New York

Richard Stankiewicz

Richard Stankiewicz (1922–83) is a major American sculptor who never attained the status of greatness and its accompanying accolades. No big books exist about him, yet I don’t think Stankiewicz’s accomplishments are as minor as some critics would have us believe. One reason for this judgment is based on the notion of influence. David Smith’s work led to Donald Judd’s, or so we’ve been told a million times; Stankiewicz’s work, on the other hand, wasn’t quite as fertile and didn’t lead to anything else. But I’m not so sure this judgment remains valid. Doesn’t Stankiewicz’s work anticipate renewed interest in the use of urban detritus as well as in the construction of sculptural personages? And hasn’t formalist criticism and empirical art shown signs of being nothing more than a series of dead ends?

These works on paper, which the artist did in the late ’50s and early ’60s, are very much a discovery. Until now we have assumed that Stankiewicz never made any drawings. His sculptures are the result of an improvisational approach to his materials—rusted junkyard scraps. Given his lifelong commitment to this particular way of working, these drawings must be seen as an entirely independent body of work. All of them were done in ink on paper, which has been cut into oddly sized rectangles. Some are tall and narrow while others are squarish. The ink is poured and thrown, forming jagged planes that suggest velocity In their execution, they recall Abstract Expressionist painting. One can make parallels between these works and the paintings of Franz Kline, Norman Bluhm, and Jack Youngerman, for example.

The drawings’ fluid muscularity and planar insistence, however, are far more sculptural than painterly. They have painterly counterparts but ultimately occupy their own territory. One wonders what the sculptor had in mind when he did these works. How and what did he learn from this experience? What might have fed back into his sculptures? A quiet man, he told no one about their existence nor ever commented on what he was after in them.

Critics and historians have been quick to close the door on Stankiewicz’s career; they seem to want a package. The discovery of these drawings should serve as a warning, both in Stankiewicz’s case and in others: history is not, as some claim, a closed book, a series of neat chapters.

John Yau