PRINT January 1980

Myron Stout’s Complexity in Simplicity

MYRON STOUT IS A PAINTER whose work is familiar to artists, yet rarely referred to in critical writings and hardly known to the public at all. This situation may partially be due to the condition of the last couple of decades, when a strong emphasis on formal innovation in the criteria for judging work steered attention away from painting, especially easel-size paintings done in oil, such as Stout’s. This, together with the tact that a single piece sometimes takes as long as ten years or more for the artist to finish, accounts for his lack of recognition and unfamiliarity. And, practically speaking, it has not been easy to see much of Stout’s work because there is not a lot of it.

Furthermore, Stout’s painting is difficult. In no sense has Stout settled on a particular form for depicting his meaning. Each piece is different enough so that, although the artist’s aims seem consistent throughout, an understanding of the forms by which they are expressed in one work will not be found in another. We have the advantage now, several decades into Stout’s career, of being able to see a number of works. And at present, when the emphasis on novelty has been exaggerated to a point that has allowed for an eccentricity often without depth in meaning, our attention is attracted by an artist who has continued to work for such a long period of time with an intensity of effort that has lead him to produce work distinctive in its form and quality of meaning.

Born in Texas in 1908, Stout began his study of art in the 1930s, when modern European painting and sculpture were gaining some recognition in this country. His first teacher was an abstract artist, and thus he was primarily concerned with abstraction from the beginning, even though after his introduction to art he did receive more traditional training and has throughout his career done occasional naturalistic work. In the 1930s he became familiar, through reproduction, with Mondrian’s work, as well as with the “analytic” and “synthetic” phases of Cubism as seen in the work of Picasso, Braque and Gris. He was particularly attracted, and in fact still is, to early Cubist art. World War II interrupted Stout’s work in 1938, and he did not begin to paint again until 1946, when he became a student of Hofmann.

It is interesting to note that Stout is of the same generation as Pollock, Newman, Rothko, Kline and Still. He was obviously familiar with their work and in the early 1950s did a group of Abstract-Expressionist-type paintings. However, his attitude toward his own work, and to art in general, is significantly different from that of these artists. For one thing, Stout would not claim such a strict distinction between the derivation of representational painting and that of his own abstract art. He was in fact doing naturalistic landscape drawings at the same time as he was painting in an Abstract Expressionist mode. Stout does not have an ideology—as one came to exist for Abstract Expressionism—to suggest guidelines for the formal make-up of his work. Furthermore, his work is not process-oriented. The act involved in making each piece is very intimate and personal and has little to do with the viewer’s sense of the finished painting. Perhaps as a result, the progression from Stout’s early work to his later appears more organic, and slower, than that of, say, Newman or Rothko. His roots appear to be European, tracing back particularly to the Cubists, Mondrian and Hofmann, and his later work seems built upon observations of their art and his own experience.

Formally, Stout’s intentions seem similar to those of the Abstract Expressionists, although his manner of dealing with them is very different. I think it can be said that from the beginning Stout was concerned with making flat paintings that are whole unto themselves and expansive into the viewer’s space. Yet he never made large-scale paintings, nor did he attempt to eliminate drawing from his painting. Rather, his notion of unity relies on the visualization of the entire painting at once, and throughout his work there is a concern with integrating drawing with both the picture plane and the forms and colors made by lines. In a sense, he was striving to synthesize his observation of Cubist work, in which color was essentially abandoned for the sake of establishing flatness and unity with linear elements, and Hofmann’s well-known push/pull theory which tends to place an emphasis on making a unity and adhering to the flatness of the surface by suggesting spatial tension through color.

One of the earliest paintings (most of Stout’s work is untitled) resembles to some extent the geometric-type paintings done by several of the American Abstract Artists whose work derived from Mondrian. It is for the most part organized according to horizontal and vertical emphases and painted basically in primary colors, although there are obvious variations. Diagonals have been made by breaking the rectangles into triangles painted dark blue, light blue and white. Juxtaposed against these forms is a more linear lattice painted red and yellow. The organization is not as tight as in a Mondrian painting because the linear elements do not necessarily border the triangular shapes. Instead these lines have more to do with the linear elements of Cubist drawing, in that they work to keep the surface flat by leading from one plane to another.

In this painting there is a greater dependence on drawing than color in suggesting a unity across the canvas as well as in setting up a kind of spatial tension between the parts. Similarly, in several very colorful paintings from this period the alignment of the colors in vertical rows is more important than the relationship of one color next to another. In these, Stout would appear to be dealing with the notion of perspective, allowing the viewer’s eye to be led upward along bands of various tones of color, slightly diagonal at the bottom and straightening at the top, and thus flattening one’s perception of the entire space. The colors are important insofar as they allow the drawing to work, yet the most interesting aspect is a tension in the subtle irregularities of the linear elements. A more exaggerated example of this is seen in a lavender and black painting that is something like a checkerboard, with its squares all askew, tending to suggest yet, in turn, deny any sense of perspective.

It seems to me that the problem, not to deny a degree of quality and interest, is that the viewer tends to read these paintings in parts, first the linear and then the coloristic elements. Two early paintings of Stout’s, however, seem more successful in their integration of color and line. One resembles the more Mondrianesque painting already described in that it has a lattice-like rectilinear form with a ground. This painting, however, has only two colors, blue and black, and the linear form—the blue—is completely connected, extending to, and along, the edge of the canvas in some parts. The blue color against the black is read more spatially, and thus, despite its linear aspect, the transition from blue to black and vice versa is more smooth. Another work in which color is similarly and even more obviously integrated with the linear elements is a small, multicolored painting consisting of alternating long and short horizontal bands of color aligned in vertical rows. The shorter bands become multicolored vertical stripes that work as linear elements angling across the surface. But their color, as well as the built-up texture of the paint, makes for a more solid unity across the painting than in those previously mentioned.

The integration of the color with line and surface creates a formal unity that acts somewhat as a ground for incongruities in the image. As I have mentioned, the drawing has a great deal to do with this, in that a suggestion of perspective can be made and, in turn, denied. This contradiction is enhanced by the sense that there is very little regularity in the image. While carefully painted, the paintings are noticeably made without the use of tape, and often there is quite a build-up of paint on the surface of these early works. Furthermore, the verticals and horizontals are rarely parallel to the edges, and often the combination of the colors is unusual. The result is a sense that although the painting is solid it is slightly irregular.

These kinds of incongruities are similarly found in Stout’s charcoal drawings of the early 1950s. They too act at variance with a perception of the formal unity. In the drawings, one’s reading of unity and flatness is often dependent on the image’s connection to the edge of the paper. The hardness or sense of materiality in the outside borders, to which the various lines and angles refer, locks the image to the surface. The continuity throughout the interior is then suggested in interlocking forms, the line between the black and white—again comparable to that of a Cubist drawing—making a link, since it reads as the boundary to both the white and black area as well as referring to the viewer’s space in its inclusion of the material edge.

In the mid-’50s Stout began working only in black and white. The first black and white painting was done in 1952–53 and was derived from his charcoal drawings. The painting is a white, roughly “N”-shaped form reaching to the edges on a black ground. The form is solid yet because of its shape movement is suggested through the white area tending to de-emphasize concentration on the meeting of the two colors. In the later work, this line, perhaps more accurately referred to as edge, becomes a crucial element in allowing for a reading of fullness to both sides of it as well as a unity throughout the surface.

Sometime around 1954 Stout started making curved forms that were complete, self-contained images within the borders of the canvas. It is these paintings, some of which have taken ten or twenty years to finish, that I believe are Stout’s most ambitious. The forms in these pieces are immediately visible and quickly perceived, yet the paintings are complex and difficult.

The ambition of these paintings—as well as related drawings—is, it seems to me, in making works that are fully present in a unity and completeness of form. Significantly, the images are neither cut off by the edge of the canvas nor open or overlapped within the perimeter—in the sense that the images in early Cubist drawings are. All parts of Stout’s paintings are complete and visible at once. The problem then becomes to hold the image to the surface, for one tends to perceive a line that completely surrounds an area—especially one of a different color—as enclosing that space, dividing it from that on the outside. In other words, one perceives the setting up of a figure within a ground and, as a result, the making of two separate spaces, disrupting the two-dimensionality of the surface. In his successful paintings Stout has been able to keep the form unified with a completeness and straightforwardness that allows the painting to assert its presence simply and strongly.

Untitled (also referred to as No. 3, 1954) is a painting of a white, basically “U”-shaped form sitting solidly within a black ground. The painting is small, hence one perceives the form in its entirety immediately, unlike, for example, the forms in paintings by either Ellsworth Kelly or Leon Polk Smith—two artists Stout is sometimes aligned with—which are large and which generally extend to the edge. The result is that in a Stout painting a great deal of importance for establishing wholeness rests in the reading of the line formed between the white and the black. Clearly Stout put great concentration and time into making this edge right, as one can see traces of corrections. In Untitled the line is constantly curving, yet at no point does the form appear to fall inward: the white area appears to be constantly pushing against the black. The surface of the painting is smooth, allowing the line to be even and making the transition from black to white precise. There is no sense of an overlapping, but a very quick transition from the fullness of one color to the next, due to the extreme thinness of the line. The kind of interlocking of forms described with regard to the charcoal drawings also occurs in Untitled and is equally important in establishing a sense of unity. This is a technique which is related to Cubist drawing in that a line defining the border of one form suddenly is perceived as defining another and thus unifying them in space. In Untitled the line obviously forms both the white and black, but one’s perception of this is closely tied to the push and pull (to use Hofmann’s term) against each other. The central black space, for example, is pulled out as it becomes more surrounded by white, whereas the white comes out when enclosed in black. And, while the white image is not aligned directly with the edges, these borders are crucial. Where the black meets the edge is clearly a linear element which contains and interacts with the black as the black does with the white.

As in his early work, there is a kind of ambiguity present later on due to slight irregularities. Untitled again, has basically a symmetrical shape, yet it is not simply made so: one tip is more rounded than the other; the left arm curves in slightly more; and the form is not the same width throughout. But the ambiguity in this work becomes stronger with consideration of the nature of the white image.

Because of the unusual curvilinearity of the images in these later paintings, as well as in the graphite drawings which Stout began making in the late 1960s, there is a tendency to want to read the shapes as amorphic forms, and to make sense of them by interpreting them as natural or personal symbolic images. Thus Stout’s work has been aligned with that of Jean Arp. There is an apparent resemblance between the two artist’s images, yet they are distinctly different. Arp’s shapes have to do with chance; there is a kind of arbitrariness and whimsy about them. Their personal aspect, it seems to me, is related to that of the Surrealists, who developed a kind of private, symbolic iconography that gained meaning through recurrence in their work. Stout’s work has nothing to do with chance and, on the contrary, very much to do with precision and concreteness. Moreover, while there are similarities from work to work in the shapes that Stout uses, one does not inform another. Each work is self-referential in that its wholeness depends on the interdependence of (only) its parts. Thus, any attempt to read the image of Untitled as of something, is denied. One senses an organic, amorphic-type form, yet its definition as something, or a symbol of some kind, is given no reinforcement. Any identity for the shape remains elusive

I think it is the ambiguity of the solid and complete presence of Stout’s painting, in contrast with its elusory aspect, that makes it difficult but that also gives it such strength. In its fullness and totality, a painting by Stout immediately confronts, exposes, yet without definition outside of itself. In viewing the work, there is nothing upon which to rest or to rely for an understanding of the object, except for the integrity of the painting itself.

Tiffany Bell is a New York art critic.