An Interview with Artist Julian Stanczak (1928-2017)

May, 2012


JK: In a striking painting from 1965, Modulations in Red, you were once again working with partially overlapping planes established by colored vertical lines.

JS: During this period, I found out just how important the vertical beat was for me. I was mesmerized by the verticals I noticed everywhere like visual melodies—fog condensing and running down my window, the rhythm of a picket fence, light hitting a stand of trees. I could not get away from verticals!

Modulations in Red
Modulations in Red, acrylic on canvas,
168 x 140 cm (66 x 55 in), 1965

JK: The geometry in Modulations in Red feels quite organic.

JS: Yes. I was attracted to geometric systems for their great clarity and beauty, yet at that time, I was still not entirely comfortable with organizing paintings into precise geometric systems because of the lack of a felt connection to emotion and Nature. I wanted to achieve in my painting an emotional impact parallel to that which Nature has on the human psyche. But I had to find a visual language that could echo my response in a more universal way. At this point, I felt I had to mix organic and geometric aspects together. Paul Klee did it—why couldn’t I?

The undulations and stacking of space in Modulations in Red was attained by varying the widths of lines. I wondered if I could obtain a sense of movement by thickening and thinning lines in a rhythmic progression. I aimed to make the surface swell and depress using only straight lines. So this painting that I made free-hand uses geometric means and logical positioning, but it retains an organic feeling.

JK: In other paintings from 1965, you used curvilinear forms, which, though organic, appear to have been painted with great precision.

Ephemeral Movement
Ephemeral Movement, acrylic on canvas,
168 x 135 cm (66 x 53 in), 1965

JS: Yes. For example, compared to Modulations in Red, a painting like Obsession II seems controlled and systematized. There is no layering to indicate distant space; the space here is more shallow and subordinated to the hypnotic rhythm of the beat of repeating lines. The viewer may feel that the space is sculpted solidly, that the undulations are almost touchable, until the color hits him or her. Suddenly there is no space—only the fight for survival of one line or color over another.

Obsession II
Obsession II, acrylic on canvas,
160 x 135 cm (63 x 53 in), 1965
(Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art,
New York City, NY)

JK: Constant Return appears to strongly anticipate some of your very recent work with its parallel lines, lines that bend and curve, thrusting toward and away from the viewer as they sculpt space. This work also seems quite precise in its lines and line spacings.

JS: This painting is based on the same principle as Obsession II. It was also painted freehand. It is more complex, as the straight lines transform into curves that seem to eject the central diamond. And yes, I continue to be fascinated by the struggle between the power of line to bend and create shapes and space and the power of color to transform and create atmosphere.

Constant Return
Constant Return, acrylic on canvas, 99 x 99 cm (39 x 39 in), 1965

In the painting Anywhere-Everywhere, one system of lines passes over another at an angle, producing a moiré pattern—an intangible haze and a flickering pulsation. Depending on the proximity of line to line, I achieve at least three different kinds of intermixtures from stark black and white to dark gray to a light haze.

One might ask why I chose the title Anywhere-Everywhere. The answer is because this type of visual action is here and there, anywhere and everywhere around us.Thank you, God, for these enticing visual phenomena that are all around us. Perhaps we should accuse God of painting Op!?

Anywhere-EverywhereAnywhere-Everywhere detail
Anywhere-Everywhere, acrylic on canvas,
193 x 193 cm (76 x 76 in), 1967
Anywhere-Everywhere detail

JK: Once again, we see yet another painting that anticipates much later work, in this case involving the interaction of opposing systems of lines.

JS: Yes, the visual tools I investigate at one point in time tend to reemerge in a transformed manner years later. I am not the kind of individual who selects a particular visual process and pursues it for the rest of my creative life. I continue to test and reinvent my tools and processes to discover the secret of where the purity of my art might exist. I am compelled to reach for this, and the search requires that I have at my command the ability to create all kinds of different visual experiences.

The harsh geometry in Contortion is softened by the fusion of lines and the dissolving of contrast. The clear reading of geometry is no longer a priority as we observe the visual effects of “lighting up” and diffusing form, and the underlying system becomes elusive.

ContortionContortion detail
Contortion, acrylic on canvas, 114 x 132 cm (45 x 52 in), 1966Contortion detail

JK: After painting freehand for many years, by 1966 you began—intermittently at first—to use tape in order to achieve very precise lines and neat edges.

Tense Cluster
Tense Cluster, acrylic on canvas, 91 x 183 cm (39 x 39 in), 1966

JS: Actually the most vital reasons for initially using tape were the need for an accumulation of paint and its stability over time. I was grinding my own colors to be economical, and oxidation in one of my paintings led me to investigate my practice more scrupulously. In a freehand application, one must dilute the density of the paint in order to brush it on cleanly several times in the same place. So the accumulation of paint is very tedious, and thin layers result in faster deterioration due to little suspended pigment.

With tape it became easier to apply thicker layers of paint accurately, producing clean edges and creating clear contrasts of adjoining colors. The interaction of line to line and color to color could be very finely controlled using tape.

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

JK: How did your use of tape contribute to satisfying your aesthetic goals?

Offended Metal
Offended Metal, acrylic on canvas, 91 x 183 cm (36 x 72 in), 1968

JS: By this time, I felt that I could give up the sensitivities and individuality of “handwriting” found in Modulations in Red and other paintings like it. The use of tape produced clarity of shapes and colors, and the economical use of these elements helped me become more aware of the kind of abstraction I wanted.

Mirrored, acrylic on canvas, 102 x 127 cm (40 x 50 in), 1971

For example, I was challenging myself to see how different degrees of condensation of lines could produce sensations of measured space and transparency-like effects. The use of tape greatly facilitated this exploration. I also liked how the tape allowed me to make one visual element clash against another.

JK: Varying line densities helped you to create spatial ambiguities.

JS: Yes. For example in Introvert/Extrovert, I’m dealing with multiple overlapping planes with an economy of means. The clean shapes overlap each other in a seemingly logical sequence—front, middle, back—teasing the viewer to accept the accuracy of a geometric progression.

Introvert/Extrovert, acrylic on canvas, 112 x 112 cm (44 x 44 in), 1968

JK: Turning to your lifelong interest in color, ever since your inspiring study with Albers at Yale, you’ve also been experimenting with and developing great proficiency at using and mixing color, orchestrating color to achieve a wide range of visual effects. You often combine many color mixing and juxtaposition techniques within a single painting. Thus it’s often nearly impossible for the viewer to parse the various strategies used—as I expect you would prefer as you seek a unified “color meltdown” for the viewer.

Referential Circle
Referential Circle, acrylic on canvas, 183 x 185 cm (72 x 73 in), 1968

JS: Over the years, I have challenged myself to acquire very precise control over color and color mixing because through colors dished out in the right proportions, I could locate objects in space with consistency and control. I could direct the viewer’s attention by making shapes stand still, move, or fluctuate.

JK: And this reminds us that we are always looking at color embodied in form—that envisioning how you want colors to behave in your paintings involves a highly complex consideration of factors. These factors include the nature of the colors selected and mixed together and in what proportions, as well as how they take their places on the canvas with respect to shape, size, position and distribution.

You have developed great skill at creating visual effects that don’t bear simple correspondences to the visual facts or givens on the canvas. Let’s examine how you might do this with what you refer to as “additive” and “subtractive” color mixing. You use these terms to refer to the visual effects you achieve with color rather than to the processes involved in achieving them.

JS: When I talk about “additive” and “subtractive” color mixing, I’m referring to deception regarding the actual colors used. Painters from the past might have referred to this as “visual plasticity.”

Untitled #15
Untitled #15, acrylic on panel, 61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 1969

Referential Circle and Early Red are good examples of what I call additive color mixing. In this painting, I did not mix all the different colorants that you observe. Rather, we see them because of how I distributed identically colored lines over a colored ground and shapes.

To be specific, first I painted green circles on a blue ground. Then I applied vertical lines of tape, varying their spacing from 1/16 to 1 inch apart. Thus tightly condensed lines of tape in the center open up to a wider spacing at the vertical edges. After laying the tape, I covered the canvas with a single red. When the tape was removed, the varying densities of red lines over the blue and green below them mix in our eyes—optical mixing—so we see different reds ranging from orange to purple. Thus the painting appears to involve many more colors than the three I actually used—so I call this an “additive” effect.

Early Red
Early Red, acrylic on canvas, 183 x 305 cm (72 x 120 in), 1970

JK: You also manipulate how the circles behave by varying the spacing of the vertical lines.

JS: Looking at any circle, we travel along its closed edge, feeling its contained, bulging activity within and the relative passivity outside it. Through the optical mixing of colors, I “melt” the edges of the circles, thus reducing their dominance and merging them into the lines as we move toward the vertical edges of the canvas. I make the circle give itself up in favor of what you might call the negative space or the background. This change from one kind of visual behavior to a different one—this lie—is my aim and the challenge in all my work.

Proud Green relies solely on two colors: red and green. Due to the proportional spacing of the lines—tight toward the vertical edges, wider in the center—there appear to be more colors than just red and green. A deception occurs as a warmish brown is created, again from the optical mixing of the actual colors applied. And the eye registers what appear to be semi-transparent, overlapping planes that seem to float in space and that are ambiguous in their relative spatial positions.

Proud Green
Proud Green, acrylic on canvas, 112 x 173 in (44 x 68 in), 1968

JK: Let’s look at what you call “subtractive” mixing.

JS: With subtractive mixing, the viewer is unable to single out all of the individual colors used. Instead, colors interact and often, in the process, create a haze or glow.

JK: We can see such a glow in Desert Hue.

JS: Desert Hue contains 45 colors, yet they do not attract attention individually. Together, they create the sensation of light or a glow emerging from the center. This “chiaroscuro” mixing functions through the interaction of opposing wavelengths of warm and cool colors in close proximity. The central yellows are framed by yellow-greens of equal lightness, oranges are surrounded by blue-greens, and reds have blues of equal value as their partners. The changes in color mixtures happen very subtly—they sort of sneak up on the viewer who is amazed only at the effect of the changes, but not at the process of changing.

Determining the proportions of color to color throughout is very critical. Because we fail to recognize that 45 individual colors have been used to achieve a single color sensation—a central glow—I call this “subtractive” mixing.

Desert hue
Desert Hue, acrylic on canvas, 112 x 112 cm (44 x 44 in), 1980

Again in these Lumina works, the identities of individual color mixtures are subordinated to the desired effect achieved by the totality.

Lumina, Offering YellowLumina, Offering Orange
Lumina, Offering Yellow, acrylic on canvas
183 x 183 cm (72 x 72 in), 1991
Lumina, Offering Orange, acrylic on canvas,
183 x 183 cm (72 x 72 in), 1991

JK: In the very large painting, Pulsating, we see what you refer to as a “haze,” one way in which individual colors often interact in subtractive color mixing.

JS: In Pulsating the lie or plasticity of actions occurs because you can’t single out the individual colors—in this case a record 144 mixtures! Each color was mixed separately and applied in the desired distribution. It was a very lengthy procedure, but my obsession with the ultimate vision—a singular response of rippling light changing from warm to cool—made me feel that this was time well spent.

Pulsating, acrylic on canvas, 4 panels 178 x 81 each (4 panels 70 x 32 in each), 1984

In this work, the lines are spaced equidistantly across the canvas. The beat is established through repetition, and there is an illusion of space and a curvy linearity—though all the lines are actually straight. The colors do not lose their brilliance, but appear to vibrate through rapid optical registration.

JK: The apparent vibration and haze are the result of the eye and brain struggling to see or identify individual colors, but in the effort, they get, in a sense, “overwhelmed?”

JS: Correct.

Pulsating IIPulsating IV
Pulsating II, acrylic on canvas,
178 x 81 cm (70 x 32 in), 1984
Pulsating IV, acrylic on canvas,
178 x 81 cm (70 x 32 in), 1984

I set the colors up in a repetitive multiplication of bars, which prioritizes the rhythmic beat while the colors blend or fuse, no longer of individual significance.

Pulsating IV detail
Pulsating IV detail

JK: In most of your paintings, many types of color interaction are simultaneously at work, and it’s difficult—if not impossible—for viewers to identify them all precisely. In Chase, we see both subtractive and additive mixing.

JS: The ground was painted with bold blue and green shapes. Then 1/16 inch wide tape was laid regularly at 1/8 inch intervals across the entire ground. About 15 different mixtures of red were applied over the tape. When the tape is removed, we see that the reds give up their individual identities and transform into sculptural modulations suggesting highlights and shadows—subtractive mixing. At the same time, the reds that optically mix with the blue ground look cooler than the reds that do so with the green ground, the latter reds appearing more frontal and “juicy”—additive mixing.

Chase, acrylic on canvas, 178 x 127 cm (70 x 50 in), 1977

JK: Do you ever rely on transparent or semi-transparent paints to achieve transparency-like effects?

JS: No, I use opaque acrylics and thus speak of “apparent” transparencies. I use the mixing of paint in very precise gradations of hue or value to achieve these effects. For example, a group of colors might change in value from light to dark in equal value steps, as shown here.

Painted color strip
Painted color strip: equal changes in value from
lighter to darker using green, blue and purple

JK: The possibilities for creating such graded steps seem virtually endless. For example, you consider which hues to use and which to mix. When you create gradations, you might vary or hold constant hue, value, intensity, and so on.

Let’s look at Unfolding and the Light, a very large painting—6 by 10 feet— that once again involves the apparent transparency of overlapping planes.

JS: In Unfolding and the Light, the primary invitation is color. I used both optical mixing that occurs due to the interactions of closely spaced lines of different colors as well as the actual mixing of paint into step-by-step, equal value gradations.

I began with 10 graded color mixtures—5 yellow/greens and 5 yellow/orange/reds distributed in thin vertical lines. It is difficult to focus on the lines because the colors produce agitation due to their proximities and equal intensities. Opposing wavelengths interact and tire the receptors in the eye, which have to rapidly switch from the green to the red receptor and back again. The eye compromises and relieves the pain by producing optical mixtures of the two—here perceived as a yellow haze that lays over the surface of the painting.

Unfolding and the Light
Unfolding and the Light, acrylic on canvas, 183 x 305 cm (72 x 120 in), 1969

The agitation prevents either color mixture from receding into space and thereby stabilizing the spatial relations. Instead the shapes seem to float in a nebulous, intangible space, appearing neither green nor red.

JK: Let’s look at another line-based group of paintings where diagonal lines float and dance in an ambiguous space in front of thinner vertical or diagonal lines.

JS: Here I am experimenting with a different visual solution to my fascination with illusionary overlapping, again primarily manifested through lines. What changes in each of these paintings are the color atmosphere and the suggested linear structure.

Forming I
Forming I, acrylic on canvas, 76 x 76 cm (30 x 30 in), 1999-2000

In some cases, the ground might consist of two opposing colors or black and white, both of which offer the illusion of an active “spongy” surface created by the friction of each color or value fighting for dominance and the viewer’s attention. The eye is forced to fluctuate between them. Onto this activated surface, I superimpose linear pathways that suggest overlapping geometric shapes. These linear enclosures tend to offer a sense of solid shapes suspended in space.

Because of Green
Because of Green, acrylic on canvas,
127 x 89 cm (50 x 35 in), 1989

I play with this illusion of solidity by manipulating the value or intensity of a color progression within the linear pathway, creating not one, but multiple ways of reading these shapes in space.

Two in One, Green
Two in One, Green, acrylic on panel, 41 x 41 cm (16 x 16 in), 1991

So once again, the logic of what the line describes is called into question by our almost subconscious reaction to lightness or brightness and spatial positioning.

In Unbounded I divided the ground with black and yellow diagonals very tightly spaced. The linear walkways are painted yellow, blue and their intermixtures. Even though these colors are complementary and their mixtures usually turn a neutral gray, I kept the mixtures bright throughout their individual color and value progressions.

Unbounded, acrylic on canvas,
241 x 178 cm (95 x 70 in), 1991

JK: Unbounded is quite large—almost eight feet tall.

JS: I wanted a cheerful painting rising up vertically with singular power and eloquence. Only two diagonal paths offer the illusion of planes interpenetrating one another in space. The vertical lines end at different elevations, helping to solidify the space they embrace. The lines elicit our desire to visually connect their ends and thereby satisfy the brain’s search for understanding and closure. The mind’s desire to complete what is incomplete reflects the normal drive for making a shape sovereign against a ground.

In Within the Green Diagonal, thin green and purple lines fuse to create an unusual gray haze that provides both atmosphere and time in which to attend to the provocative linear activities in front of them. Line rather than color creates the primary visual invitation to this painting. Line offers both active and passive areas. The enclosed or nearly enclosed spaces become active, the open areas become passive, in what would historically be described as positive and negative space. Yet how can you have active space without passive receiving areas?

Within the Green Diagonal
Within the Green Diagonal, acrylic on canvas, 152 x 229 cm (60 x 90 in), 1991

Provocative Movement was first painted in 1988, and I made some color adjustments in 1991. What is unusual in this work are the jazzy, broken diagonals. Doubling the lines into pairs reinforces their specific behavior and directs attention to their diverse angles. Breaking the lines creates visual stops and hesitations, and the diagonal thrusts terminate as if hitting a solid wall.

When the painting is seen in person, these abrupt stops at different elevations make the eye solidify the space into round solid shapes – though there are no round lines, no shadows or changes in value. This phenomenon is reinforced by the lighter blue in the center of the diagonals, which we want to interpret as highlights, thereby reinforcing the dimensionality of the units. I think the title, Provocative Movement, is appropriate for this painting. It is the only work of its kind that I have made.

Provocative Movement
Provocative Movement, acrylic on canvas, 127 x 203 cm (50 x 80 in), 1988-91

JK: You have another line-based series composed of dynamically interacting vertical and diagonal lines.

JS: These paintings continue my interest in patterns of intersecting lines with which I was preoccupied in the late 90s. Works like Wandering Line, Many Notes, and Late Desert Hue were inspired by experiences like walking in the woods. What is happening around you in the woods? Not only are you moving, but also everything around you appears to change with every step you take. Changing positions opens up and closes the space around you.

Wandering Line
Wandering Line, acrylic on canvas, 178 x 279 cm (70 x 110 in), 1990
(Collection of the Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, OH)

I have always been interested in the flux of actions. This flux is not always intellectually controllable or visually predictable. It does not make for analytical decision-making, but rather for playful participation in the visual action in front of you. Nature seems to tease us with such ever-changing and mutating relationships. As I matured as an artist, I dared to allow myself the freedom to be romantic, to experience my art free from analysis—in pure awareness of the moment and its momentary visual action.

Late Desert Hue
Late Desert Hue, acrylic on canvas,
203 x 127 cm (80 x 50 in), 1999

JK: Let’s look more closely at the dynamics of one of these paintings.

JS: In Many Notes I distributed red and green lines of slightly varying values in a tight spacing of 1/8 inch intervals across a 6 by 8 foot canvas. These thin, repeating lineal divisions produce a grayish haze as their complementary colors mix in a subtractive manner. On top of this field, I scattered multi-colored lines at varied angles to the vertical lines beneath. Where the two systems of lines collide, they light up and they fade out, causing their reading in time and space to be unstable. It is the repetitive beat of the totality—like the flickering of fireflies—that I was after.

Many Notes
Many Notes, acrylic on canvas, 178 x 279 cm (70 x 110 in), 1990

JK: You extended this body of work to wall-mounted constructions and to a very large public installation.

JS: An architect in Cincinnati was interested in covering a large downtown building front with a visually exciting piece of art. I made several proposals for the five-story garage, which is 50 feet high and 400 feet long. In order to develop some visual and technical clarity and to test my idea for scale and impact, I made a variety of works using wooden strips.

Additional III
Additional III, acrylic on wood strips and panel,
61 x 208 x 7.5 cm (24 x 82 x 3 in), 2006

In these dimensional paintings a system of vertically oriented wooden bars is evenly distributed across a ground plane. The right and left sides and top edges of the bars may be painted in different colors. At the bottom they are glued onto a stable base. This system of colored bars is then crossed by bars of different sizes and colors, their varying angles and groupings altering their apparent speeds.

Additional IV
Additional IV, acrylic on wood strips and panel,
61 x 208 x 7.5 cm (24 x 82 x 3 in), 2006

Depending on which colors intersect, a variety of optical mixings occurs at the points of overlap, making the intersections appear lighter and more intense—again like fireflies.

Julian with Additional VI
Julian Stanczak with Additional VI, acrylic on wood strips and panel,
61 x 208 x 7.5 cm (24 x 82 x 3 in), 2006

The Cincinnati mural was executed in 2006. Each vertical beam is 50 feet long and fabricated out of aluminum.

Installation of Cincinnati mural
Installation of Cincinnati mural in 2006
(Photo by Tony Walsh)

The mural succeeded in bringing color to a drab city center. It is very active and invites participation. As cars and pedestrians move, the colors that can be seen change, and the experience of new colors appearing as if by magic is intriguing. My challenge was to create a piece of public art that is uplifting, one that affects people’s daily lives while retaining its soul despite its large scale.

Cincinnati mural
Completed Cincinnati mural

JK: You continued to explore interacting systems of vertical lines at a far smaller scale.

JS: I worked for two years to siphon all the obtainable visual possibilities out of this seemingly simple phenomenon of intersecting lines. For the huge public art piece, I had stepped outside the flatness of the canvas—I had to. In smaller panels, Holding Secrets, I vary the color atmospheres and the amount and density of the “fireflies.”

Holding Secrets, Color ExchangeHolding Secrets, Cools
Holding Secrets, Color Exchange, painted wood strips
on panel, 61 x 61 x 5 cm (24 x 24 x 2 in), 2006
Holding Secrets, Cools, painted wood strips
on panel, 61 x 61 x 5 cm (24 x 24 x 2 in), 2006
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