Catalog essay for the exhibition

THEODOROS STAMOS: Mapping Infinity and More

499 Park Avenue Gallery, New York, 2011

THEODOROS STAMOS: Mapping Infinity and More

“Spontaneous and emerging from several points, there has arisen during the war years a new force in American painting that is the modern counterpart of the primitive art impulse.” Barnett Newman 1947

It has become the defining image of the New York School of painters, an iconic image. Published in Life, January 1950, Nina Leen’s photograph called “The Irascibles” showed fifteen very serious individuals. They might have been a group of nuclear scientists, looking intently at the camera as if to convey the resolute determination of post-bomb America. But of course they were in fact American abstract painters, no less intent on asserting the relevance of their emerging movement at a time when the world was trying to come to grips with the aftershock of war and the devastation of Europe. These artists insisted upon an art that took as its subject the gravity of the human condition; that recognized only the deepest human impulse as true. They proposed an approach to painting that had never been seen before; that valued the autonomy of the bold gesture and the transformative effects of vast areas of saturated color; that eschewed descriptive subject matter in favor of a metaphoric abstract sublime. These were not young upstarts, but middle-aged artists who had worked their whole lives in poverty and obscurity, with total dedication to their work and little thought of ever selling a painting. The one exception was the youngest member of the group, Theodoros Stamos, who at age 25 had already earned his place as a respected colleague of the older, and soon to be famous painters, and as an adamant spokesman for the new movement.

This remarkable exhibition, Mapping Infinity and More, presents a select group of paintings by Theodoros Stamos, representing a small sliver of the range of his output, yet conveying a clear sense of the depth of this protean painter’s sensibility. Central to this exhibition is a group of six magnificent works from the Infinity Field series, his most important late works. They are bracketed by two additional paintings, Untitled: Columns of Fire from 1956 and Low Sun Blue Bar from 1984, which seen together exploring a common theme and palette, reveal fascinating aspects of the evolution of the artist’s style and the consistency of his vision over a thirty-year span.

It is in the three large Infinity Field paintings that we witness Stamos’ full refinement and articulation of themes that occupied him throughout his career, and with which he carried the torch of the New York School almost to the end of the century. The largest of the group, Infinity Field Lefkada Series (1979-80) features a massive central horizontal slab of scumbled red that is held in check on the picture plane by an orange band at the top and a white band at the bottom, all flanked on either side by receding bands of deep maroon. The edges of the shapes are ragged gestural lines that lock the adjoining areas together and lend an organic irregularity to the rectangles, evoking broken stone tablets. The tablet reference is reinforced in the upper orange area where energetically scrawled and indecipherable scraffiti appears like a cryptic message to, or from, the ancients. The surface of the painting is built of multiple layers of scumbled contrasting color, each layer like a tree ring marking a moment in the history of the surface, accumulating over time like sediments to form a translucent skin. The title, “Lefkada” refers to the remote Greek island that was Stamos’ ancestral home, and where he lived in his later years. Known as the red island, it was surely charged, for the artist, with deep historical and personal resonances, an endless source of perceptions and feelings that led him ever deeper toward some primal source.

Perhaps the most radical work in the exhibition, Infinity Field, Jerusalem Series, Third Letter (1985) is distinctive for the odd asymmetry of its configuration, as though the image is in a state of migration or expansion. The painting is dominated by a large undulating vertical plane that is invested with myriad floating gestural marks, like a wall, or a sea, of signs; a flat plane transformed into an infinite space by transparent blue. The teeming gestures play off each other in an animated dance, attracting and resisting, expanding beyond the bounds of the picture like rising prayers. The sea of signs cannot be contained by the darker opaque blue at the left and lower edges, but opens out to the possibility of boundless expanse, of infinity and more.

The Infinity Fields are miraculous constructs of a gifted painter at the height of his mastery, dynamic and sensuous in form and facture. But more importantly, they are Theodoros Stamos’ ultimate declaration of freedom, physical embodiments of the ability of the human mind and spirit to transcend earthly sorrow, to explore and to dwell in a primal realm of sensation, substance and light.

Steven Alexander 2011