Nassos Daphnis

For the past forty years Nassos Daphnis’ paintings have embodied a seemingly imperturbable equilibrium. Since 1952 his canvases have been subdivided and proportioned with the snap-string precision and compass-wielding flair of a visionary master planner. He has demonstrated his unwavering faith in the power of abstraction to outweigh the minutiae of everyday life. His paintings are, as were Piet Mondrian’s, the pictorial condensations of a search for harmony—for resolutions of real-world irregularities and discontinuities into disciplined configurations whose chromatic power provides their animating energy.

Daphnis’ dedication to the ethereal substance of abstraction emerged from landscapes done in the ’30s. These were followed in the ’40s by fluid fantasies of submarine plantlife, like the better-known examples from his fellow Greek-Americans, Theodoros Stamos and William Baziotes. This hydromorphic underworld of sensuous washes evaporated when, after World War II and on the G. I. Bill in Europe, he stood before the Parthenon and was struck by its stark strength and strange flatness in the glare of Aegean sunlight. Beginning with 2-52, 1952 (from then on his paintings would be titled in sequence, in the year of their making), and after subsequent residences in Florence and Paris where he became familiar with Modernist abstraction, his works have had an architectonic strength, a planar tautness and a chromatic reductiveness that are the products of a determined and continuous internal refinement. Sustained by his faith in a universal physical order he abjured, on his return to this country, gestural nuance or compositional complexity, in favor of the spiritual potential of painting.

Given the hard-edged exactness of his pristine conceptions, it is important to note that his compositions are actually inspired by a Romantic response to the optical effects of color. For Daphnis, surfaces acquire a kind of pulsating volume through the relative densities of primary hues—enhanced in some works by the opposites of black and white. He creates what he calls “planial space” based on a color plane theory in which black moves forward, with blue, red, and yellow progressively receding toward the “infinity” of white. This schematic spectrum has as its spiritual corollary the life span of cosmic energy, which he believes is ever self-renewing. Springing out of darkness, it heats and then mellows with youth and maturity, fading into whiteness before sinking and emerging again through the density of black.

In the late ’60s and early ’70s Nassos Daphnis participated in the huge City Walls mural project for tall buildings in Manhattan. His star forms and segmented circles appeared to stretch facades as they reigned above traffic, motion, and noise. In 1975 his huge Continuous Painting, comprised of four-pointed stars that optically popped into diamonds or squares, resembled a colossal mosaic with rhythmic momentum and environmental ambitions. In a recent work, 5-92, tilted white discs, anchored by satiny black holes and suspended in effulgent blue fields, seem to hover just barely off-center like “unseen forces bombarding the universe.”

Daphnis is an independent who has stuck to his own course. Maturing after the American abstract artists of the ’30s, persisting during the regency of Abstract Expressionism and preceding the Minimalists by a good ten years, he maintains a devotion to the mysteries of nature in its cosmic dimensions, still working at his peak—but now, ironically, within the scrappy arena of the revivalism of Neo-Geo.

Joan Seeman Robinson