New York

Myron Stout

Kent Fine Art / Flynn

Myron Stout (1908–87) was the exemplary postwar American artists’ artist. He worked small, liked easels, and labored intimately, meticulously, and sometimes at very great length on his drawings and paintings. Henry Geldzahler described him as an “exquisite.”

Quite a few of Stout’s modest little masterpieces—Shaker-plain abstractions, often in black and white—come with open-ended, epic dates. A painting such as Aegis, 1955–79, for example, which measures a mere 24 by 20 inches and consists of a white, shieldlike form set against a bit of black ground, apparently took Stout 24 years to complete. Another untitled charcoal drawing—basically a two-tone diagonal grid—reproduced in the catalogue, carries a caption that reads “early-mid 1950s–80s?” In a 1953 journal entry, the artist wrote that “The life of a symbol is in its refusal to become fixed.” This line could pretty much serve as a motto for his whole searching, remarkably coherent, if snail-paced career.

Stout worked within established parameters hammered out by Piet Mondrian and Hans Hofmann, those complementary gurus of the old nonobjective scene. But Stout was no one’s disciple. By the early ’50s he found his own pictorial rhythm, perhaps best described as an oneiric hovering state. An intense somnambulist’s aura characterizes his work, whether animated by an oddball euclidean (or Mondrianesque) geometry, the occasional wave’s crest of overt expression that can suggest waking up with a surge in the night, or by his peculiar and seemingly dream-based vocabulary of symbols—shapes suggesting molars, boomerangs, tunnel openings, road signs in the dark, garden rocks seen through the glare of headlights, or bizarrely truncated body parts. As terse, in terms of gesture, as Stout’s paintings may be, they are also impacted with a stunning array of lonesome notes.

But those familiar with Stout’s work probably already know all of this. The plainly elegant catalog published for these shows is identical in format to the catalogue for the Whitney’s 1980 Stout exhibition, which adds a ritual flourish to our sense of the artist as a high-cult figure. The biggest revelation of this double show may have been Stout’s old-master side. At Flynn gallery, where a portion of the show lingered in shifting form for several months beyond the original closing date—a circumstance that somehow seems fitting—viewers were afforded a generous dose of Stout’s minimal lyricism. We were also treated to a group of amazingly delicate conté-pencil landscape drawings—traditional, representational sketches—that conjured the pastorals of Ruysdael or Renoir. Like Mondrian and Ellsworth Kelly, who both distilled “pure” visions from impure nature exactingly observed, Stout reveals himself to be a sort of misplaced Rousseauian—an overcivilized, melancholy man with a nostalgia for the savage.

Lisa Liebmann