On ViewCraig F. Starr Gallery
October 5, 2021 – January 15, 2022
Discretion is the better part of shape consciousness. What form is given, subtracted, and then remains can express a succinct measure of an artist’s exploratory extremes, therefore attaining a sense of grace. The first Aegean farmers to unearth ancient Cycladic figures with their ploughs must have wondered at their articulate simplicity, as successive generations of artists have been inspired by Myron Stout's single-minded commitment to exploring similarly shaped (and similarly mysterious) forms in his paintings and drawings. The relation between the two is, of course, a pseudomorphic one—and certainly less direct than, say, the Cycladic influence on Brâncuși's pared-down sculptures—yet the shared impulse to carve out an austere mythos of symbolic form is undeniably felt in this inspired pairing.
The exhibition currently on view at Craig F. Starr presents a selection of 13 of Stout’s drawings and paintings, placing them in conversation with five diminutive Cycladic marble figures and one vessel. All are sensitively installed so as to keep a visitor toggling back and forth between the two groupings. The artist’s works include nine exquisitely rendered graphite and paper compositions, as well as two larger charcoal and graphite drawings and five works in oil on canvas. Most of the graphite drawings, often considered the most exemplary of Stout’s patient realizations, are held privately, so the opportunity to see them collected like this is a rare one. They also afford us the chance to see the artist working in a surprisingly broad morphological range, considering the artist’s legendarily tight control of his output. Untitled (1965–70), for instance, could be the artist’s response to female votive figures encountered in his ancillary studies of early Greek and Roman culture, while Untitled (ca. early 1970s) looks like nothing so much as a video game character from Space Invaders. This range shows the associative malleability of Stout’s glyphs, as do three very tiny (none larger than two-and-a-half inches on a side), graphite compositions that appear to be nascent ideas, seeds to the artist’s larger painted blooms. In their distilled motifs, these drawings suggest an affinity with Ellsworth Kelly’s more strident formal reductions. It is this restraint, and the ability to actually underplay a minimalist hand, that evinces the perennial freshness of Stout’s work—another important correlation with the resilient appeal of Cycladic sculpture.
Much is still unknown about the use and symbolic deployment of Cycladic art, but its primarily small-scale figures which, for the most part, cannot stand on their own, imply that these were portable, carried, as were the animal fetish amulets of historically migratory Inuit cultures, for instance. Considering that the Cyclades were likely settled by a seagoing mercantile culture, such portability is not unlikely. And one might further extrapolate that these finely sanded and carved marble works functioned as a species of metaphysical “tools” that allowed travelers to keep in touch with the grounding continuity of a mythic realm. Not much seems to have changed formally between earlier periods, as seen here in Cycladic Figure Attributed to the Kontoleon Master, Kapsala Variety (ca. 2700–2600 BCE), and later iterations like Cycladic Marble Figure, Dokathismata Variety (ca. 2400–2100 BCE). The main difference between the two is a slightly more volumetric realization of the human form. Cycladic periods much later than these tended to lose the austerity of earlier works: the more established the culture, the less need for simple tools to directly access the paranormal. Two powerfully direct Cycladic heads bear mute witness to the aesthetic survey presented here, one a mere 3 inches high and the other only half again as large. With their characteristic, slightly jutting jaws, yet sans discernable mouths, they preside as lithic wedges, prying open what silent, mythic worlds may yet coincide with our currently overly-articulate world.
Stout’s paintings evoke an antique law of symbols without relying too heavily on nostalgia or overly direct reference. Like Adolph Gottlieb, he was sophisticated enough to realize that was a road to aesthetic perdition. And yet how does this sophistication dissemble its way back to a more frank and primary voice? Stout did this by staring the problem straight in the face. This direct frontal assault on derivative abstract symbolism is fully felt in Untitled (Wind Borne Egg) (ca. 1955). While there is a distinct formal correlation between this painting and the forms of the Cycladic heads in the exhibition, one must take into account the evacuated, planar manifestation of that similarity in the painting. The viewer is made to pay attention to the equilibrium and tension the artist creates between the off-white ovoid shape and its carefully measured tension within the limits of the canvas. Stout may have been prompted by ancient volumes but translated that initial appreciation into his discrete mapping of planar physics. He never really pulled any punches when it came to such a translation, and so one might easily mistake such directness as simple homage to older forms—ones that hold so many secrets as to their original intended purpose. Paintings such as Untitled (1954) and Hierophant (1955-79) share a tendency with Cycladic art in that they too seem to be “carved” into hand-worthy “tools.” And they share a speculative portability with their ancient antecedent as well, since Stout’s self-contained abstractions yet allow for all manner of associative conveyance.
The catalogue accompanying this exhibition includes an insightful reading of Stout’s life and work in relation to Cycladic art, written by artist and author Tina Dickey. In one wonderful passage quoted by Dickey, Stout explains, “The appeal of Greece is the business of beginnings, where do things start and how can you get at the beginnings of things?” For him, those arcane beginnings found their ultimate form in his drawings and paintings.