In art, as in life, opposites attract. Which is to say that artists often find inspiration in what they reject: An act of repudiation may serve as the starting point of an original conception. Something like this dialectic of attraction and denial seems to have governed the life and work of the American painter Myron Stout (1908-1987), whose paintings from the 1950’s are now the subject of an exhibition at the Washburn Gallery. The exhibition coincides with the publication of Selections from the Journals of Myron Stout.
Both contain elements of surprise. For the segment of the art public that’s mainly familiar with the spare, unembellished forms of Stout’s earlier black-and-white abstractions, the surprise in these abstract paintings from the 1950’s will be the variety and vitality of their chromatic invention and the geometric rigor of their composition. In the Journals, the surprise is not so much biographical-Stout has long been known to have lived a solitary life-as it is intellectual: the revelation that he devoted such close critical attention to the work of his contemporaries, keeping a detailed written record of his responses to their accomplishments and what he regarded as their failures.
In one respect, the Journals resemble the paintings: They are at their best when they are most concrete. Stout’s reflections on the nature of painting itself are not always persuasive when they wander into the realm of generality. Many of his broader reflections are pure tautology. When he turns his attention to particular artists, however, he’s far more engaging.
He came of age as a painter in the heyday of Abstract Expressionism. Hans Hofmann was his principal mentor. From the Journals, we now know that he followed the development of Abstract Expressionism with a keen critical interest, while in his own painting he pursued a radically different course: a mode of abstraction small in scale, purist in form and intimate in feeling-an art utterly devoid of expressionist bravura and emotional display. This polarity of interests is reflected in the Journals, where the two most frequently cited painters are Hofmann and Mondrian.
When writing about the Abstract Expressionist aesthetic that he rejected in his own work, Stout brought to bear an independent critical intelligence at once measured, respectful and disabused. Thus, writing in the 1950’s-when many young painters were heedlessly producing hectic imitations of de Kooning-Stout observed: “The artists seem to be caught with the forming of form out of a sort of chaos of de Kooning. I don’t know then whether it is the way a powerful personality is fighting and even dragging the form out of nothing that catches them, or whether it is the form itself that seems so welcome.”
In 1951, he wrote: “De Kooning, more conscious always of the fullness, the accomplishment of Western painting, is constantly torn and almost rent asunder in his struggle. It’s as though he were trying to reconcile Gorky with Rubens …. The tremendous and vital energy of his struggle has also a tremendous influence on other painters. The very intensity of his purpose inspires a whole school of young painters who, less afraid after the achievements of Gorky and Pollock and de Kooning, are powerfully inspired by the latter’s vitality and integrity of purpose, have been unashamed to attempt some almost shameless and formless painting.”
This is the best account of the downside of de Kooning’s influence I have seen. Alas, Stout didn’t live long enough to see the quantity of shameless and formless paintings that de Kooning himself produced in his dotage.
About the paintings of Mark Rothko, Stout also harbored doubts. “With Rothko,” he writes, “I am the least impressed of all. When he gets something, it’s beautiful: the clear, water-color floating quality of forms that are more color-mergings than actual forms, colors becoming other colors in a movement-in-liquid (yet there’s a dryness, even so). He controls it better technically than spiritually.”
The artist of this group that Stout most ardently admired was his teacher Hans Hofmann, who was clearly a father figure to him. Hofmann inspired similar feelings in many of his gifted students, and for Stout he was also a model for artistic probity. As to the source of Hofmann’s authority vis-à-vis his art students, Stout was correct in observing: “He is the link with the past that they wouldn’t otherwise have.”
Selections from the Journals of Myron Stout (Midmarch Arts Press) is a book that every art student should read-and that many artists would profit from reading-and their understanding of it would be much enhanced by a visit to the exhibition Myron Stout: Paintings, c. 1950, which remains on view at the Washburn Gallery, 20 West 57th Street, through April 16.