Art review: Julian Stanczak at Akron Art Museum

By Dorothy Shinn
Beacon Journal art and architecture critic

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Julian Stanczak, Its Not Easy Being Green, acrylic on canvas, 57 in. x 57 in. Collection of the Akron Art Museum, Rory and Dedee O'Neil Acquisition Fund.

Julian Stanczak is one of life’s great success stories. Born in Boronica, Poland, in 1928, he was imprisoned in a Siberian labor camp during World War II, where his dreams of becoming a concert cellist were dashed when he lost the use of his right arm.

In 1942, he escaped Siberia and found his way to Persia, then Uganda, where he was placed in a Polish refugee camp. It was while he was in this refugee camp in the heart of Africa that he learned to draw with his left hand.

After the war he made his way to London where he took art classes, then in 1950 he moved to Cleveland and enrolled at the Cleveland Institute of Art.

As a graduate student at Yale University, he studied with the celebrated master of color Josef Albers, and one of the early Abstract Expressionists, Conrad Marca-Relli. His roommate there was fellow CIA alum Richard Anuszkiewicz, and the two became synonymous with the Op Art Movement. In fact Stanczak’s first major show, held in New York in 1964, is said to have given the Op Art movement its name.

Through Nov. 3, the Akron Art Museum is paying tribute with Line Color Illusion: 40 Years of Julian Stanczak, an exhibit organized by Janice Driesbach, the museum’s chief curator and acting executive director.

The Akron Art Institute first had a Stanczak exhibit in 1970, and purchased the painting Dual Glare (1970), which shows how increasingly complex his paintings had become. This large (48 inches by 96 inches) work is one of the focal points of this exhibit.

The other is It’s Not Easy Being Green (1980-2000), which sits by itself on the center wall of the show.

These two works give us a visual summary of Stanczak’s history, from his “Line Condensations” to his “Grid” or “Lumina” paintings.

While Dual Glare is organized using only a few colors, the canvases with luminous centers rely on multiple color interactions, testifying to the artist’s increasing understanding and confidence in using color.

It’s Not Easy Being Green was created in three layers using 45 colors, working from the edges to the center. Then he drew the “windows” or “frames,” slowing modifying the colors inward from the edges. Finally, he painted the small squares.

Whereas in Dual Glare, the eye is fooled into thinking that the greens are yellows, the blues are greens and the reds are oranges, in It’s Not Easy Being Green, the eye is so overloaded and lacking in any particular pathway to enter the painting, that it manufactures an optical phenomenon, the pulsating “X” that we see at the center of the canvas.

If we approach the painting closely, the “X” disappears. It’s a construct of the mind, not of the work itself, and the brain’s way of ordering the painting.

But the works must be experienced in person to get the full effect.

“I’ve been a museum professional for a long time,” said Driesbach, “and part of what I advocate all the time is how different it is to see an art work in person and having that one-to-one experience, and seeing it in reproduction.

“That’s particularly true in Julian’s work, and that’s because his work is all about color and perception, and while we did a lot of proofing on the brochure to get the colors as correct as possible, the firsthand experience of his work is so much richer.”

Everything in this exhibit is either currently in the museum’s collection, or promised. It’s Not Easy Being Green was acquired for the exhibit, and Stanczak and his wife, the artist Barbara Stanczak, gave the museum the silkscreen print Cool Filtration.

Dedee and Rory O’Neil promised Intravert I (1968), in black and silver, an early development toward the “Line Condensation” paintings such as Dual Glare, and also part of its own cycle of works.

Intravert I, painted while Stanczak was in residence at Dartmouth College, is an example of his “Transparencies” or “See Through” paintings, which use an even more restricted palette. Stanczak created the sensation of overlapping transparent planes hovering in shallow space, using tape to demarcate the lines.

Stanczak focused intensely on the “Transparencies” in the 1970s and returned to this theme again in 1990, said Driesbach.

In contrast to Intravert I, Dual Glare defies the viewer’s ability to comprehend its complex pattern in a single glance.

As Driesbach writes in her catalog essay for the show: “Stanczak used line gradients to create the appearance of changing colors. … Three saturated colors with differing wavelengths — Day-Glo red, green and light blue — define trapezoidal forms that touch one another.

“The different spacing of the warm and cool color lines causes the eye to perceive the sensation of colors in a manner that differences from their physical reality. …

“And while Dual Glare is realized in a dramatically different palette than Intravert I (red, green and blue as opposed to black and silver) both paintings are activated by parallel vertical lines whose rhythms have been likened to the Baroque music that the artist favors.”

Stanczak is also a master printer, and his later screenprints boast relatively glossy surfaces because of his preference for oil-based inks. But he does not like the reflections that result when works on paper are glazed.

This led him to create Boreal (1973), a screenprint on stainless steel foil, which is literally reflective so, as Stanczak put it, “the reflection of the viewer was part of the image and the visual experience.”

This modest-sized but inspiring exhibit is well worth a trip to the museum: Watch the “X” disappear and reappear from It’s Not Easy Being Green as you move toward it and away from it; try to separate the yellows from the greens, the greens from the blues and the reds from the oranges in Dual Glare; and without touching, see if you can tell if the surfaces of three 2008 paintings are two- or three-dimensional: Two Verticals, Diagonal and the Line and Enclosed.

Remember, no cheating, no touching.

Dorothy Shinn writes about art and architecture for the Akron Beacon Journal. Send information to her at the Akron Beacon Journal, P.O. Box 640, Akron, OH 44309-0640 or

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