December 16, 2015
Julian Stanczak Op Art paintings smash local price ceiling and rocket nationally
News

CLEVELAND, Ohio – For decades, a virtual price ceiling of $5,000 to $10,000 has existed for works sold here by locally based artists.

Say bye-bye to all that.

The Bonfoey Gallery at 1710 Euclid Ave. in downtown Cleveland has just sold a luminous 2013 geometric abstraction by the internationally renowned Polish-born Cleveland artist Julian Stanczak to an undisclosed local private collector for the eye-popping price of $35,000.

Entitled "Cadmium Red," the 29-by-24.5-inch painting is a vertical, rectangular Op Art-style abstraction.

It features a regular grid of tiny confetti-flecks of blue that seem to float atop a glowing field of bright red, which fades evenly to darkness in step-like stages at the edges.

There's no clearinghouse on art prices that could show whether the transaction is a record for a local sale by a living artist working in Northeast Ohio.

But Marcia Hall, the gallery director at Bonfoey, said she did not know of another living Cleveland artist who could command prices at Stanczak's level for individual works, as opposed to large-scale commissions for public art.

"I'm checking my memory bank here," Hall said, before she paused on the phone and admitted she was coming up blank.

Brett Shaheen of Shaheen Modern & Contemporary Art at 740 W. Superior Ave. in Cleveland said the only comparable artist is T.R. Ericsson of Concord Township and New York City, whom he represents.

Ericsson, whose work was the subject of a recent show at the Transformer Station, has sold works locally for up to $24,000 at Shaheen, the dealer said.

Shaheen said only a handful of local collectors are willing or able to spend in the mid-five figures for locally made art, and he's not sure the number is growing.

But he said rising prices may create a new sense of what's possible for artists to achieve with Northeast Ohio as a professional base, especially because studio space here is relatively cheap.

"If you have the ambition and the means of building an infrastructure here and a larger audience for your work outside of Cleveland, yeah, you can live and work here," he said. "Hell, it's a helluva lot cheaper than living in New York and San Francisco."

The $35,000 local price for the Stanczak is part of the larger story of the rediscovery the artist's work after decades in which critics, collectors and art historians ignored it.

Stanczak, 87, a native of Borownica, Poland, lost the use of his right arm and hand after having been beaten at a Soviet labor camp in 1940 where he and members of his family were held at the beginning of World War II.

Stanczak completed his art education at Yale University after the war and settled in Cleveland in 1964, where he taught at the Cleveland Institute of Art until his retirement in 1995. He has lived for many years in Seven Hills with his wife, artist Barbara Stanczak.

In 1965, Stanczak famously participated in the exhibition "The Responsive Eye" at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which introduced the short-lived Op Art movement.

The style – with its electric, eye-jangling colors and illusionistic geometric patterns – fell quickly out of favor.

By the middle 2000s, however, Stanczak and other artists of his generation were rediscovered. Accordingly, Stanczak's prices have rocketed from a previously low base.

Bloomberg News and Artnet in 2012 ranked Stanczak No. 6 on a global list of the 15 hottest artists, based on the percentage increase in auction prices for their works.

The highest price for a Stanczak in the survey was $62,500 for a painting bought by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The artist's prices have continued to zoom in New York, reaching levels far higher than those in Cleveland, because the works sold in New York are larger and, sometimes, older.

Stanczak's work is priced according to scale, and in part according to age, with a premium on early Op Art examples.

Sotheby's sold a 53-by-53-inch 1964 Stanczak at auction in New York in September for $125,000, for example.

And Stanczak said in a phone interview Tuesday that his New York gallery, Mitchell-Innes & Nash, also recently sold a large painting of his for more than $300,000.

"They feel my work is totally underpriced, so they are working up the scale," he said. "Whether I agree or not, that is another point."

Robert Grossman, the gallery's director, could not be reached immediately Wednesday for comment.

When pressed in the interview, Stanczak said he appreciates his newfound attention and prices -- both here and in New York.

But he says wistfully, "I wish it came a little bit earlier because many times I really suffered financially and worried how I am going to make it."

The painting sold at Bonfoey is part of "Color and Form," a side-by-side exhibition that pairs Julian Stanczak's paintings and prints with abstract sculptures by his wife, who also taught at the Cleveland Institute of Art from 1976 to 2011.

The paintings include gemlike, 24-by24-inch images in which rippling networks of line create the powerful illusion of three-dimensional wrinkles and folds on their flat surfaces.

Barbara Stanczak's sculptures, for the most part, explore curved, biomorphic shapes that seem to have been suggested to her by the chunks of alabaster that she carves and polishes, revealing their translucency and veining.

The Bonfoey show charts the creative dynamism that has powered one of the more fruitful artistic partnerships in Cleveland in recent decades.

And it also shows how the region's art market is changing, thanks in part to the art world's rediscovery of a great, overlooked Cleveland artist.

But Stanczak enthusiast and collector Neil Rector, of Columbus, said that Stanczak is not motivated by prices.

"Julian is an extraordinary person in that he's not driven first and foremost by money," he said. "He's interested in solving visual problems and using art to communicate with the viewer."

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