Transcending Suburbia: An exceptional show of Gary Stephan
Gary Stephan: ‘Painting And’ at Woodstock’s Kleinert/James Arts Center
August 7 thru September 12, 2010
34 Tinker Street, Woodstock, NY
Gary Stephan is one of the subtlest abstract painters, I always thought, but at some point in the 1990s, when the New York art world lost touch with him, so too did I. This show made me realize that I missed something. The Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild exhibition space is a large auditorium, one big room with steep stairs up to a stage, and a large window at the center, on the left of the entrance. On the far wall, between the paintings is a door beneath a red “exit” sign. Chelsea’s exquisite upscale galleries look great even when emptied of art. This gawky space reminded me of the essay “Some Questions in Esthetics” by the formalist critic Roger Fry, which describes how Corot, asked to paint “a huge, bleak, ugly, factory-like building,” did so by finding “an entirely unexpected and exquisite harmony of colour between the sunlit surface of the ugly building and the luminous sky behind. . . . . he created a moving spiritual reality out of an incredibly boring suburban scene.” That is exactly what Stephan has done.
On the wall to the left of the entrance are six paintings, going from large to small as they run up the stairs, set with their top edges almost in a straight line. On the far wall, one medium size picture is to the left of the door, and on the right two very small ones are set close together and on their right is a large painting. (There are also photographic and video works, on the right side of this display hall, which I choose not to discuss here.) To understand Stephan’s bigger paintings you need to look across to his smaller, visually simpler pictures. Painting of Paintings (light corners) (2009), the big painting at the left of the entrance contains hard-edge forms which are unpacked in Untitled (2007), the fourth painting on the right; and a lace-like acrylic texture which reappears in Summer (2004), one of the two small paintings to the right of the door. In Untitled (2007), the light blue cross, set right of center with a light brown field on the right, and dark brown on the larger left is enclosed by a ‘C’ shape. Here, as in Painting of Paintings we are looking through an abstract window, not unlike the real window above the stage.
Originally Barnett Newman’s The Stations of the Cross (1958-66) were installed in the new wing of the National Gallery, Washington in a gallery with fourteen walls. That installation allowed lucid reflection on their meaning as a sequence. More recently, in a singularly misfortunate curatorial miscalculation, they were rehung in a conventional rectangular shaped gallery. Most abstract paintings are not installation art. They only require good lighting and visually neutral walls. But to understand Stephan’s recent individual paintings, you need to see how they relate to each other and the exhibition space. Only then does his play between surfaces, emphasized by the lace-like textures and his ambiguously abstract windows, become apparent. Under the spell of Mondrian, the American Abstract Artists created a great deal of geometric painting that never went anywhere. And so it was natural for the art world to write off this tradition. But this exhibition shows that that was a mistake. Not the least of Stephan’s achievements is to show that a moribund style of abstraction has enormous, as yet unexplored potential.