Op Art in Ohio

The state of Ohio has many virtues, but pioneering art doesn’t usually make the list. In the 1960s one of the cutting edge art movements was Op Art. Think dorm posters that were usually considered psychedelic with their vibrating abstract forms. The Op Art movement was named after Ohio artist Julia Stanczak’s first major show, Julian Stanczak: Optical Paintings, held in New York in 1964. How one of the leading pioneers in Op Art came to Ohio is a strange tale that shows how life can be stranger than fiction.

Julian Stanczak began his life in Borownica, Poland in 1928. At the beginning of World War II, Stanczak was forced into a Siberian labor camp with his family, where he permanently lost the use of his right arm and his dominant hand. In 1942 his family escaped from Siberia, and ended up in Uganda after passing through Iran, Pakistan, and Kenya. He spent his teenage years in a hut in a Polish refugee camp in Uganda where he learned to write and paint left-handed. He then spent some years in London, before his family moved to the United States and settled in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1950.

Stanczak received his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the Cleveland Institute of Art in 1954, and then trained under Josef Albers and Conrad Marca-Relli at the Yale University, School of Art and Architecture where he received his Master of Fine Arts in 1956. He became a United States citizen in 1957, taught at the Art Academy of Cincinnati from 1957–64 and as Professor of Painting, at the Cleveland Institute of Art, 1964-1995. Until his death in 2017 he lived and worked in Seven Hills, Ohio, which is outside Cleveland.

What draws me to his work? His colors and transparent see through effects. I feel his artistic purpose was to paint the effect of light on color. Rudolph Arnheim said, “He presents us with transparencies, a sophisticated blend of defined objects and mere apparitions. And he makes a plane change so subtly that we cannot be sure whether it is still the same or transformed into its neighbor.” (p. 45, Julian Stanczak Retrospective: 1948-1998.)

I’ve mentioned his work before in a post about a trip to the Cleveland Museum of Art. His painting “Filtered Yellow” riveted me. The background is made up of alternating thin vertical bands of red and green, while the yellow is laid into those bands to produce a diagonal folded effect. While some works fall apart when you get close, this painting becomes far more complex the closer you look. The technical mastery in the painted lines is impressive, and the color shifts to an intense yellow are subtle. Yellow can indeed take over like Japanese knotweed, yet Stanczek allows its full intensity only in the two innermost long triangles. The red and green bring it to heel elsewhere.

“Filtered Yellow” 1968

Such precision and minutely planned color changes are not my gift, but I can appreciate their mastery in the work of others. Even the gradation in Stanczak’s jars of mixed colors was art.

I’m linking to Off The Wall Friday.


Filed under Commentary

4 responses to “Op Art in Ohio

  1. Gwyned

    How I have I missed Stanczak’s work? I’ve always been fascinated by Op Art. Thanks for giving him a shout out.

  2. Wow, what I life. I looked Stanczak up after your previous post about him, but don’t remember reading all that. His art is fascinating. Oh, those mixed jars of paint, so yummy!

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