Cleveland Magazine, May 2013
He escaped the Soviet gulag and created mesmerizing abstract paintings that fueled a starburst of fame in the 1960s. Now Julian Stanczak is enjoying renewed interest and acclaim.
The color catches you.
Julian Stanczak's split-level brick house in Seven Hills looks much like any other home on the block — except the garage door glows a radiant, joyful red.
The color repeats on the front door, in brilliant red rectangles inside each blue panel and in the tiny red borderlines separating the blue from black crossbeams.
Stanczak's wife, Barbara, opens the door, revealing the fantasia of color and form along every sight line in the artist-couple's living room. On the far wall, a 1964 Stanczak painting refuses to keep still. Its rippling red and blue lines curve and roll like a mountain's slopes. To its right, in a work only a few years old, 20 square canvases repeat the same four-sided shapes as they switch positions and darken from yellow and light red at the top to deeper red at the bottom. The artwork faces the garage door outside the window, red talking to red.
Julian Stanczak steps to a doorway and motions for me to come through. He extends his left arm to shake hands; his right arm rests at his side. Blue-eyed, with white hair and a white beard trimmed to an Eastern European point, he speaks with a spark of mischief and a sharp accent that recalls his childhood in Poland.
As Stanczak shows off his studio, once a cozy family room, he points to where walls were knocked out to make room for his wide drafting tables and tall windows that let in abundant light. American homebuilders "don't believe in windows!" he declares. "They believe in doors and empty walls." Instead, all the first-floor doorways are open. "I don't like to be closed in," he says.
Since 1967, Stanczak and his wife have lived here — in a "typical Americana" setting, he says — doing their work far from the New York art world where Stanczak was once championed, his mesmerizing abstract paintings fueling a starburst of fame, and even farther from his birthplace and the countries he passed through as a refugee.
Stanczak's art has helped him transcend his past. Painting gives him a craft, a purpose, and a way to succeed in America after the suffering of his youth, when he was imprisoned in the Soviet gulag and lost the use of his right arm. But his paintings are not about his life; they're a refuge for the viewer. Stanczak's glowing fields of color and contemplative shapes and patterns are meant to inspire meditation, a break from everyday troubles and a state of spiritual peace.
Stanczak sits on his living room couch. "Watch out," he warns wryly. On the coffee table in front of him, one of Barbara's white alabaster sculptures explodes, like a porcupine's quills, into dozens of black points. He looks behind him at his painting Silver Horizon, which he painted in the '90s and recently reacquired in a Japanese auction. Its wavy vertical lines of iridescent silver bunch together in places, creating ripples of blue. Halfway down the canvas, each line kinks, creating a fault line, the horizon.
The lines evoke nature's pathways, he says. "The wind blows. Snowflakes fly. The grass sways in the wind and never stops its endless performance. It is beautiful like passages in a symphony orchestra that many instruments put together [to] form one sound."
Stanczak's paintings are sometimes described as perceptual abstractions, because they make the viewer aware of how we see. In the mid-'60s, critics lumped Stanczak's work into a new movement called "op art," a term inspired by his paintings. But he has pursued his work long after the buzz about op art faded.
The art world forgot Stanczak for a while. But now, he's enjoying a resurgence. Curators are discovering the deep emotion of his later paintings and his '60s work is spiking in value at auctions. The Akron Art Museum is taking part in his re-emergence with its seven-month exhibition, Line Color Illusion: 40 Years of Julian Stanczak.
By staying true to his vision, Stanczak is defying time.
Stanczak often tells audiences, "I was born in Cleveland, Ohio, at the age of 21."
He arrived here in 1950 and doesn't like to dwell on his life before that — especially because it sometimes comes back to him at night. But it's impossible to explain how he became an artist without telling the story.
Actually, he was born in Poland in 1928. Art was not part of his childhood, but music and craftsmanship were. His mother's relatives were skilled at building huts, houses and furniture, and they played folk music on clarinet as a break from their labor. As a boy, Stanczak hoped to learn to play cello.
He was not quite 11 when Germany invaded Poland to begin World War II. He witnessed the German army's advance into his city, Przemysl: explosions on the horizon, the artillery's rumble, the soldiers swarming into town on motorcycles armed with machine guns. Weeks later, the Soviet Union's invasion of eastern Poland reached Przemysl; the Germans fell back and the Red Army swept in.
Neighbor turned on neighbor. Someone who coveted the Stanczaks' land turned the Communist authorities against them.
"They broke the door, they came in, 4 o'clock in the morning," Stanczak recalls. "It was one or two Russians with the rifles and a couple of our neighbors. They said, 'Get ready!' and, 'Now, now, let's go, now!' "
The soldiers took the Stanczaks to the train station, shoved them into a boxcar and sent them to the gulag, the Soviet labor camp system. They were sentenced to five years' labor for reasons that wouldn't be crimes in a sane society: Stanczak's father was a landowner who had fought the Russians in World War I.
The camp was high in the frigid, snowy Ural Mountains. Prisoners sawed down trees and built roads. While Stanczak watched his little brother in the barracks and went to school, his father, mother and teenage sister worked. The laborers walked miles to the work site every morning, carrying wooden torches, following the path carefully so they wouldn't fall into a snow drift and suffocate.
Those who didn't complete enough work in a 10-hour day got no food. Those who did earned a slice of bread, sometimes served up with religious mockery from the camp guards. "If there was shortage of bread, then they said, 'Why don't you pray to your god and let him give you it? Or pray to me. I have one bread left.' "
Stanczak proved himself a good student and a hard worker. Occasionally, he'd go into the forest with his father to pull one end of his two-man saw. Once, to make room for a small vegetable garden, he yanked a tree stump from the ground, a feat the Russian guards didn't think possible from a 12-year-old. He kept working even when his arm weakened after contracting encephalitis from an insect bite. (In some retellings of Stanczak's life, his arm injury has been attributed to a beating in the camp; Stanczak says writers have sometimes misinterpreted or sensationalized details of his story.)
The war shifted as Germany attacked the Soviet Union, putting Poland and the Soviets on the same side of the fighting. Gulag officials began letting Poles out of the camps. Stanczak's father left to join the Polish army in exile, organizing in the southern Soviet republics to fight Germany. The rest of the family followed, setting out on a 2,000-mile refugee odyssey.
They spent weeks on slow-moving trains traveling south and were nearing starvation when they finally sailed across the Caspian Sea to Iran. There, his mother signed up the family for a Polish refugee camp in Uganda.
Stanczak's right arm was slipping toward paralysis. Doctors in Iran could do nothing for him; in Africa, he learned it could not be cured. He was 14. "How I am going to manage in life?" he asked.
In the jungle, living in a grass hut, Stanczak grew enchanted with nature: gazelles, long-beaked black birds, grasses as tall as him. "The flowers, the smell, the sounds of a jungle: day and night always something," he recalls. "Even the crickets when they pierce your eardrums, so loud."
For the first time, he turned to art. "The beauty that I see around me, I tried to note for myself," he recalls. He began to draw scenes from the jungle, teaching himself to use a pen with his left hand. An artist from Warsaw approached him and offered lessons. In the artist's hut, Stanczak struggled to draw a still life: two lemons, a handkerchief, a water glass.
Stanczak spent six years at the refugee camp, where he developed into a skilled watercolorist. He moved to London to reunite with his father, taught himself English from a dictionary, signed up for college and took as many art classes as he could. After two years, the American Embassy offered to reserve a place for the Stanczaks to sail to the United States as a reward for his father's wartime service with the Allies.
The family came to Cleveland and moved into a home on West 10th Street in Tremont. Cleveland was booming in 1950. The river valley's sooty factories promised work. Stanczak, now 21, felt at home. "Passing the airport, there was a big billboard, and it said, 'Best location in the nation,' " he recalls. "I said, "Wow, that's where I want to be.' "
Stanczak perplexed his professors at the Cleveland Institute of Art, and they frustrated him.
"The teachers would tell me, 'Why don't you paint from experiences?' and I would look at them and say, 'What, the atrocities of life? Is that art?' I wanted to avoid and forget the past."
It's not just that Stanczak didn't want to relive the war or paint tales of his immigrant struggles. He didn't want to paint stories or objects at all. He wanted to create art that would transcend his life experiences and help others transcend theirs.
He asked his teachers questions about color they couldn't answer. "How do we see the color?" he recalls asking. "What happens at night that the reds become almost black? Why the moon changes color from red over the horizon, as it goes up [and] becomes white?"
So he went in search of them on his own, taking the bus to visit the Phillips Collection of modern art in Washington, D.C. Inside the Victorian mansion that housed the collection, he bade good morning to the guard and soon discovered he had the place to himself. He came to a roomful of paintings by the Swiss artist Paul Klee composed of bright, bold primary colors and semi-abstract human figures with piercing eyes.
He sat down on a couch, exhausted from the bus ride, and fell asleep.
"I woke up. I see those Klees. They're looking at me. I'm looking at them. There is a radiation that they ooze out, a peace, a contemplation," he recalls. "They offer inner comfort. It is erasing your perturbance, substituting it with [a] home to rest."
In Klee's colors, Stanczak had found what he was looking for, what he wanted his own art to do.
In the Akron Art Museum's massive storage room, Stanczak reunites with some of his paintings. His eyes turn to Dual Glare, a study of line and color the museum bought in 1970, the same year it first mounted an exhibition of Stanczak's work. It's appearing again in this year's Line Color Illusion show.
But Stanczak, casting aside the polite flattery that usually lubricates the curator-artist relationship, can't help but bring up the years in between.
"This painting was buried here for a while. They didn't show it. One day they put it up and they discovered it's not too bad of a painting!" he says, winking at the way his work once fell out of fashion, then fell back in.
In 1964, Stanczak was newly married, a first-time father, a newly hired professor at the Cleveland Institute of Art and the subject of his first major show, at the Dayton Art Institute. Martha Jackson, a prominent New York art dealer, was captivated by Stanczak's work, which had forsaken all attempts to represent a scene and focused purely on color, line and shape. She booked Stanczak to open her Manhattan gallery's new season, a huge career break.
But one thing bothered him — the label Jackson put on his art. She titled the show Julian Stanczak — Optical Paintings. All paintings are optical, he argued. "I told Martha, 'How can you say twice, visual?' " he recalls.
The line caught on. Critics declared Stanczak part of a movement called op art, connecting him with other artists whose work tested viewers' perceptions or played with illusions and optical effects. Time included Stanczak in its story on op art. Life published a photo of Passing Contour, his wavelike painting now mounted on his living room wall. The Museum of Modern Art included Stanczak and 105 other artists in its 1965 op art exhibition, The Responsive Eye. The New York Times used his dense black-and-white Light of Darkness to illustrate its big story on op art. A New York department store used it in a newspaper ad to sell sunglasses.
The attention powered Stanczak's career through the '70s. He exhibited in London, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., and every year or two at the Martha Jackson Gallery. At home, he created a 12-story mural on Cleveland's Carter Manor. Red and yellow stripes ran as tall as the building and narrowed to an orange infinity.
His illusions grew subtler, their effects more profound. Dual Glare, painted in 1970, looks like a series of orange and purple triangles interrupted by bands of yellow. But it isn't. There's no orange, purple or yellow paint on the canvas. Stanczak constructed the painting as a series of interspersed blue, red and green lines, their widths varying from 1/8 to 5/8 inches. The eye blends the primary colors when it sees the painting from afar.
"I try to prove to the people, you are looking, but not seeing it fully," Stanczak says.
Stanczak exhibited less often in the '80s and '90s as art trends turned against abstraction. He'd been prescient to resist the "op art" label, which made it too easy to dismiss his style as a peculiar artifact of 1965. Yet he kept working, and his art evolved, growing more sophisticated, more emotional. He began creating grid patterns in his paintings, using them as a structure to explore luminous color that imitated natural light.
His lines and grids suggest a mathematical or scientific logic, but Stanczak has no advanced training in math or science. They can remind a viewer of computer-generated patterns, but the colors' soulful glow reveal an artist's presence.
Using only his left hand, Stanczak begins with a quick sketch, then sets to work with a canvas, dozens of shades of paint mixed in baby food jars, and tape. He creates the sharp edges between colors by laying lines of tape across early layers of paint, then painting along the tape and removing it.
He uses a ruler to lay the lines — and even invented a tape-cutting machine that spools out tape of any width he needs — but he'll overrule the ruler if the lines don't look right.
Stanczak has always been a tinkerer and a craftsman. During his flight from Russia, he made a knife, fork and spoon for when he found food. He built most of the furniture in his house and laid the deep blue kitchen tile.
"He likes order," his wife says. "He's absolutely scrupulous, a perfectionist, and yet he hates perfection. He's emotional, and yet he hides it."
His preoccupation with boundaries and contrast extends to the dinner table. "He will never mix, say, the rice with the beef," says Barbara. "They have to be eaten all separately and experienced separately." Even when making a soup, she cooks each ingredient on its own: broth, meat, noodles, potatoes. "I serve them separately and he puts the proportions together."
The colorist is losing the ability to differentiate colors. At 84, Stanczak now works in black and white.
"The illusion of third dimension, you can do it in purely black and white," he says. "You can see the detail much better."
White and gray rectangles oscillate and echo in 30 square canvases, arranged in rows on his studio wall. "They are more or less melodical, because they do not repeat," he says. "And yet, they repeat."
He's been working on this piece for two years. "It'll take me a little bit longer to finish," he says, "because I don't have the strength."
Photos from the '60s often catch Stanczak with an impish smile — looking at a bust of his even younger self, posing in front of the sensually undulating black lines of his work Provocative Current. The pictures hint at a rakish wit that still sparks today.
As we walk through the Akron Art Museum, a curator tells him they've set up a model of his exhibition upstairs. "Is she nude?" he quips.
Even as age slows Stanczak, interest in his work is accelerating. Two of his 1967 paintings, estimated around $20,000, each sold recently at auction for about $60,000.
Last year, Bloomberg.com listed Stanczak No. 6 among the art market's "hottest artists," saying the auction value of his artwork had grown 3,331 percent since 2000. But it was a bit of a statistical fluke. Most other artists on the list attract million-dollar prices. Stanczak's paintings achieved the high percentage because they sold for as little as $2,000 in the 1990s.
When the art world moved on from abstraction in the '80s and '90s, Stanczak's paintings became mostly the province of Ohio collectors. After 1979, he did not exhibit in New York again until 2004. Now, Stanczak's wife, a New York dealer and an agent are aggressively marketing his work.
Curators are rediscovering op artists, especially Stanczak. His work was included in Ghosts in the Machine, a 2012 exhibition at the New Museum in New York City that showed op art along with the works of young artists from throughout the world.
"Curators are seeing ways he fits into larger histories of art, different histories of art," says Joe Houston, author of Optic Nerve, a history of op art.
Art experts are also discovering that Stanczak's later work, with its deeply emotional colors that evoke the warmth of light, transcends op art's visual experiments and its moment in history.
"If you see his best pictures in a gallery with other 20th century art, it really holds up," says Harry Rand, a senior curator of cultural history at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. "Unlike other op artists or perceptual artists, he has an emotional range they don't have, [and a] scale and grandeur. He's the best of all in terms of a humanly important statement."
In Akron, Stanczak contemplates It's Not Easy Being Green, one of his color grid paintings. It shades from a bright, tropical-ocean blue on the edges to a springlike green that emerges from the center like a giant X.
"Color enters our psyche very fast and remains there," Stanczak says. "It cannot be easily analyzed. It is just a light, a particular light. You want to sun yourself in it."