One of the best-kept secrets at the Cleveland Institute of Art is that the institution has made some pretty hefty contributions to the history of modern and contemporary art in America.
That explains why the four-year undergraduate art college is paying tribute this fall to the minimalist abstractions of New York painter Robert Mangold, class of 1959; and the Op Art paintings of former faculty members Julian Stanczak and Ed Mieczkowski.
Two interrelated shows on Mangold and on Stanczak and Mieczkowski, opened Friday under the rubric, “Masters of Abstraction.” They function together as a luminous and optimistic celebration of geometry and color. They also offer a look at recent works — most from the past decade — by three important American artists whose viewpoints crystallized decades ago and whose careers were influenced, to greater and lesser degrees, by the art institute.
It’s a moment to let your chest fill with pride over Cleveland’s impact on American culture.
But there’s lots more to think about. Among the many messages to unpack here is the obvious one that at advanced ages, Mangold, Mieczkowski and Stanczak, born in 1937, 1929 and 1928, respectively, are still making fresh discoveries in the artistic idioms they first explored as long as half a century ago.
A half-dozen paintings and nearly as many drawings by Mangold fill an entire gallery. The works consist of rectangles of stretched canvas covered with softly brushed fields of color and inscribed with graceful arcs of line that interact with each other like ballet partners in a pas de deux.
Mangold’s arabesques also possess subtle optical qualities. They stand apart from their “backgrounds” as independent figures that appear to float in trembling, light-washed voids of color.
But because the lines always come in contact with the edges of their canvases at various points, they also point in a very realistic way to their existence on flat surfaces with bounded edges. Mangold’s lines take flight, but they always come in for a landing.
It’s also clear that despite their simplicity, Mangold’s paintings and drawings are based on a geometric scaffolding that imposes a classical sense of order and repose. Most of the images show the scaffolding quite literally, as a series of subtle lines describing rectangles or squares that subdivide the images.
Within this framework, Mangold seems to say, a zillion things are possible. You perceive a sense of joy at the discoveries made by the artist within the universe he’s created.
The same is absolutely true of both Stanczak and Mieczkowski. Both have created systems by which they live, artistically, and both appear to be telling us that by establishing rules and constraints, an artist can find true freedom.
Mieczkowski was a founding member of the influential movement called Anonima in the 1960s, which helped formulate the principles of Op Art, in which patterns of line and color activate the retina with visual fields of energy that appear to sizzle with electric energy.
Along with Stanczak, Mieczkowski exhibited work in the pivotal 1965 exhibition “The Responsive Eye” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. After becoming an instant pop-culture sensation, Op quickly faded from critical esteem. Yet Stanczak and Mieczkowski remained devoted to their principles through decades of teaching at the art institute.
Stanczak is represented in the show by half a dozen small paintings in white on black, in which fine networks of line create uncanny illusions of three-dimensionality, while also applying optical jolts to the eye.
He’s also displaying a trio of magisterial, multipanel paintings. Each complete work consists of a grid of 36 smaller, square canvases in which Stanczak weaves subtle hues from opposite regions of the spectrum to create the illusion that his paintings, like the sun or the sky, are sources of light.
Mieczkowski explores similar properties of color and light, although his paintings are rougher in their surface properties and more raw in their exploration of color. If Stanczak’s paintings glow softly like clouds at sunset or the sky at dusk, Mieczkowski’s paintings buzz and snap like neon.
When it comes to the impact of Cleveland and the art institute on the lives of Mangold, Stanczak and Mieczkowski, their stories diverge.
Mangold, who is married to the very fine painter Sylvia Mangold, has been recognized for many years as one of the nation’s leading abstractionists.
In an interview in 1995, after the purchase of one of his paintings by the Cleveland Museum of Art, Mangold, the son of an organ-assembly worker at the Wurlitzer Co. outside Buffalo, N.Y., said, “Cleveland was where I came of age as a human being.”
Mangold also noted, however, that the Cleveland Museum of Art had virtually no contemporary American art in its collection when he was a student across East Boulevard at the art institute. He first encountered Abstract Expressionist painting at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh.
Mangold’s career took off after he left Cleveland and completed a master of fine arts degree at Yale University, where he also met his future wife.
Stanczak and Mieczkowski both entered long periods of semi-obscurity after the 1965 show at MOMA.
Recently, however, both have been rediscovered and are enjoying the rewards of renewed attention in the art market.
Over the past two decades, Stanczak’s work has been the subject of numerous exhibitions on Op Art, which is returning to favor.
Stanczak’s wife, the sculptor Barbara Stanczak, said that working quietly in Cleveland for decades made his work stronger.
Stanczak, a native of Poland who survived a Soviet labor camp in World War II before finding his way to art school in London and then a career in Cleveland, is philosophical about the fickleness of the art world.
“Once you get older, you look at it with a cat’s smile,” he said in a 2009 interview. “It’s very pleasant, but where have you been all this time when I needed you?”
Mieczkowski retired from teaching in 1998 after 39 years at the art institute and moved to California, where he met and married actress Chloe Pollock.
He also met art dealer Kenneth Marvel, co-owner of LewAllen Contemporary, a gallery in Santa Fe, N.M., who staged a 40-year retrospective of the artist’s work in 2006. Mieczkowski was soon able to sell works for prices in the mid-five figures, something he never achieved in Cleveland.
While it’s obvious that an art school would want to celebrate its own history, the show on Mangold, Stanczak and Mieczkowski is also a subtle critique of the Cleveland Museum of Art.
One unspoken point of the show is that the museum didn’t pay as much attention in the past to modern and contemporary art as it might have — and still hasn’t articulated a clear viewpoint about leading artists in Northeast Ohio.
The museum is currently devoting a single gallery to a smallish display of work by Op artists including Mieczkowski and Stanczak. But that show has a flavor of too little, too late. It’s as if the museum found itself able to celebrate local artists of national importance only after they have gained attention everywhere else.
Retrospectives at the museum in 2000 and 2010 on the work, respectively, of artist and industrial designer Viktor Schreckengost and goldsmith John Paul Miller, both longtime faculty members at the art institute, came when both protagonists were in their 90s.
To be fair, the museum’s new East Wing devotes considerable square footage to contemporary art. It’s the most dynamic area in the museum these days. Curator Paola Morsiani is constantly rotating objects in and out of the space, creating new perspectives on the collection.
The Cleveland museum recently held a show on the work of photographer Andrew Borowiec, who teaches at the University of Akron, and is currently showing photographs by Brian Ulrich, a graduate of UA who also worked as an art handler at the museum.
So, things are improving for contemporary art at the museum. But that shouldn’t stop the art institute from continuing to excavate its own history.
Important former students of the institution include the early-20th-century modernist Charles Burchfield, the social realist Hughie Lee-Smith, conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth, the postmodern landscape painter April Gornik, photographer Shelby Lee Adams and the contemporary figurative painter Dana Schutz.
It’s easy to imagine the art institute unrolling a series of shows on the work of these and other alumni in the years ahead, further illuminating the school’s impact on art history, and on creativity in Cleveland. It would be a project well worth undertaking.