On ViewCraig F. Starr
October 5, 2021 – January 15, 2021
The American painter Myron Stout (1908-1987) already stands outside time. Like Albert Pinkham Ryder, as portrayed by the younger Marsden Hartley, he might already belong to the ages. Ryder and Hartley were both most assuredly American, but Denton, Texas-born Stout? Maybe not. Known best for a relatively few black-and-white images—emblematic, gnomic, and obscure, the painter of Aegis, Tiresias, Hierophant, Demeter, Delphi, and Leto came from the Greeks, sort of.
Craig Starr Gallery’s Myron Stout and Cycladic Art confronts the artist and the ancients, for the first time, face to face. The exhibition is quite literally museum-quality, including four of the iconic black-and-white paintings (that’s a lot—there are only 21 in total), three charcoal drawings in similar format, and a number of the later less-celebrated graphite drawings, startlingly small, in tones ranging from near-fleshy paper to smoky and smokier grays: no black, no white. For some of us, those drawings might loom larger than the paintings, which are quite modest themselves. This artist gains power in compression. Smallest, nerviest. Simplest, keenest, and the more dangerous. Stout’s work is perhaps most remarkable for its telepathically perceived physicality, and threat. The paintings seem specimens at life-size rather than pictures, in the abstract. And the shapes are not flat—his white is erect, dimensional matter, as is his black: this painter is a carver. Of contradiction and paradox as much as contours and boundaries, black and white.
Stout suggested as much in his published journals. His notes to self point all around him, to friends, rivals, things seen and a good deal of reading; from Aeschylus to Louis L’Amour, but one could say there are basically three subjects in play, all moderns: Hans Hofmann, Ellsworth Kelly, and the edge. Form comes up, flatness is a recurrent issue, but boundaries, perimeters, frontiers, and the contact face between places and things are more than that. Edge is a factor, rather than a location. An un-allied agent. A trouble-seeking and trouble-making character at large.
Stout noted that the division of black and white is active, and not planar (he noted the same regarding Mondrian’s black bands). The images are indeed heraldic, but white is not placed over black, like an object over a field. Ostensible space and nominal form bear on each other shoulder to shoulder, contending at a front. The black/white images came to him quickly—Stout said that in the fifties he couldn’t paint them fast enough, but the images were fixed over many, perhaps too many years. Black edge to white, back and forth, pentimenti accrued at the contested division between them. But thickness at the divide, however slight, would not agree with level inside the shape, and the studied outline was traced and set aside, so that the surface could be scraped back to a clean plane. Then the new boundary was painted in, flat, again. The thing had to be flat (Clement Greenberg and the artist both had this from Hofmann), and it had to be round. Hard work. Philosophical work. Thriving on dilemma and difference.
Stout was known to have the Greeks on his mind. His touchstone was obviously not the supposed order and stability, the “noble simplicity and calm grandeur” of Winckelmann’s Greeks, it wasn’t even particularly visual: the journals make little-to-no specific connection to Classical art. He didn’t visit Greece (on a Guggenheim Fellowship) until he was 62 and once again at 64. Stout read. As it is for modern Greeks, his avenue to the past was language. He read the tragedies (rather than philosophy) avidly. His father had read them in their original language, the artist read in translation, but he had a thing for origin and beginnings, and associated the Greeks with a start. His interest in primality is evident in his reflex modes of centrality, singularity, and nesting. In his classic phase, the number is typically one. The black/white images could be called first-thing, or one on one (white on black), or a picture of totality: the One. In the later graphite images, number is a situational matter of only two or three—if one thing inside another would be considered as more than one.
The Greeks are in this somewhere. We want to connect his sensibility to something early, clean, sharp, and tangible, but object for object, thing to thing, there is no easy matchup. The rather exquisite Cycladic items here (from the Cycladic islands, small communities at the crossroads of the Aegean, 3300-1100 BCE), all marble—small figures, figure fragments and one carved vase, walls thin enough to pass light, stand in for a connection deep enough to be perhaps invisible.
The Cycladics were not much noted after discovery in the late 19th century but made a quiet sensation in the fifties and sixties. Picasso acquired one and discussed it avidly with Malraux. The Cyclades raised issues. For the sake of their stark white simplicity, seemingly reductive, they were immediately associated with abstraction, but Picasso understood they are quite evidently signs: a few choice incisions make a figure of a flattish marble plate. Much of their seeming “purity” was an accident of time: they came to us as blank palettes, stripped of their original color. They are perhaps most arresting for their not-so-pure ambiguity, between flat and round, thing and person. That elemental in-betweenness is Greek world and Stout territory. It is not at all obvious, but absolutely necessary to know, that Untitled (Wind-borne Egg) (c.1955—) was painted from a model.
The exhibition begs a question posed generation by generation, from the “beginning.” Within just two rooms, it gives us all we need to ask: just what is a classical artist, today?
It’s about uncertainty.
How much have things changed, really? Despite all our “information,” we moderns really don’t know much, and even our best guess is (ask a particle physicist or a meta-mathematician) we can’t. We are still desperately poor in certainties. Stout’s early Greeks acknowledged a world of unknowns, in what we might take for a near-primal scene of prevalent darkness and narrow, occasional, almost explosive light. Stout’s images are illuminated in a flash—one takes them in instantly—like the strobe effect of lightning, which, in Heraclitus’s saying, guides all things. They persist in preternatural quiet, but they arrived by violence. And seem to remember it, in a permanent state of elevated tension: the insignia of awe, and doubt.