Julian Stanczak, the Op art painter who, despite physical difficulties, managed to create canvases with vibrant geometries and hypnotic motion, died in his home in Seven Hills, Ohio on March 25. He was 88.
Stanczak was one of the leaders of the short-lived Op art movement in the 1960s. He was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1965 exhibition “The Responsive Eye,” which also featured work by Bridget Riley, Gunter Uecker, and Victor Vasarely. Although today considered groundbreaking for its emphasis on perception and its critical look at what a painting could be, the show was savaged by critics. Thomas B. Hess, writing for ARTnews, called the show a case of “acute Exhibitionemia,” for the way it lumped together unlike artists.
Yet a few critics recognized that Stanczak was doing something different from the other artists in this show. Donald Judd, the artist and critic often credited with originating the term “Op art,” once wrote that Stanczak’s work had a “painterly expressiveness,” making it different from other Op art that privileged formal experimentation over engaging viewers.
Stanczak’s acrylic paintings often tended toward brightly colored shapes and grids. Typically made through contrasting unlike hues, Stanczak was able to create compositions that are jarring to the eye. They highlight the act of seeing, in the process showing that, when we look at two unlike forms put together, an unexpected element can result: movement. His paintings suggested Abstract Expressionism for an age of rapid technological innovation.
Many critics, Judd included, have been quick to see Stanczak’s work through the lens of his personal life. Julian Stanczak was born in Borownica, Poland, in 1928. He and his family were forced to work on a labor camp in Siberia during World War II. In his time there, he developed encephalitis, which ultimately rendered his right arm unusable. When he started painting, he was forced to work solely with his left arm, yet despite his handicap, he always worked alone, obsessively piling lines and shapes of various densities on his canvases by himself.
Stanczak escaped from the labor camp when he was 14. He traveled through the Middle East and South Asia, ultimately settling in Uganda. The unnaturally bright colors of his paintings were inspired by the African sunsets he witnessed there.
After studying art in London, Stanczak immigrated in 1950 to America, where he studied at the Cleveland Institute of Art. At Yale University, where he would later receive an M.F.A., Stanczak took classes with Josef Albers, the modernist painter, who taught him about color theory and geometry.
Stanczak himself was a prolific teacher. He was a professor at the Cleveland Institute of Art from 1964 to 1995; his students included April Gornik and Dana Schutz. Yet even many who didn’t study with him seem to bear his influence, including emerging artists whose digitally minded paintings create jarring juxtapositions between people, grids, and background elements.
For Stanczak, his work was always about color and its dramatic effects. He was a formalist at heart—a painter aware of the very mechanics behind his paintings—but one whose work had a surprising emotional undercurrent. “Color is abstract, universal,” he once said, adding that, in addition to being a formal element, it’s also “personal and private in experience.”