PRINT March 1975

Myron Stout

SOME ARTISTS WORK SLOWLY BECAUSE they are methodical and painstaking, while others do so because their art appears to cast a spell over them. To the spellbound painter, the individual picture seems never to be completely finished; the picture always demands a further adjustment, some essential bit of extra tinkering, to make everything fixed, secure. The greatest American example of this type, Albert Pinkham Ryder, was described by a reverent Marsden Hartley as possessing a “strict passivity of mental vision.” Hartley had in mind the passivity of mystic experience, in which a person believes that he communicates states of feeling passing through him, not feelings that he consciously originates. Hartley’s “passivity” is exactly the right word for Ryder, and also for those other few artists who are reluctant to let their work leave the studio, because it suggests their bizarre, and even awesome, equanimity of spirit—the ability they have to be confident about their art even when the end is nowhere in sight.

Myron Stout is a painter who has this special confidence. Quietly, among artists, critics, and collectors, he is getting to be a legendary figure, not so much because of the ideas in his painting (someone’s ideas rarely make him a legend, anyway), but because he produces so slowly, and has removed himself, except for scattered group shows, so totally from the world of exhibitions. The smallness of Stout’s output is spectacular—he’s with Vermeer in that department.

At his first one-man show, at the Stable Gallery, New York, in 1954, he exhibited 12 paintings and 15 large charcoal drawings—work which represented, essentially, everything he had completed, that he believed had real merit, since 1947, which was when he first felt sure about his art. At his second, and last, one-man show, at the Hansa Gallery, New York, in 1957, he exhibited five paintings, six or seven charcoals, and a number of conté pencil drawings. Since the 1957 exhibition, he completed, or has been completing, eight paintings. In the late ’50s, he began working with graphite pencil, and he has now produced between 10 and 15 of these drawings (which are as finished as the oils or charcoals, and don’t precisely fit the word “drawing”); he hasn’t, as he would say, “put out” a charcoal in over three years, though he has exhibited and sold around 20 charcoals since the late ’40s. They’re the most widely dispersed part of his work.

Stout is finicky about minuscule, knife-edge type relationships to the extent that his practice exceeds finickyness, and one wonders if possibly he’s in communion with his pictures. He is not, though, a visionary painter. Unlike Ryder, he doesn’t keep his pictures around because he is romantically infatuated with them. But there is something of the Ryderian “passivity” Hartley was talking about in Stout’s approach. When Stout describesthe early history of pictures he is still working on, and then speculates on how these pictures will eventually be completed, the spirit he conveys is of things ripening in their own time unable to be speeded up from the outside. He is dedicated to the spirit of the form he works with; his desire is to let it achieve a maturity and fullness beyond which there’s nothing left to say.

Stout was born in Denton, Texas in 1908, and has lived, since the early ’50s, in Provincetown, Massachusetts. He played classical piano through the first half of his life, though never intending to be a professional musician; in college, at North Texas State, he studied literature and ancient history, and was thinking of becoming a historian when, at the end of his senior year, in 1930, he discovered painting. From then on, he was seriously involved with art. He taught painting and drawing in Texas in the early ’30s, and got a Master’s degree in art at Teacher’s College, Columbia, in 1933. After taking undergraduate art courses in Texas, from 1933 to 1936, he moved back to New York, this time on a more permanent basis, in 1937 (he was able to make the move only because he sold his Steinway Grand). But, up until 1947, there were always significant interruptions to his career—dissatisfaction with work done in the ’30s made him stop painting completely by the end of the decade, and he fought in the Second World War.

Stout painted representationally during the ’30s; he’s shown none of that work, much of which was landscape. When he went back to painting in 1947, he turned to total abstraction. One of the first pictures he was satisfied enough with to exhibit publicly, Trio, has its space compartmentalized in a way that recalls stained glass; there’s a not-too-obvious three-part format underlying all the smaller broken-up sections, and the colors are the primaries. It’s a neat, modestly beautiful picture, though maybe a little airless and tight and monotonously perfect—something like a Haydn sonata, whose a-b-a form it echoes.

Though he thought he was finished with representation, Stout returned to landscape when he moved to Provincetown. He was surprised that he still had an urge to work this way; however, the situation—a studio with a large window that looked directly out on the dunes, from which he could draw in all weather—tapped an impulse. Throughout the ’50s, he produced softly shaded conté pencil drawings which emphasize the flow and rhythms of shrubs, sand, trees, clouds. They look like High Renaissance drawings, especially in the way they’re dreamily atmospheric, and they make you think you’re looking at specific landscape rhythms, not specific places. Except for these contés, Stout’s art has stayed abstract—he is involved both with shapes that have angled edges and, since 1952, shapes with rounded edges. His canvas or sheet size is invariably small: the characteristic dimension is 20” x 20”. While some works have been as large as 3’ on a side, he has also made, for exhibition and sale, graphite drawings that are 2” x 2”. Through 1954, he used color: there are multicolor paintings, which have brilliant, staccato-sharp cross patterns, and resemble weavings or tilled fields, and two-and three-color ones, which contain a few bold angled shapes, or checkerboard motifs. Since 1955, he has worked only in black-and-white.

The eye takes in a Stout very fast. In a painting, he generally uses only a single shape, which is presented as if it were a portrait of that shape. This directness, plus the precisely contoured or ruled edges, and the impact of the black-and-white, makes his paintings go by as speedily as an Ellsworth Kelly, a Paul Feeley or an Arp. In contrast to these artists however, his immediately clear shapes do not have a decorative impact. Encountering a Stout of any size, one’s impulse is to read it the way insignia are read—as a symbolic image. The forms are tensely locked in place; they never give the impression, as Arp’s do, of having just floated into the picture frame. While his oils look emblematic, the charcoal drawings often contain balances that are precarious; and the graphite drawings, with the centeredness of the image and glow of the softly shaded gray area, have a sunken-in, meditative quality. Each of his pictures is about a single incident, and the power of his art is in making that incident appear essentialized, focused, concentrated. A Stout has tremendous visual wallop, but it’s the kind of wallop that sucks you in toward its own tightness, not the kind that releases you, makes you feel more open and broadly conscious.

Since 1954, his paintings contain only rounded-off, or biomorphic shapes (though when he works in charcoal, he goes back and forth between rounded-off and angled, edged shapes). Into the ’60s, the shapes were irregular, and had a witty look: some are wavy, buoyant, some majestic and a little sluggish, others dangle. The shapes in the paintings which he continues to work on are more severe—bisymmetrical, iconically straightforward, and heraldic. The shapes in the earlier series suggest movement that has been arrested, made stationary; the shapes in the still unfinished series are stationary to begin with. A Stout shape doesn’t automatically recall.things that are in the world, as Arp’s shapes wind up being bow ties and forks, and they’re not abstractions taken from the world, as are Kelly’s sunlight-shadow, or architecturally derived relationships. But it’s impossible to look at Stout’s forms without thinking that they have some human presence. What this presence is is hard to say. We don’t, at one point or another, “get” what Stout means. The images are suggestive, yet they don’t settle in the mind.

Alex Katz, talking about Stout’s painting, said that he thought it was like Jan van Eyck’s, that Stout had Jan’s ability to be supremely polished without being slick. Stout’s oil surfaces are very built up, encrusted almost; Katz admires them for the way they “breathe.” But sometimes Stout’s excessive work makes them dangerously blistered, and then he either has to start all over again on a new canvas, or remove everything from the canvas he’s working on, or turn the painting over to a restorer to save it. There’s an aged, ancient quality to a Stout surface, but it sits there ambiguously: it’s difficult to be sure whether he intends for this look, or whether it’s a by-product of his deliberative manner. It’s possible to feel that Stout doesn’t want his surfaces to count for so much; that, ideally, he wants his paintings and drawings to have a once-removed, disembodied presence—a presence that makes us look right “through” the surface, straight to the form within it. But his surfaces always do count, and not only with the oils. When we have an actual graphite or charcoal before us, the surface becomes important just because it is so finished and airless. It is matte, but spectacularly matte.

Stout’s best-known work, probably, is the black-and-white biomorphic-shape painting in The Museum of Modern Art (it’s been up and down since the Museum purchased it in 1959; currently it’s down). When the Modern bought the painting it had no title; it was labeled “Number 3, 1954” as a chronological reference. Stout knew that the image, which looks like a sharply pointed U, was related to the Moon Goddess, though he was reluctant to call it that. Since then, he has decided that the picture should be titled Artemis, and this, for him, is a significant decision. His titles clarify how he works—they’re far from arbitrary. All of his titles derive from myth, and, except for two drawings (which he has always thought of as a diptych) entitled Adam and Eve, all the titles derive from Greek myth. There are paintings named after specific gods, such as Leto, Demeter, and Artemis; another is associated in his mind with Apollo. Two drawings, done nearly 20 years apart, are called Teiresias; they’re different images, but one suggests a mask that covers the eyes, the other one an eyeless face with an open mouth—both fit Teiresias, who is the blind prophet in Oedipus, Antigone, and The Bacchae. A painting of a square shape with rounded edges is entitled Aegis, which makes sense because the form looks like a shield. A painting of a three-pronged, up-ended form suggests, to Stout, the sacred gesture of hands raised, and he calls it Hierophant. In the two Delphi drawings, where the isolated shape is triangular, the image is understandable as an open mouth, since Delphi was the seat of an oracle (one of the Delphi graphites is reproduced in the Whitney’s “American Drawings 1963–1973” catalogue as Untitled). Stout only titles the paintings or the graphites (the charcoals never get titles) if there’s some compelling reason to do so. The titles, he says, are a “feeling connection,” they’re “one of those things that come up in you.” He doesn’t intend the images to be taken as illustrations; he uses the titles because they have some metaphoric resonance with the shape, which he also thinks of as a metaphor.

Stout’s relationship to Greek art is complicated; it’s equally a matter of learning and temperament, and as much connected with the world of the myths—with the lives of the gods and goddesses and the sacred emblems associated with them—as with the development of art styles. Stout began painting rounded forms as a sudden gesture, in September, 1952. He had been rereading Aeschylus, after many years away from Greek literature. He had grown up with the history and mythology of ancient cultures, but he dropped these interests when he became involved with art, and for a long time he assumed that they were behind him, things that he would never again need. Trying to express what he recalls was the “tragic poignance” he encountered when he reread Aeschylus, he made, almost to his own surprise, two large paintings, both in black-and-white, of separate, oval shapes. The paintings weren’t successful. Their symbolic content is not light-footed. The shapes in them look as if they’re individual forces encountering other individual forces in a vast, empty space (the paintings recall those “stark” movie versions of the tragedies, where actors wear black robes and stand around in rubble at great distances from each other and mostly look as if they’re thinking about their profiles). It was two years before he made the first rounded-edge shape painting that he believed had any merit, but the September, 1952, experience opened up his painting. It made him believe that his art could include a more vivid, human drama, and that this could be done without having to sacrifice those qualities of proportion and relation which had come to mean so much to him. He began making paintings of shapes with rounded edges, and he went back to the literature with a new intensity. His development as a painter, he feels, went hand in hand with what he read.

For Stout, the shapes synthesize feelings, like the ones stimulated by reading Aeschylus. They aren’t feelings that are easily categorized. Artemis meant many different things to the people who sacrificed to, and erected temples for her, and Stout’s Artemis, without carrying religious or mythic meanings, has this same many sidedness. It isn’t necessary to be historically informed about the goddess in order to feel, in the painting, a queer mixture of protectiveness with something barren and spikey. Stout doesn’t set out to devise a sign that he knows will have some relation to, say, Artemis or Demeter. But as he works on his shapes, they (sometimes) make him think of a sacred gesture or a symbol.

Stout was a fine, individual painter of straight-edge-type abstractions, but when he set aside the straight edge because it could not express what he felt about Aeschylus, he touched something deeper in himself. I don’t want to imply that the pictures of angle-edged shapes are negligible, but when Stout uses rounded forms he comes more fully into his own. The pictures with rounded-edged shapes communicate his working process much more than those with angle-edged shapes; the angle-edged pictures describe the states of perfect tension and balance he finds, but the rounded-edged shape ones go beyond this because they show how finding this state can be a very kinesthetic and sensuous experience. Far more than the right-angle pictures, they convey that, for Stout, what counts is not the shape’s design, but how the shape, built-up over the years, gets to the point where it can’t be budged. And in the past eight or ten years, by making these shapes stiffer, more remote and belligerently awkward, he’s taken his idea to his expressive limit.

Looking at a Stout, the relation between it and the world of the myths is a fairly private and obscure point. What’s far more apparent is how much Stout has in common with the esthetics of classic art. His work recalls the classic phase of many different art traditions (Chinese, for instance, as well as Greek) in the way he sees things as contrasts, and emphasizes whole forms and limits. Stout’s pictures give a distinct feeling for boundaries; the shapes he uses always respond to the four sides of the field. While, in certain drawings, there are jagged elements that are literally incomplete (they suggest the ends of spears, or sails, or stalactites and stalagmites), there is no implication that, visually, we’re supposed to follow them on outside the edges. In a Stout, the shape and its container are interdependent (which explains why his approach, unlike Kelly’s, Feeley’s, and Arp’s, doesn’t logically include isolating shape, making it sculpture).

This classicism makes clearer Stout’s relation to Ellsworth Kelly, an artist who initially seems similar to Stout. The drama in Kelly is about radical change, change left unresolved. Part of the experience of a Kelly, even though it isn’t thought through very consciously, is being forced to see color and shape for what they might be, or what they once were. With Kelly’s painting, whatever the size, one senses that the panel is a fragment of something that’s more complete, or certainly larger, and this sense of the unknown—where you are in relation to an event, or even what that event is—is an open, romantic situation. Stout, though, wants the elements of his drama to be immediately evident, familiar, and resolved; it’s almost as if he thinks of his picture as a mathematical formula—a structure with no secrets, and with all the parts that make it work relative to each other and to the whole. Stout makes emblems; his paintings are about how experience is distilled. Kelly’s are closer to representations of experience. Stout, like Kelly, loves landscape; both artists go back to landscape and organic life in their drawings, even while their painting is abstract. Stout goes to nature because it contains essential, root forms; he’s after that moment when he can get things to relate to each other in such a way that the relationship feels inevitable. When Kelly paints, he illustrates his way of seeing: each painting is a separate visual sensation, and he will go on painting for as long as he is refreshed by what he sees. When Stout paints, the occasion is another chance for him to illustrate one compelling, unavoidable idea.

Stout’s belief in a perfect art is what gives him, I believe, his great confidence; it is what has enabled him to withdraw from the larger world of competition and opinion, negative, positive, and mixed reaction—the world most artists need to one degree or another—and still be certain. For an artist, perfection is a willful, demanding aim; although it protects him, it can also paralyze him in his tracks. Perfection’s chief goal is to reveal the essential order underlying experience. It’s a goal that rules out more than it allows in. It’s a positive power that carries a negative charge within it, and this can be seen in the way Stout uses materials, which is masterly and destructive at the same time. Trying to illustrate basic, inevitable relations, he makes the different mediums he works with seem extraordinarily dense and heavy; he doesn’t merely color in the forms, he saturates them, and this resolution, for the viewer, like the idea of wanting perfection, can be exciting and extraordinary, because it gives one a sense of the power one can exert over things. But it also can be depressing. The world does look clearer and more definite from such a height, yet the air up there is thinner, and our reactions to Stout’s art go the same equivocal way, from being exhilarated by how intensely clear his view is, to feeling that his clarity is a little suffocating.

One of the most perceptive things ever written about this predicament is a statement Meyer Schapiro made about the sculptor Elie Nadel man (it appears in Lincoln Kirstein’s recent biography, Elie Nadelman, where it’s quoted as a “profound, if admittedly partial, judgment”). Nadelman, Schapiro says,

is not an uncommon type of modern artist, although distinct as an individual. The dream of a quintessential or supreme art is a mark of his kind; I feel something narcissistic there and a doom. Such a man can hardly grow and his change must appear to him somehow as compromise and adaptation. He could not utilize in his art the conflict and imperfection in his own contemporaries. The beautiful has too great finality. And perhaps as a kind of penitence for his youthful pride, he became too humble in his later years; but even in this humility there is a compromise, a lack of energy and wholeheartedness, a reliance upon charm . . .

For all the brilliant, on-target observations here, Schapiro sees Nadel man too much in terms of what he feels Nadel man wanted for his art. But what Nadelman wanted is different from what he did, and Schapiro doesn’t look closely enough at this difference. Schapiro fails to see that, while the beautiful had too great a finality for Nadelman as a conscious artist, much of his art is not beautiful; he fails to see that, although Nadelman did dream of a quintessential or supreme art, his art is not wholly “supreme”—partly, it’s fragile, it’s of a specific period, it’s moody, private, ghoulish, witty, obscure. Schapiro is right in saying that Nadelman must have felt that to grow and change would have meant, for him, compromise. There is something stagnant about Nadelman’s art, and there’s a similar quality—of ideas that are cherished excessively, and kept too long in the studio, when they should be let out in the open air—in Stout. Yet Nadelman, even though his principles were clamped in place early, and never got themselves unclamped, did move within those principles: he didn’t exactly betray them, but he did subvert them. Nadelman is great, not because he’s a great classic artist, the artist he wanted to be, but because his passion for a perfect, beautiful art was personal and contemporary and unconscious. His passion waylaid his conscious ambition, and in so doing enriched his art, made it more ambiguous and complicated than it would have been had he achieved what he intended.

Myron Stout is an artist we can learn from, as we still learn from Nadelman. Although he comes close to making a petrified, stillborn art, he escapes, and in trying to describe that escape we describe his special tension. His art has not utilized the “conflict and imperfection in his own contemporaries,” yet this hasn’t resulted in work which is, as Schapiro would have it, compromised, or lacking in energy. The energy of a Stout or a Nadelman is radically different from the kind encountered in most other artists of stature. Most truly gifted artists give us the impression that, if they had more time to live, they would only keep on succeeding themselves with newer ideas. Clement Greenberg described this when, writing in Art in America about David Smith, after Smith’s death, he said that the sculptor’s work, seen in retrospect, “somehow remains open, unfinished.” But the artist who works out of some ideal that exists in his head isn’t in that kind of rush for time. He produces as if he has all the time in the world. His energy is directed toward foregone conclusions. And the irony and the poignance of the situation is that his art becomes valuable and fresh for us only when those conclusions can’t be reached, or when they’re sidetracked.

Stout, who is sixty-six now, is at work on five paintings, begun nearly a decade ago, that represent his ultimate sidetrack. These pictures aren’t easy to take. The dead-centered, bisymmetrically shaped images recall eggs, moons, shields, horns, lyres, and prongs. The scale of the shapes, which are white, is relatively mammoth, almost grotesque; they barely fit into the black fields. Stout’s earlier biomorphic shapes have a touch of whimsy; they’re his accessible pictures, perhaps they will be his best-known ones. The still-unfinished paintings are closer to a world of primordial sacred signs—they make us feel that we’re looking at insignia the earliest man might have recognized. They almost seem as if they could be votive images, made for a temple, where they would be set in their own niche. Future audiences might believe that they are self-indulgent. Certainly they convey a feeling of extravagance, of ideas that have been taken to an edge of overripeness. Most difficult art makes us uncomfortable, but Stout’s paintings make us doubly so because we can’t measure their strangeness and their newness by the regular standards. We can appreciate, say, Brice Marden’s strength more readily, because he’s pushing our perceptions further along on a track that art is on; we’re ready for his toughness, as some people were ready for Pollock’s toughness in the mid-’40s. Stout’s recent work doesn’t come from any track we know of.

Art that’s made at a tangent from what everybody else is doing is not necessarily valuable. Just because a figure rejects the art of his time and works out of his own obsessions, in privacy, doesn’t automatically guarantee him stature. Some artists, it turns out, cannot afford to work in such isolation—what they produce mirrors only their cranky determination to stay away. Stout’s art is isolated in feeling without being eccentric, peculiar, or cranky. While there’s a poignance and an irony in his situation, his art leaves us with feelings that are much stronger, and far harder to identify, than either of those qualities.

For some of us, it’s difficult to see the emotional depth to art that celebrates perfect ability. We can find many things to admire it for, but generosity is usually not one of them. Generosity is a willingness to risk being open and vulnerable; it is also largeness of feeling; it is the ability to be freely giving of one’s talents, even when this might result in mistakes or awkwardness. These are the qualities, I believe, that Schapiro has in mind when he uses the term “whole heartedness.”

Myron Stout’s art is not wholehearted in this respect; there are no scattered shots in his thinking. Nothing is allowed to spill over. He uses his gifts in a frugal, self-protective way, and this is unattractive. Yet, while his art may be distant, there is nothing precious or brittle about it. His approach sounds as if it might affect us as something pinched and timid. Instead, the experience of his work can be heady, and sometimes frightening. Stout begins where most of us stop: with the idea that, in what we do, we can be essential. He makes memorable something that we might know intellectually but which, emotionally, is not so clear: that wholeness and resolution are not easy goals, and that we have to fight to keep them. The tension in his work comes to seem like much, more than a formal strategy. The responsibility he feels for the individual painting or drawing, and his refusal to be slack anywhere, build to another, broader state of tension, one that reverberates almost as a moral position. In the end, he wins us over, if not for the largeness of his feeling, then for his conviction, which is another kind of largeness. Stout paints as if his life depended on it. This is what makes his art hit as close to home as it does.

Sanford Schwartz