An Interview with Artist Julian Stanczak (1928-2017)

May, 2012

JK: Another group of line-based works is composed of graceful lines that run parallel to one another and hint at some unseen and mysterious underlying terrain.

JS: In my most recent work, the line is more graphic, recalling topographic contours and leaving it to line to suggest elusive space.

Early GreenWaving Orange Line
Early Green,acrylic on panel,
61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 cm), 2009
Waving Orange Line, acrylic on panel,
61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 2009

The behaviors of line, border and edge are very important to me in these panels. Here the eye walks on the line, gazing to the right and left, measuring the space traversed. I wanted to create solely with line a field that swells and contracts like contours of the earth.

Disassembling Blue
Disassembling Blue, acrylic on panel, 61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 2009

Each line runs continuously from one edge diagonally to the opposing edge—no breaks, no hesitations. I can make a field of lines rise and fall, activate passive areas, allude to peaks and valleys, describe shapes that are stacked up or interlocked. I am testing myself as to how many visual cues I need to realize the vision in my mind.

Enclosed, LightEnclosed
Enclosed, Light, acrylic on panel,
61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 2008
Enclosed, acrylic on panel,
61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 2008
(Collection of the Akron Museum of Art, Akron, OH)

In Smile of Ra I was less fascinated by the distribution of lines than by this weird yellow in which the whole of Egypt is drowning. I do not discriminate against any color I see. Seeking art, I always ask, “Where is it?” My experience is that it sneaks in while we are working. I wish it would do this more frequently.

Smile of Ra
Smile of Ra, acrylic on panel, 61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 2008

JK: Many of these line works have a strong organic quality.

JS: In recent years, I have reconnected with the organic quality of the curve.

Warm Light (Susan)
Warm Light (Susan), acrylic on panel, 61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 2009

Geometry satisfies logic first—and it is almost timeless. The organic distribution of lines in these paintings is a departure for me from mental acrobatics.

Light in the Woods
Light in the Woods, acrylic on panel, 61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 2009

JK: Moving on from your various groups of line-based paintings and reliefs, we see that you have frequently explored the behavior of color and apparent transparencies of overlapping shapes in formats where small divisions—dots, squares, windows—cover the painting’s surface in grid-like fashion.

Soft Fold
Soft Fold, acrylic on canvas, 127 x127 cm (50 x 50 in), 1974

JS: My paintings with small surface divisions fuse in the mind’s eye differently from works composed of rhythmically repeating lines. The small divisions offer me the interactive play of a screen to look through or fight with, allowing different shimmers, a different pulsation of the surface.

Out of the BlueOut of the Blue detail
Out of the Blue, acrylic on canvas,
76 x 76 cm (30 x 30 cm), 1977
Out of the Blue detail

I like the tiny shapes and marks because they are lively and engaging. The visual action takes place in a more staccato, punctuated way than in the line-based works—more like snare drums.

Accumulative, acrylic on canvas, 76 x 76 cm (30 x 30 in), 1975

JK: These paintings are sometimes relatively small.

JS: There are many reasons for painting smaller canvases. For practical reasons as well as for an aesthetic challenge, I force myself to translate my vision to different scales. I have discovered that many of my ideas cannot be contained in a small format, so I explore break-ups of smaller visual elements—tiny squares, dots, dashes—to see if I can make them work.

continual Overlay
Continual Overlay, acrylic on canvas, 76 x 76 cm (30 x 30 in), 1979

When working at a smaller scale, the viewer comes in close, and viewing becomes a personal experience that demands detail to hold our attention. Smaller canvases demand more complex, diverse divisions—intrigue instead of simplicity. Observing this reaction to smaller works, I tried to involve the element of time in the viewing experience by holding and prolonging the viewer’s attention through intricacies and detail.

Primary, acrylic on canvas,
86 x 61 cm (34 x 24 in), 1993

In Fall you can see a dramatic division by a frontal diagonal that runs from corner to corner—instead of a central pull inward that I might use in a larger work.

Fall, acrylic on canvas, 84 x 84 cm (33 x 33 in), 1990

In Centered Duality, Blue II the diagonal works similarly, but the break-up into multiple color modulations slows down the strict diagonal division. In some of these small works, I got so involved in surface patterns that I forgot that I was making a painting!

Centered Duality, Blue II
Centered Duality, Blue II, acrylic on canvas,
76 x 76 cm (30 x 30 in), 1981-82

JK: Some of your paintings that contain many divisions are made at a much larger scale.

JS: Yes, and the divisions can be observed at a greater distance—thus shape reading will dominate. In small paintings with these divisions and surface break-ups, the viewing experience will be primarily one of fusion. And of course scale affects us psychologically. Facing a large piece, the viewer may feel intimidated or distanced, while a small painting feels intimate and comforting. When I make my stretchers or panels, I have in mind what I want to have happen on them: shape or fusion, clash or whisper.

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

JK: In Asteroid M and its counterpart, Asteroid F, the hues and proportions of dark to light are very similar; however, the paintings have very different visual dynamics.

JS: Yes. Filled with small, repeating circles, Asteroid F—short for female—feels exuberant. The colors are bunched into circles that pulse and spin and separate from the ground, calling attention to themselves. The color of each circle repeats that of its square framing window, boosting its brillance. Asteroid M—or male—is divided into square windows whose centers are filled with black that grounds them to the surface. Its colors are confined to the thin outlines of the squares, thus subduing the color effects. Asteroid M feels stable, almost stoic.

Low Asteroid MLow Asteroid F
Low Asteroid M, acrylic on canvas,
152 x 152 cm (60 x 60 in), 1983
Low Asteroid F, acrylic on canvas,
152 x 152 cm (60 x 60 in), 1983

Regardless of size, my goal is to create color mixtures that fuse into a singular, unified experience that occurs despite all the surface action that may occur. Looking, for example, at Fusion, Yellow and Inward Blue, both paintings are squares, a symmetrical shape in which tensions are balanced. Both have a central gradation of colors and produce the experience of inward and outward sculpting of space.

In Fusion, Yellow the color mixtures are painted from light to dark, yellow to magenta, from the center outward. This painting is multi-layered in its technical and visual complexity, yet its depth of color action produces a restful cushion in a unified atmosphere of light and sparkle.

Fusion, Yellow
Fusion, Yellow, acrylic on panel, 41 x 41 cm (16 x 16 in), 2001

With Inward Blue the color gradation goes from dark blue in the center to light green at the outside. The cool colors appear to fall to the center rather than to spread outward, as in the case of Fusion, Yellow. The imposition of a grid of intense, tiny red squares gives the viewer time to observe while provoking the sensation of suspension, tactility or embroidery.

Inward Blue
Inward Blue, acrylic on panel, 41 x 41 cm (16 x 16 in), 2004

JK: You often work at a large scale and have done so from quite early on.

Opposed-Merging, bronze spray paint on canvas,
183 x 183 cm (72 x 72 in), 1968

JS: The visualization of the actions I want in my paintings endlessly calls for a large scale. The size must exceed the proportions of a man in order to block out the environment while looking at a painting.

Creased, acrylic on canvas, 203 x 178 cm (80 x 70 in), 1977

Such a confrontation with the work forces the viewer to be more “in” the painting, to be more “denuded” from outside detracting activities in order to be fully in contact with the visual activities set up in the particular work.

Haze, acrylic on canvas, 183 x 183 cm (72 x 72 in), 1970

Think about it—the volume of Nature is enormous. So I ask, “Where do I begin?” “What do I include or exclude?” “How do I paint a tiny sunset?” “What territory do I carve out for a particular impression or experience?”

Submerged, acrylic on canvas, 178 x 239 cm (70 x 94 in), 1995-2000

The size of my forms, in turn, helps determine how I choose from my reservoir of visual actions, selecting certain intervals and beats. I also have to reconcile with the fact that the size of doors is about 6 1/2 feet or that my van has an opening of a certain size. For me it always seems to be a problem of accommodation.

Low Sound
Low Sound, acrylic on canvas,
203 x 127 cm (80 x 50 in), 1998

JK: In recent years you’ve made some of your largest works, often composed of multiple panels.

JS: It is strange that the older one gets, one sees one’s work in a large format. In one of my meetings with Jacques Lipchitz, he was at Columbia University making a very large piece. I asked him, “Why?” His answer was, “As one gets older, one is compelled to do a monumental piece.”

JK: Windows to the Past is certainly monumental.

Windows to the Past
Windows to the Past, acrylic on 50 panels, each 41 x 41 cm (16 x 16 in), 2000

JS: In the last decade, I challenged myself with what I call “constellations”—small panels grouped together to form one large work. The first one, Windows To The Past, was painted in 2000 and consists of 50 unique 16 x 16 inch panels installed in five rows of 10 panels each. The illusionary see-through in each panel is composed of four different shapes overlapping in space like transparent folding planes. I mixed five cool colors and five warm colors for each see-though, resulting in 10 color mixtures per panel, or 500 different color mixtures in all.

2 panels from Windows to the Past
2 panels from Windows to the Past, acrylic on panel, each 41 x 41 cm each (16 x 16 in), 2000

Each panel is really an individual painting with its own atmosphere and visual experience of seeing into and through veiled forms in space. I painted these 50 paintings to produce together a visual “sound” not unlike that of a symphony orchestra where different sounds unite into one new experience of “sound color.” I liked that. I called them Windows to the Past because they are reflections on my efforts over the past 50 years, variations on my idea of “see throughs.” In one way I was also celebrating 50 years as an artist in the United States, in another I was realizing that I was still outside the window—looking in.

JK: Given the enormous number of panels in this work, systematic or exhaustive panel to panel comparisons are extremely difficult. We want to discover the similarities and differences among the panels, yet this type of comparative visual exploration is overwhelmed by their sheer number.

JS: Yes, I agree. The sense of time in repetition has always fascinated me. It is not the individual unit that is responsible for the totality, but the accumulation and layering of actions and impressions that are embraced into one new totality.

I made another large constellation of the same size and similar shape distribution called Parade of Reds.

Parade of Reds
Parade of Reds, acrylic on 50 panels, each 41 x 41 cm (16 x 16 in), 2006-08

This constellation has a tighter line spacing than Windows to the Past, intensifying its color and making all the shapes appear to float in warm space. All the panels are a variation of reds, which reduces our focus on panel to panel comparisons of the individual folded shapes as we become submerged in red—500 or so reds. The overall atmosphere of a pure wavelength —warm red—is a key aspect of Parade of Reds. In this painting, the viewer can bathe himself in redness—a monochromatic experience of warmth. By contrast the viewing experience of Windows of the Past feels faster, jumpier as the viewer looks to identify relationships among colors, values and overlapping shapes.

2 panels from Parade of Reds
2 panels from Parade of Reds, acrylic on panels, each 41 x 41 cm (16 x 16 in), 2006-08

JK: In some of your works in the Constellation series, the panels are arranged into square formats.

JS: It is important to me whether I distribute the panels in a horizontal format or a square. Constellation in Red is presented in a square, which gives a sense of balance and security, predictability and peace. It is very frontal in its squareness. Each panel is a square within the larger square, and each panel is composed of little squares—its own grid of squares. The beauty of the grid is its familiarity, its feeling of constancy and stability within the work’s visual actions. I call this arrangement the beat of a surface, a breathing in and out.

Constellation in Red
Constellation in Red, acrylic on 36 panels,
each 41 x 41 cm (16 x 16 in), 2002-03

Also of interest is the illusion of dimensionality, the advancing or protruding of colors out of their actual physical spaces into an almost tactile dimensional space. Some panels form illusive pyramids, others flatten out or stretch to their edges, some panels read slowly, while others attract our attention quickly and want to dominate.

In Constellation in Red I am after a response to many actions—like sounds coming at you from all sides. It’s a visual bombardment not unlike sunlight falling through foliage and scattering light fragments at my feet. As always, I am not paying attention to individual actions, but to actions coming together to give birth to a new experience in time and space.

In both Continuous Line Plus White and Continuous Line Plus Black, I am also involved with the idea of repetition and its hypnotic effects. Repetition has a magic that fulfills a need for our nervous systems. We function physiologically through systems of repetition: walking, talking, breathing, and so on. The beat of repetition is soothing since it parallels our breathing in and out. The cultures of so-called “primitive” peoples have recognized this primordial drive and have used repetition in the beat of their drums, their pattern-making, the collision of dots on surfaces made by Aborigines. I am trying to rekindle a universal experience, and I wanted to capture it in one embrace.

Continuous Line Plus White, acrylic on 28 panels, each 41 x 41 cm (16 x 16 in), 2000

In Continuous Line Plus White I wanted to register a parallel to the experience of taking a stroll in the sand at the water’s edge where the water sculpts wave contours on the sand beneath my feet. Ripples and splashes corrugate the surface, reflecting the light and creating shadows and highlights.

In Continuous Line Plus Black I used the same colors, changing the receiving ground from white to black. As with its white counterpart, the constellation is stretched out horizontally to parallel Nature. Both paintings have continuous vertical lines from top to bottom. These pass across the individual panels to form linear crests and depressions until they reach the opposite edge. Since the lines condense in their spacing at points where they turn, the color intensifies at these points although the color mixtures remain constant.

Continuous Line Plus Black, acrylic on 28 panels, each 41 x 41 cm (16 x 16 in), 2000

JK: Do you feel that through works like these that you have satisfied your quest to achieve with color and geometry a response in viewers that parallels your response to Nature?

JS: I do not want to compete with the miracle of Nature. It already exists, and it is perfect! I can observe it, indulge in it, learn from it, but I cannot claim it. Nature becomes a provocation for me to get up and get to work.

In the beginning, geometry seemed brutal to me. When I first used it, it was as if I was removing personal responses and emotion, and I missed the connection to Nature and to life. However, I concentrated on my geometry, my clean edged divisions, without allowing the recollective aspect to dominate. Gradually I found that in a clear and clean environment, I could give my colors the emotive element without direct references to Nature.

Yet even in my current work, I am still torn between emotion and Nature—fluency and geometry. When people ask me, ”What are you painting?” I might say, ”Sunsets!” For over 60 years I have been trying to analyze myself and echo in my paintings the world around me. But since I have matured, I have stopped worrying about it. Now I just paint!

Julian Stanczak working in the studio, 2006

JK: Throughout your career, you have always explored, questioned, and experimented.

JS: I am endlessly unveiling secrets in a new visual embrace, and with age, these discoveries are less confounding to me because I have overcome the fear of the unknown. So my colors are all colors, and I am open to all types of visual behaviors—I am not prejudiced against any of them, and favoritism enters only when I am making particular choices in search of a particular visual response. So I reach into the reservoir of my already developed tools to realize that visual MUST that stands before me.

As I have learned step by step the behavior of color, I have observed that the softer and more similar in value the colors of different wavelength are, the more they create an atmosphere in which they exchange their insides, their true characters. Boundaries become insignificant—we experience color instead of edge and form. This atmosphere becomes even more important to me than the sense of space or figure/ground fluctuation. Yet there is always the temptation to explore the whole gamut of visual activities that I have investigated so scrupulously—so I permit myself to experiment.

JK: Do you feel the viewer’s experience of your work is fairly effortless—that it washes over her, so to speak?

JS: Let me answer by example. When I had an exhibition at the Butler Institute of American Art, a nun approached me and said, referring to Unfolding and the Light: “It feels very spiritual, like being in church.” And somebody else, I think Mondrian, said, “He who has art, even religion has he. He who has not art, let him religious be!”

These examples illustrate how I desire my art to affect others. I am always seeking the human touch, the human response. Viewers do not need to be aware of my principles or workshop decisions in order to react freely to my paintings. My work might be an echo or confirmation of their own individual searches, but I am happy as long as people’s reactions to my work are absolutely honest. I do not care if the reactions are positive or negative.

The key for me is order! I cherish the fact that viewers respond strongly to the order within my work. I want viewers to be open to the impact of totality and its effects on their own psyches. I want viewers to tune in to their own private needs and aspirations. Since the artist is free to choose what to paint, I feel that viewers are free to take from my work whatever inspires their personal searches. I am only a trigger for opening them up to themselves.

Proportional, acrylic on 15 panels, each 41 x 41 cm (16 x 16 in), 2010-11

Color has been my obsession from the very beginning, and it continues to be so now. Only now my mind gets tired and easily frustrated, and I am less optimistic. I feel like cleaning my mental house of garbage that I have accumulated over the years. I hope that in the process of elimination, I will find myself without the clutter of anxieties. Perhaps this offers the time to grasp more clearly what art is all about and where it might be found.

I do not believe that one finds art in the object, but that one finds art within oneself by being confronted with an object of motivation. I do not cater to any public wish. Social modes and styles are changing; I am not catering to that chaos and unrest. I am no longer obsessed with “Who shall I be?”  I am who I am! I have spent a lifetime trying to understand my own search, so how can I assume to know the wishes or needs of others? Yet we create for others, not for ourselves, because we want to share the experience of life!

Julian and Barbara Stanczak
Julian and Barbara Stanczak in the artist’s studio
(Photo by Robert Muller)


More information about Julian Stanczak at

Interview text and placement of images copyright @ 2011 Julie Karabenick & Julian Stanczak. All Rights Reserved.
Images © 1943-2011 Julian Stanczak. All Rights Reserved.

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All text and artwork reproduced by permission of the artists.

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