minute pose), pen and ink
drawing, 20 x 13 cm (8 x 5 in), 1952
Female Figure, woodcut,
41 x 30 cm (16 x 12 in), 1953

JK: We also see you moving toward abstraction and geometric form in the woodcut, African Village.

JS: This woodcut might be a reflection on my past, but not a realistic illustration. My recollection focused on the structure, the physical construction of our straw huts made out of elephant grass. The wood cutting tools—not easy to handle with one hand—also influenced me by making it easy to make groups of simple lines and thus offering me answers where I did not even consciously look.

African Village
African Village, woodcut, 28 x 36 cm (11 x 14 in), 1953

I knew deep in my soul that art exists in the ordering of our responses to what we experience.

African Huts
African Huts, woodcut, 30 x 46 cm (12 x 18 in), 1954

JK: Your painting, Memory of an Ancient City from 1952, is reminiscent of the work of Paul Klee.

Memory of an Ancient City
Memory of an Ancient City, mixed media on board,
28 x 36 cm (11 x 14 in), 1952

JS: I had acquainted myself with Paul Klee through books years before I would actually go to Washington D.C. to see a Klee exhibition. I felt that Klee was the artist who could walk that fine line between external references and universal abstraction.

JK: You increasingly worked independently, finding your own way.

JS: Yes. I would often skip the classroom to work by myself. I had been interested in color all my life. In art school, I would ask my professors questions about color, but they were more interior decorators than artists who could give me the type of information I sought. Their answers would annoy me because they did not offer any knowledge for me to build on.

My questions were based on personal observations. I might be driving at night, and the moon would rise over the horizon, enormous in size and bathed in warm light. I would ask, “Why does the moon appear to change in size and color as it rises?” Or, “Why does the color red turn dark at night, while blue becomes lighter?” Or, “Watching the jungle after an evening rainstorm, why does the foliage turn purple instead of green?” And, “Why do people shy away from pure color wavelengths—why do these make people nervous? “Nature does not use pure colors,” I would be told. Then why did I observe Nature showing off in the most brilliant colors?

JK: In 1953 you had a memorable encounter with Paul Klee’s work.

JS: I felt that Nature was unveiling its colors, shapes and light to me, and I needed to know why I responded to them so deeply. I took a bus to Washington, DC, and without sleep on the bus, I came to The Phillip’s Collection, which at that time was a fancy mansion. I fell deeply asleep on a couch, and when I awoke I found myself in a room filled with Klees. It was an awakening in more ways than one!

Klee’s understanding of and empathy for color were stunning to me. He did not use color to reinforce pictorial references, but worked one color, line or shape against another—like energy against energy. And it made sense to me that Paul Klee exclaimed after traveling to Africa, “Color and I are one!”

JK: An experience that at some level you and Klee shared?

JS: Yes. I saw in his work the importance of atmosphere as well as the use of pure energies of color.

JK: In addition to your exploration of color, you made some interesting line drawings while attending the Cleveland Institute of Art that perhaps foreshadow the major role that line would assume in your later work.

Water Rhythms
Water Rhythms, pen and ink on paper, 43 x 56 cm (17 x 22 in), 1952

JS: As I continued to struggle to find my way, I found the minimal or reductive aspects of drawing and painting to be very rewarding. More than any of my teachers, Nature directed me, and I gained more conviction through, for example, observing water reflections, river currents, wood grain or grasses swaying. In many of my studies, the rhythmic use of line or shape refers to weather and light. Through it all Nature was—and has been—my best teacher and my consistent source of motivation. As I began to realize this back then, I gradually became more relaxed and confident.

JK: Here are two more drawings that also suggest future directions your work would take.

JS: These drawings were done at a time when I wanted to separate my love of Nature from the plasticity of actions in my art, reducing these actions to the utmost. I did many more studies in my search for a synopsis of actions, for a clarity and singularity of communication.

Here, both drawings deal with closely spaced wavy lines that seem to vibrate.

Diamond WarpLineal Pathways
Diamond Warp, pen and ink on paper,
56 x 43 cm (22 x 17 in), 1952
Lineal Pathways, pen and ink on paper,
61 x 43 cm (24 x 17 in), 1952

JK: The ability to activate and sculpt a surface with nothing but lines was a critical discovery that you would frequently call upon in the future.

JS: Yes. In works like Corrugated Forms, the curve continuously undulates and transitions from start to stop, from slow to fast, ascribing space in and over time. The continuous movement of the curve—when not enclosed in a circle—attracted me as I analyzed the curvilinear actions in Nature.

Corrugated Form
Corrugated Forms, pen and ink on paper, 30 x 53 cm (12 x 21 in), 1952
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