New York

Ted Stamm

Lorence Monk Gallery

Until his death in 1984, Ted Stamm practiced a fairly rigorous kind of reductive abstraction: always painting in hard-edged black, and almost always on substantial-sized shaped canvases. Emphatically flat, and painted with a severity of purpose, Stamm’s canvases constitute the epitome of surface elegance; solid masses interact with one another to compose subtle statements of material fact. Regardless of the vehemence or oddity of the shapes, the pieces themselves pose no threat and reveal no vulnerability. Even in the small framed drawings inflected with visible markings, the theme remains one of inertia.

To consider Stamm’s painting, one must also look at the history of such work. Reductive abstraction has such a well-codifed, academic tradition that it is meaningless merely to describe successive waves of “minimalist” work with hackneyed terms such as “pure,” “direct,” “boldy architectonic,” “slick,” or even to call upon “the metaphysics of objecthood.” Such grandiose language contributes little but a haze of obfuscation. All reductive abstraction, from the beginning of Suprematism to the flowering of postwar American big-brand Minimalism, to the subtly commodified version of “neo-geo,” has shared a real underlying agenda that frequently gets overlooked. Ted Stamm’s work can only be viewed in the critical context of this broad program.

Subject matter is, by definition, what an artwork is “about”; it constitutes both its external referent and its internal “sense.” In minimalist work, the subject has always been about essence and abstraction, not particulars or narrative description. This is Platonic in nature and can be summarized as a distinction between those things that are of the mind and therefore “invariable,” and those things that are of the body and therefore “variable” and impermanent. Platonic theory clearly holds the former category to be superior to the latter, and attributes a permanence to the realm of basic ideas.

Minimal abstraction is an attempt to present visual information without the liability of the variable; an expression of the changeless in time, that frozen moment that gives the gift of metaphysics. No longer subject to the embarrassing vagaries of temporal descriptions, minimalism floats into the realm of purified abstraction, of categorical adjectives. However conservative or easily subject to (superficial) ridicule, this is the intent behind all reductive abstraction, whether first, second, third, or fourth generation, and it was the intent behind Stamm’s work.

The problem with this intention, especially as it has manifested itself in postwar America, is that it is frequently conflated, both by the viewer and by the artist, with the demands of commercial design—demands which run directly counter to Platonism. The handmaiden of commerce, design means to avoid the lucubration of the transcendental experience, and instead contributes to the visual white noise that provides a background for the real message of buy/sell. Design may look minimal, but it’s not Minimalism. Instead of luring the viewer into the realm of ideal contemplation, design lays claim only to the realm of the materially pretty; a subtle difference in appearance but a profound difference in effect.

Stamm’s work, like that of many other reductive abstractionists, shows a lack of understanding of this distinction. Works that strive for meaningful profundity amount to little more than exercises in design. Dodger-22, 1976, for example, an irregularly shaped polygon with outside edges determined by the interior shapes suggesting folded origami paper, reveals little logic beyond the mechanistic. The size, the boldness of shape, and the unadorned black and white, reveal a self-importance that betrays its own promise. These large shaped canvases remain contrived in their mute passivity.

Dena Shottenkirk