Julian Stanczak

MOCA Cleveland

One of the leading exponents of Op art even before a 1964 review by Donald Judd gave the movement its name, eighty-one-year-old Julian Stanczak has maintained a dogged commitment to that manner of painting, which highbrow critics almost immediately dismissed as cheap, regressive, and populist. Though Op is often seen as a period trend, in years hence a few of the movement’s other founding figures, including Bridget Riley and François Morellet, have, like Stanczak, found ways to expand the implications and applications of Op’s manipulations of perception.

But Stanczak’s ongoing engagement with Op is particularly compelling. As with Riley, whose critical reception has been inflected by questions surrounding gender and the artist’s body, any thorough critical understanding of Stanczak’s attachment to the exacting, laborintensive process of building his paintings, and to the severe, beguiling effects they achieve, must take into account biography. In 1940, at the age of eleven, Stanczak was interred for two years, along with his family, in a Russian labor camp in Siberia reserved for Polish prisoners, where he lost the use of his right arm following a severe beating by a Russian soldier. The right-handed Stanczak learned to use his left, and then, a few years in the wake of this ordeal, began to paint. By the early 1960s, he was producing technically scrupulous canvases, whose formal success is entirely contingent upon the precision of their execution. It is thus more than tempting to see in the works’ sheer flawlessness a statement of obstinate persistence, even defiance, reiterated again and again; the thirteen recent paintings at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland do nothing to deter such a reading.

Continuous Line + Black, 2005, is a grand, twenty-eight-panel work of acrylic on board, where dense, parallel fluorescent lines on a black ground suggest a raised surface. The application of pigment is uniformly impeccable—crisp and sharp—and it is easy to imagine how glaring any imprecision would be. Indeed, Stanczak’s choice of materials is utterly unforgiving: The acrylic paint, sitting atop an unyielding, nonabsorbent surface, seems to present itself for inspection. It is as if Stanczak sets the stakes high in order to emphasize his uncompromising commitment to craft, to make his labor not some hidden process but rather the very subject of his work. (Stanczak has never employed assistants.) This painting and its twin, Continuous Line + White, 2005, offer the viewer no respite. The labor required to produce the work—the repetitive and meticulous cutting of tape (using a custom-made device) and application of paint—is suggestive of the resilience and persistence needed to behold the work for more than a few seconds without looking away. The high-key fluorescent lines and narrow passages of black ground vibrate and quiver with such agitation, assaulting the eyes so unremittingly, that the experience of viewing shades from optic stimulation to something more like haptic disturbance.

While Op art has been criticized for its appeal to brute perception, and its tacit rejection of intellection as a mode of consumption, it is precisely this aggressively precognitive, almost feral quality that Stanczak exploits. His paintings seem literally alive on the wall, attracting and repelling the eye, and resisting passive designations such as “beautiful” despite their sharp execution and seductive palette. Stanczak’s work does not require a learned viewer, but rather one willing simply to engage, and in this sense the egalitarian address of Op art to our basic optical faculties serves Stanczak well, making his paintings as generous conceptually as they are experientially demanding.

There is a great deal of romance and heroism to be found in the relationship between Stanczak’s early life and the work he has chosen to make. And while that kind of biographical cache does not always serve an artist’s critical reception—romance and heroism are hardly the picks of today’s critical litter—it should here. An already powerful body of work is made only more so when coupled with a consideration of the man who produced it.

Christopher Bedford