An Interview with Artist Julian Stanczak (1928-2017)

May, 2012


JK: After completing your studies at the Cleveland Institute of Art, you attended graduate school at Yale from 1955 to 1956. During that period you continued to explore and experiment widely, searching for your own voice.

JS: Yes. During this time I was torn between organic forms—though at times they seemed romantic or sentimental—and the purely abstract rhythms of verticals or horizontals. Indian and Pharaoh were painted in 1955, and they felt very liberating from my undergraduate art training. There was something wonderful about these empty, denuded forms.

Indian, mixed media on canvas,
91 x 76 cm (36 x 30 in), 1955
Pharaoh, cold wax on canvas,
84 x 56 cm (33 x 22 in), 195

In Self-Portrait and The Flute Soloist, I painted and overpainted the panels many times. I was playing around with verticality and applying the paint very thickly. I was confused as hell!

Self Portrait, 1955The Flute Soloist
Self-Portrait, mixed media on panel,
94 x 58 cm (37 x 23 in), 1955
The Flute Soloist, mixed media on panel,
119 x 89 cm (47 x 35 in), 1956

JK: Why did you choose Yale for your graduate studies?

JS: I specifically wanted to go where Josef Albers was teaching and learn from his vision and his sensitivity to color. Also several teachers at the Cleveland Institute of Art had graduated from Yale and promoted it strongly; however, they thought that I did not have what it took to succeed there. Yale was the top program, so I tried for the best, and was surprised and delighted to be accepted.

Naturally, Albers’ work influenced me as I searched for the clarity of absolute abstraction. At Yale one of the first lessons I heard from Albers was, “I cannot teach you your art!” Albers used destruction as a method of construction in his teaching. Anything you thought you knew was taken away. The principle was not to get attached to anything too early, but to keep looking, searching, and thinking. Albers made endless demands for you to be better, to be a more observant participant in life. You experienced total emancipation from what to do, how to do it and what to think. It was scary to have nothing you knew count and what you thought you had accomplished be judged as worthless.

Albers’ color course was mysterious. I learned about the structure behind the behavior of the eye, about perception and the connection between eye and mind, about the difference between reaction and interpretation. I liked Albers’ exercises, which documented for me the power of color, and I admired his ability to see color and note its multiple and complex changes through interaction with neighboring colors. I felt I had to know more about color and learn to use it with clarity and effectiveness.That is what I wanted for my art.

Most importantly, I learned that each person’s seeing and interpretation of what is seen is valid if it is clear and honest. In this sense, Albers liberated me. He gave me the courage to explore color beyond the classroom. He gave me the mindset to accept questions as part of life’s energy. My paintings and my search for understanding of color were based on a step-by-step process of observation. My observations might not match those of another person, but they became my foundation to build upon. I was gratified that Albers chose to include one of my pieces in his Interaction of Color portfolio.

JK: Let’s look at some work you did while at Yale.

JS: White City was abstractly conceived, no longer painted through recollection, but purely as abstract relationships. I tried to use abstraction and geometry to carry the rhythm and clarity of action. The question was always how to divorce yourself from storytelling, how to have a more universal message. I used very sharp edges here to define the shapes—clashing units, rising verticality and little comfort from organic shapes.

White City
White City, cold wax on panel,
91 x 58 cm (36 x 23 in), 1955-56

When painting Composition in White, I remember that I was listening to harpsichord music by Wanda Landowska, all sweet and soft with few harsh intervals, clear in time and spatial position. Afterwards I realized that I had painted my reaction to that music.

Composition in White
Composition in White, mixed media on panel, 63.5 x 89 cm (25 x 35 in),1955

Works like Hot Summer, Prevailing Horizontal, and Harmony in Light were painted with repeating horizontals. Hot Summer, with its horizontals running edge to edge, became a landscape, the horizon line. Though the divisions were geometric, the colors carried memories of Africa and softened the shapes. I was finding that I could not run away from Nature completely, learning that references enslave color and that color can redefine shapes.

Hot Summer
Hot Summer, cold wax on panel, 61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 1956

Prevailing Horizontals and Harmony in Light, both painted just after I had graduated from Yale, are clearly abstract compositions.

Prevailing Horizontal
Prevailing Horizontals, cold wax on panel, 61 x 81 cm (24 x 32 in), 1956

In these works I was repeating the horizontals for the sake of color interactions. I found that when using clear geometric divisions, color had to be singular, exalted—it had to take on more responsibility.

Harmony in Light
Harmony in Light, mixed media on panel, 91 x 127 cm (36 x 50 in), 1957

JK: Consistent with your inclinations toward Nature and more organic shapes was the work of Conrad Marca-Relli, another of your teachers at Yale who painted in an abstract expressionist style.

Conrad Marca-Relli, Untitled, mixed media collage on canvas,
45 x 59 cm (17 3/4 x 23 1/4), 1958
Image as shown by Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, NY

JS: I admired the work of Marca-Relli, and this is reflected in a number of paintings done while at Yale or shortly thereafter. Seeing Marca-Relli’s work gave me confidence in the shapes that I chose from Nature and then simplified. He was always supportive and felt that I was on the right track when I controlled the references to subject matter that always wanted to sneak into my work.

FigureAngry Woman
Figure, mixed media on panel,
114 x 76 cm (45 x 30 in), 1956-57
Angry Woman, mixed media on panel,
91 x 127 cm (36 x 50 in), 1957

JK: In some of these paintings, you filled discrete shapes with small colored dots, often of related hues.

JS: Divisions are extremely important—departing from the physical fact as they do and thus offering deception. With the dots, I disturbed the spatial locations on the surface. Looking at Monet, Seurat, Pollock or walking on the sand, I saw similar actions and I enjoyed the beat.

Spring, mixed media on panel, 86 x 97 cm (34 x 38 in), 1958

Each dot was individually made with a brush, so I had control over the size and groupings of the colors. To me, the dots were just like primitive sounds. They put you into a trance. I don’t recall how or when I stumbled upon them. With the dots, the surfaces were no longer flat, but became charged with energy, and I enjoyed the vacillation among the different groupings. But I had to move on and explore other elements that would parallel the mystery of the dots.

Let It Be Spain and Olive GrovesLet It Be Spain and Olive Groves detail
Let It Be Spain and Olive Groves, mixed media on canvas,
63.5 x 94 cm (25 x 37 in), 1958
Let It Be Spain and Olive Groves detail

JK: While at Yale, you first learned about Rudolph Arnheim, a perceptual psychologist and art theorist who throughout his career wrote prolifically about art and perception.

JS: I met Arnheim close to the time of my graduation from Yale. Reading his first book, Art and Visual Perception, I thought, “Where were you, Rudi, when I really needed you!?” Albers never offered analysis—Rudi did. I was envious that he had the knowledge of visual perception that I had been longing for and struggling so hard to gain. Seeing is understanding, yet even today, this is generally not taught nor is its importance fully understood.

JK: Throughout your early development as an artist, you showed a great deal of independence and passion to find your own way. Do you think the extreme challenges of your youth contributed to your tenacity?

JS: I think that might be true. Since I was never part of anything—country, school system, ideology—someone else’s answers had no relevance for me. I had no choice but to be independent. I tried to be nice, polite, accommodating, but in the end, I had to build on my own strengths and satisfy my own needs and aesthetic drives. Nobody can give that to you, and in the turmoil and complexity of my personal life, I could never lean on others.

JK: In 1957 you began to teach at the Art Academy of Cincinnati where you would remain until 1963.

JS: I carried 28 contact hours per week and got an annual salary of $2,800. It was wonderful to have a roof over my head and not be hungry, but it was difficult to afford painting materials. I learned to be resourceful and undemanding. Trying to stretch a canvas with one arm was hell, but I could not afford to pay others to help me.

I worked in isolation in Cleveland and Cincinnati, gaining clarity in my personal vision. I had nothing to stimulate me or to compare myself to—I had to go within myself.

JK: You continued to explore colored vertical lines and intervals.

Composition with VerticalsJaksi
Composition with Verticals, mixed media on canvas,
86 x 81 cm (34 x 32 in), 1957
Jaksi, mixed media on canvas,
94 x 64 cm (37 x 25 in), 1957

JS: Yes, once again, I was establishing beats through repeated lines. Here the lines are vertical. These paintings should have been larger and constructed with the public in mind. I did not do them more forcefully at that time for two main reasons. One was my inability to get materials as I was dirt poor! Another—and this one was even more difficult to overcome—was my insecurities. At that time I had no support, and I experienced continual discouragement. I could have benefitted from some healthy competition.

With no one to promote my clean geometry, whom could I turn to for some kind of confirmation? —to Nature, as always. Many titles like April in Paris reflect that connection. I have always felt that Nature harbors the answers to all my questions.

JK: And Nature told you to do what?

JS: Nature told me to look, react, and paint. When I look back at my work, I find certain visual actions persisting throughout—like the beat of vertical lines, the size and varied densities of lines and the play of figure and ground. Nature told me to pay attention to all the things happening around me, and I invited them freely into my work. My understanding grew with more complex observations. I also learned to learn from my own work.

April in Paris
April in Paris, mixed media on canvas, 91 x 122 cm (36 x 48 in), 1959

JK: That same year, we see you experimenting with simple geometric forms painted in black and white.

Crowded with Constellations
Crowded with Constellations, mixed media canvas,
91 x 91 cm (36 x 36 in), 1959

JS: I was trying all kinds of things in order to find some visual activity that would more fully satisfy my mind. In Rhythmic Fluctuation from 1960, the fluctuation and alternation of the shapes in space fascinated me. I was driven by curiosity.

Rhythmic Fluctuation
Rhythmic Fluctuation, acrylic on canvas, 91 x 147 cm (36 x 58 in), 1960

Again in Blue Rhythm, I was using a more intellectual geometry.

Blue Rhythm, mixed media on panel,
164 x 137 cm (64.5 x 54 in), 1962

JK: You had your first solo museum exhibition in 1964 at the Dayton Art Institute. Did you feel that others were beginning to understand your work at this point?

JS: I believe geometry was—and still is—not really understood. In Cincinnati, I once had the opportunity to lecture to students, faculty and staff about Albers and his book, Interaction of Color, as well as on Arnheim’s ideas. And who was enthusiastic about it? A colorblind sculptor! My colleagues in Cleveland and Cincinnati liked “funny” me, but they never really understood or supported the work I did. But others can never solve your problems for you—you must find your own way.

JK: Looking back, some of your very early work clearly anticipates work from the 60s and beyond.

Regenerative ForcesDiamond Warp
Regenerative Forces, acrylic on canvas,
156 x 141 cm (61.5 x 55.5), 1964
(Collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art,
Los Angeles, CA)
Diamond Warp, pen and ink on paper,
56 x 43 cm (22 x 17 in), 1952

JS: Yes. The more I reflect back to early work, the more I recognize many relationships—even to my current work. Many of my visual concerns have continued through six decades of work.

JK: As we’ve seen, in the early 50s you made a series of woodcuts that recall your time in Africa. Then in the early 60s, you made a series of lithographs.

JS: I love prints, but I have physical problems executing them. In 1964 I was invited to participate in a printmaking workshop in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I jumped at the opportunity because the focus was on experimental lithography with expert printers doing the physical work. The expediency of printing was a great temptation because it offered me the chance to test new visual possibilities.

With these prints, I continued to experiment with divisions of the visual field. For example in Kalamazoo IV, there are yellow and white lines in the background with black offset blocks that have narrow 1/16 inch white lines dancing around their edges.

Kalamazoo IV
Kalamazoo IV, lithograph, 43 x 34 cm (17 x 13.5 in), 1964

In Kalamazoo VII, varying line densities and changes in the angles of groups of parallel lines produce overlapping and shifting rectangles, a theme I would return to again and again. I had investigated similar concerns in Compositions with Verticals from 1957, but the print from 1964 is cleaner and clearer.

Kalamazoo VIIComposition with Verticals
Kalamazoo VII, lithograph, 27 x 36 cm (10.5 x 14 in), 1964Composition with Verticals, mixed media on canvas,
86 x 81 cm (34 x 32 in), 1957

JK: A highly successful New York City art dealer, Martha Jackson, attended your exhibition at the Dayton Art Institute, made a studio visit and subsequently invited you to have a one man show that would open the 1964 gallery season.

JS: Yes. It was a shock! It was exhilarating! I never anticipated that I could be in one of the leading galleries in New York.

JK: Martha Jackson titled your exhibition Julian Stanczak: Optical Paintings. Donald Judd used the term “Op Art” in his 1964 review of your exhibition for Arts Magazine. Shortly thereafter, articles about Op Art appeared in both Time magazine’s “Op Art: Pictures that Attack the Eye,” and Life magazine’s “Op Art: A dizzying fascinating style of painting.” How did you feel about being identified as an Op artist?

Remnants of Late Color
Remnants of Late Color, acrylic on canvas, 135 x 183 cm (53 x 72 in), 1964

JS: My feelings were mixed, but primarily negative. I was upset when I came to Martha’s gallery and read the sign in the window: Julian Stanczak: Optical Paintings. Now “optical”—as I see it—means “visual.” All paintings employ our visual apparatus, so the word “optical” seemed redundant. “Optical” refers to the response and sensitivity of the eyes—it is physiological. “Perceptual” refers to being perceived by the eye’s mind—it is a personal interpretation of what the eye registers and the impressions and effects it leaves on the individual.

JK: So perception refers to how we organize and interpret incoming sensory information.

JS: Yes, perception involves understanding what you see rather than registering visual actions blindly. I would say that perceptual experience is based on the individual’s experiences; however, since I am one human being painting for others, and we are basically wired in the same way and share a common humanity, our reactions will also be similar in fundamental ways.

I have always had the sincere desire to understand the phenomenon of visual perception. Thus I would have been less upset if the movement had been described as “Perceptual Painting” or even “Color Function” painting—something that suggests both Constructivist ideas and Paul Klee’s poetics of color.

Martha had pushed the fall season forward in order to beat the New York art market in unveiling a high-energy new movement. Her response to my concerns was, “Ah, Julian, this is something for the critics to chew on.”

Josef Albers had a classic response to the exhibition announcement in the New York Times. I had driven to New Haven to personally invite him to see my show. I found him aroused, pointing to the exhibition announcement in the paper. Without a greeting he said, “Your obligation is to correct that!” I asked him what term he would use to describe the work, and he said “Perceptual Painting.” He was imperative about my responsibility to take action against something like this. I tried, but the term had already entered the public domain.

Arrested Undulation
Arrested Undulation, acrylic on canvas,
168 x 137 cm (66 x 54 in), 1964

Another difficulty for me was to accept the abbreviation of Optical Art to Op Art. In America, we seem to shorten everything to initials, and nobody remembers the original definition or the content they stand for. It’s a catchy opposition—Op Art in opposition to Pop Art—that’s why it stuck so easily.

Many of my colleagues were wrapped up in the scientific or decorative aspects of Op. Their work was closely affiliated with pattern-making, and some put their primary emphasis on visual intrigue. That’s why Op had such commercial appeal in advertising and other attention-grabbing endeavors. I could not agree with that. The intrigue of visual deception or illusion carries with it inherent human attraction, but that alone is not art. I may use such visual challenges in my work for painting’s sake, but not for the sake of pattern, design or attack on the visual system.

JK: In some paintings from your exhibition, we see you once again using small divisions, here in a gridded format, to enliven the picture plane.

JS: These were probably my first attempts at employing the square in its frontality. The intersections of vertical and horizontal straight lines form a square. I noticed how the square makes the eye walk up and down, right and left, always returning to the center point of equilibrium. Its form parallels my body’s own equilibrium and offers frontality, placing me in the middle and offering equidistant steps to the corners. The psychological response to this shape is definite and clear.

In these paintings, I consciously activated the surfaces with dots or tiny squares of opposing wavelengths. One power against another—a visual power play! Homage to Albers shows the influence of and my dedication to Albers’ work because through him, I came to understand the power of the central square. Unfortunately, this painting has really faded over the decades. I was still making my own paint concoctions, and not all of them have held up.

Untitled (For Martha)Homage to Albers
Untitled (For Martha), acrylic on canvas,
58 x 58 cm (23 x 23 in), 1964
Homage to Albers, acrylic on canvas,
91 x 91 cm (36 x 36 in), 1964

JK: Your painting, Ulterior Images from 1962, was included in a landmark international exhibition, The Responsive Eye, held at the Museum of Modern Art in 1965.

Ulterior Images
Ulterior Images, acrylic on canvas, 137 x 185 cm (54 x 73 in), 1962

JS: I worked in isolation in Cleveland and Cincinnati, gradually gaining clarity in my personal vision. I had nothing to stimulate me or compare myself to. So it was a great surprise to me when I went to New York and saw this exhibition. I realized that other artists were thinking about similar visual issues.

JK: Although you might have moved—Martha Jackson invited you to move to New York—you chose to stay in Ohio where you’ve remained to this day.

Stanczak with Confluence 1965
Julian Stanczak with Confluence, Miami University, 1965

JS: I had always dreamed of making New England my home, but I never found the correct time or circumstance. There were always great demands on me, both domestic and artistic. I needed a steady job in order to be in charge and offer myself some sense of security.

I became reconciled to the fact that in relative isolation, I could be more in touch with myself as a creative person. In New York I would have been uncomfortable losing my privacy in an open studio that Martha wanted to set up for me. I needed privacy to maintain order in my mind. Today, I love the obscurity of my typical “Americana” environment. And in my mind, I can transfer myself to New York or anywhere else.

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