Richard Anuszkiewicz, Painter

1977 cleveland arts prize for Visual Arts

In the later half of the 19th century, art ceased being about things seen and began to be about itself, or more precisely, about the act of seeing and the act of painting. On some level, much if not all of the great painting done since then has been an exploration of one or both.

This was particularly true of the 1965 show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, aptly titled, The Responsive Eye, that proclaimed the arrival of Op Art. Born in the early 1960s as a reaction to the Abstract Expressionism of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and others, it embraced the opposite of nearly everything those artists stood for.

Op Art’s bold departures were nowhere more vividly exemplified than in the paintings of a 34-year-old artist from Cleveland whose “sizzling colors, arranged in symmetrical bands, stripes and squares, almost jump,” wrote New York Times art critic Grace Glueck, “from canvas to eye.” Indeed, Glueck suggested that Richard Anuszkiewicz, whose riveting canvases had been turning heads in New York since 1960, long before “Op” was “in,” had fair claim to the title of “Op old master.” Even her more conservative colleague, Hilton Kramer, while confessing his discomfort with Op Art, acknowledged the “brute retinal power” of Anuszkiewicz’s painting, which caused colors to vibrate and lead the eye into infinite subtleties of perception—and reflection: How does our brain decide what is in the foreground and what is the field?

John Canady, reviewing a 1969 show of the artist’s work at the Sidney Janis Gallery, was troubled, even as he acknowledged the “dazzling” quality of Anuszkiewicz’s “fine” paintings, by the long-held conviction that “no painting of real interest can be produced entirely by rule.” Where the paintings of Pollock and company seemed to revel in their impulsive spirit and spontaneity, those of Anuszkiewicz [pronounced Anna-SKAY-vitch] were meticulously planned. His work, as Karl Lunde would observe in a major piece on the artist in Arts Magazine in 1975, was “symmetrical rather than accidental; impersonal rather than autobiographical,” used “repetition rather than uniqueness,” was “intellectual rather than emotional,” and required “technical discipline rather than technical freedom.”

There was one more important difference: “Anuszkiewicz’s paintings produce sensations with no specific associations,” said Lunde. “Like music, Anuszkiewicz’s painting is an art of ordered sensations.”

If Pollock’s dripped and flung paint refocused our attention on the act of painting, and Warhol’s soup cans made us reflect on what we saw and did not see in the everyday, Anuszkiewicz’s art did both, but with a new intensity. The advances of optical science, including discoveries about prisms and color refraction, had much to tell us about color and light and how we make sense of what we see, and provided serious artists with new and exciting tools—much as the development of vibrant new pigments in the 19th century lured painters out of the studio with its shadows, its browns and subdued lighting, into the charged air of the outdoors, alive with the continually changing effects of sunlight and a whole new repertoire of human activities.

Anuszkiewicz’s work also revealed a formidable technique capable of creating “precise, clean lines” that stand out sharply (for example, orange on deep blue) while at the same time being very thin; a powerful instinct for choosing exactly the right colors and hues to juxtapose for maximum effect; and an eye and hand capable of making infinitesimal adjustments in gradations of color or intensity that sometimes violated natural progressions, in order to preserve the painting’s mesmerizing effect.

But was it, as Hilton Kramer worried, ultimately shallow, even empty art?

Others, like Gene Baro, reviewing a one-man show of Anuszkiewicz’s work in 1979, found “not only perceptual insights unavailable elsewhere in contemporary art but rich increments of feeling.” Anuszkiewicz’s paintings force us, again and again, and in wonderfully imaginative ways, to reflect on our experience as human beings in a physical world—as well as one defined by cultural associations.

Take his contributions to an ingeniously conceived 2003 show at New York’s Hunter College Art Galleries called Seeing Red, whose intense focus on a single color without the distraction of other hues or recognizable imagery reminded Grace Glueck of the rich associations “red” drags with it in our culture, such as “the color of sin, spilled blood, war and Christmas."

It signals succor (the Red Cross), derring-do (the Scarlet Pimpernel), hospitality (the red carpet), warning (traffic lights) and political subversion (Communism). Even an animal, like a bull, can become aroused at the sight of red.” By eschewing the suggestive shapes of Abstract Expressionism, “non-objective” art like Anuszkiewicz’s embodies and projects a strong sense of openness—to whatever impulses or realizations our experience of the world offers from moment to moment: a message, indeed an experience, that was new to art.

None of this had been in evidence, of course, during the years Richard Anuszkiewicz, the son of a Polish immigrant, was learning his craft at the Cleveland Institute of Art (1948–1953) painting “precise, realistic still lifes and landscapes.” But his extraordinary gifts were apparent, and a $1,500 Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship enabled him to pursue further studies at the Yale School of Fine Arts. There he would spend two years studying under the great modern master of color, design and conceptual abstraction, Josef Albers.

As a result of Anusziewicz’s one-man show at The Contemporaries in New York City in 1960, the Museum of Modern Art bought two of his paintings, and he was off and running. More than 100 solo shows and representation in almost three times that many group exhibitions followed. Anuszkiewicz’s work is owned by close to 100 public, and countless private and corporate, collections in the U.S. and abroad; he has executed nearly a dozen large murals and public art commissions and received several prestigious awards.

It was not until Anuszkiewicz, who was born in Erie, Pennsylvania, in 1930, returned to the Midwest to take a degree in education at Kent State University (where he later taught) that he really began the experiments “with full-intensity complementary colors—blues on reds, greens on reds”—that set him on his own groundbreaking path.

—Dennis Dooley

For samples of Richard Anuszkiewicz’s more recent work,
visit www.rogallery.com

For a list of museum sites and images archives where his work can be seen, see www.artcyclopedia.com

For a guide to commercial galleries in the U.S. and abroad at which his work can be purchased,
visit www.artcyclopedia.com

Cleveland Arts Prize
P.O. Box 21126 • Cleveland, OH 44121 • 440-523-9889 • info@clevelandartsprize.org

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