Julian Stanczak

Anderson Gallery

For over 20 years, Julian Stanczak has been meticulously exploring perceptual abstraction. The artist’s precise linear systems operate well within the rigorous Modernist limits set out by his mentor and colleague, Josef Albers. In Stanczak’s own words, Albers “taught by confrontation anxiety . . . ” When Stanczak first started exhibiting in the early ’60s, his work enjoyed a brief notoriety under the fast-to-fall star of the Op art movement, slipping into relative obscurity when the movement was discredited. This current Stanczak retrospective creates a curious bridge between two contexts: Op art’s ’60s heyday and its revival in the recent appropriations of artists such as Peter Halley and Philip Taaffe.

Within this disjunctive framework, it’s difficult to see Stanczak’s work as anything other than a stubborn anomaly. Due to his unswerving dedication to optical effects, his paintings must be either accepted on their own terms or rejected as the product of an esthetic that has lost its relevance. The choice generally has as much to do with one’s awareness of perceptual abstraction’s status as an outmoded or debased strategy as it does with the visual power of these technical tours de force.

Stanczak’s large canvases, painstakingly organized into sharply delineated geometric patterns and gradated colors, are disciplined celebrations of art’s ability to please the senses while adhering to the strictest formal protocols. Two perversely compelling early black and white paintings—Provocative Current, 1965, and Anywhere, Everywhere, 1967—represent Stanczak’s most violent forays into the Op art genre. Though you might expect them to have the visual impact of a lava lamp, their defiantly insistent energy transcends this period quality.

In later work, Stanczak’s departure from classic Op art is complete. Lacking Op’s jittery aggressiveness, most of his recent paintings coolly recede into their own internal dynamics, allowing the viewer’s eye to wander freely and then move on, unaccosted by retinal nausea. Of these, the least compulsively patterned works are the most successful. Like the earlier Op works, wayward bursts of energy—or at least simulated energy—free up the paintings, allowing them an arbitrary expressiveness. In Continuum, 1989, a single gray line angles its way across an orange and light blue background, in an autonomous and utterly eccentric fashion. Many Notes, 1990, an offhand arrangement of straight and slanted lines, rains down, warmed up by slashes of red, while other works, such as the elegant series “My Wall,” 1983, maintain their allegiance to pattern too religiously, closing off any opportunity for exploration. The smaller works are the least successful, as they are unable to avoid the inevitable comparison with digitized computer graphics.

The current resuscitation of Op is, at its best, an effort to expand the expressive and conceptual parameters of by-the-book formalism. Although Stanczak might deny that any such expansion is necessary (the monograph accompanying this exhibition contains a few dismissive references to the “neo-geo” movement), his own work is most engaging when it manages to undermine its own intimidatingly systematic rigor.

Elizabeth Licata