Julian Stanczak, Painter


The Cleveland Arts Prize committees recognition of Julian Stanczak came at the peak of his fame as a major figure in the Op Art movement. A master of the dynamic interplay of color and light, Stanczak (born in 1928 in Borownica, Poland) had emerged in the late 1950s and early ’60s as a painter of extraordinary power and striking originality. He was the first to use undulating lines in his paintings, producing unsettling, quivering forms that seemed to shiver and throb with light.

And the art world was fascinated. In 1965 Stanczak’s work was included in more than a dozen solo and group shows around the U.S. One of his paintings was even reproduced in an advertisement for sunglasses in The New York Times: an indication of the degree to which he had seized the imagination of New York art circles. But the show that brought him to national attention was a huge exhibition mounted at the Museum of Modern Art that year called “The Responsive Eye”—a gathering of the work of 106 artists that announced the arrival of a new aesthetic.

“Op”—or optical—art played with the act of perception itself, more specifically with the interaction of color and geometric form. (Stanczak himself never liked the term, preferring to describe what he did, more straightforwardly, as “perceptual art.”) Characterized by what art historian Elizabeth McClelland called its “careful plotting and surgical precision,” It offered a bracing alternative to the wild, apparent formlessness of abstract expressionism.

Having survived a harrowing childhood (a brutal Siberian labor camp that cost the use of his right arm, escape to Teheran, living in a straw hut in Uganda) Stanczak seemed to find solace and reassurance in his repeating, subtly manipulated forms—as he did in the music of Corelli, Boccherini and Vivaldi. It was the sights of Africa that set him drawing feverishly—with his left hand—and led to art studies in London, with its vibrant gallery scene. Settling in Cleveland with relatives, young Julian enrolled at the Cleveland Institute of Art. He would join its faculty in the mid-1960s and teach there until his retirement in 1995.

It was his deepening fascination with the “behavior” of colors that drew him, after graduation, to Yale University to study (1954–56) with Josef Albers, the great prophet of color theory and advocate of Bauhaus precision. Stanczak has always insisted that his own art was very much rooted in the natural world. As a young faculty member at the University of Cincinnati (1957–1964), he looked out every day from the window of his house on a hill overlooking the Ohio River, mesmerized by the constant movement of the river and the changing effects of light. It wasn’t the scene that interested him, he said, but finding a visual vocabulary that would allow him to or capture and “amplify” these phenonema.

By the mid-1960s his work was being shown in places like New York and Los Angeles. But the artist himself preferred to remain in Cleveland, where he could quietly pursue his own vision without distractions. There, too, he had kindred spirits in the persons of fellow artists and CIA faculty Richard Anuszkiewicz and Ed Mieczkowski, who shared his interest in visual perception.

In the 1970s, Stanczak continued to grow in stature and reputation. His paintings, prints and drawings were shown at Washington, D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery and at the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York, as well as in France, England and Germany. And his work was acquired by major museums and collections here and abroad; among them, the Corcoran, Hirshhorn and National galleries in Washington, D.C, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, the San Francisco and New York Museums of Modern Art, and the Cleveland and Metropolitan museumsmore than 60 public collections in allas well as those of prominent corporations (including Alcoa, Smith, Barney & Company, Siemens, Sprint , Nissan and Chase Manhattan Bank) and individuals (U.S. senators Jacob Javitz, Howard Metzenbaum and Nelson Rockefeller).

Stanczak continued to explore new ideas and optical effects throughout the 1980s and ’90s, producing some of his most compelling canvases. In 1998 a retrospective exhibition covering 50 years of his work was jointly produced by the Butler Institute of American Art, the Columbus Museum of Art and the Josef Albers Museum in Germany.

—Dennis Dooley

Cleveland Arts Prize
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