Stanley Lewis, whom I think is probably in his mid sixties had a retrospective at American University at Washington D.C. American was his last full time job, and the place he retired from. I was unfortunately not able to get there to see it. But a selection from the show, made by a committee which included one of his collectors has turned up in the "Museum" in Summit New Jersey. I don’t think the place is called a museum. It has shows, but it is also important to the town for its many classes on a variety of age levels, which are in studios built into the same building which houses the galleries. It seems like a very good place for Stanley to be showing. Within two years of his graduation from Yale with an MFA, Stanley was teaching at the Kansas City Art Institute where hundreds of wonderful students were lucky enough to have him as their teacher. Together with Wilbur Neiwald [chairman of the painting department], Lester Goldman, and Michael Wallin and Ron Slowinski, the painting program was far and away the finest undergraduate program in the country for several decades. Stanley was always highly involved with teaching and highly enthusiastic about this year’s classes. His age mates and a number of his elders in the art world were already very enthusiastic about his work. I can remember his first ione man show in New York, which took place in the Green Mountain Gallery in 1976. My wife and younger son were still at her research site in Malaysia, and it felt like I had more money than usual, so when I saw his show, of course I bought one of his landscapes of New York City, which were only a portion of the show. Cityscape or landscape was not yet his main thrust. In that show an analysis of a skull which became a very large abstraction was the work which took up the most room, and was, indeed, very impressive.
That was just the first of many shows in New York. The shows were always exciting. Some of the work was always wonderful, and a few things felt as though he had put as much time into them as he could, but they were not quite realized. Based on the early work in his current show, they did often get worked on a good deal longer, and were realized, fully. But, unfortunately, we did not get to see them in that state. There were always many more works to choose from for the next show, and he seems not to have brought back his recycled completions [as Leland Bell always did].
In his earlier work most of the qualities found in his newer work were already present. Although, often the level of abstraction of the motif was relatively direct, painted without great simplifications and abstraction, certain planes, lines and edges in the work implied that there was a lot of cubist thought going on. Sometimes paintings would be cut up and rearranged, although usually not too radically, and then stapled down on a new ground. Even when that was not done, lines and edges implying such shifts would be worked out formally, and with passion in even the most straightforward seeming work.
There is some difference between some of his earlier work and what he is doing now. Color, back then could be intensified in hue or radically intensified in value. Invented lines showed a path through the space, as perhaps Giacometti or de Pisis would do in their cityscapes. Influences which had not shown up in the work of any other American of his or earlier generations did show up. For a while he was very interested in three English painters Leon Kossoff, Frank Auerbach and their teacher David Bomberg. They influenced the work in his first New York show. One can also see the influence, generally of such artists as Soutine, and some of the Fauves like Marquet, the Nice Matisse and Roualt. He studied with Nick Carone at Yale and believes that his introduction to cubist construction through him was essential for his development. Although Leland Bell's influence as an artist does not seem particularly strong, his influence as a champion of an ideology which included the continuation of modenist figuration, and his specific choices among the earlier 20th century artists has had an effect on Lewis' work and development. Leland was a great influence. He was sure of his ground as one of the good guys, and he put the whole genealogy together for anyone who was interested. His way of filing through the 20th century was infective, and his eyes were good enough to help other people see at least some of those artists. No one I know was aware of all of Leland's picks on their own before they met him [including me]. Amazingly I had never heard of Marquet!
Most interestingly, though, Stanley does not look like a student of Leland Bell or anyone else. His work was always brash and quickly painted. But it looked like nothing anyone else was doing. Bomberg's students never did any kind of analysis like Stanley's skull paintings. None of Bell's other students became primarily painters of landscape and cityscape, even for a period. There is somehow something wildly improbable about Stanley's path. He is a painter of the American scene. He likes the look of a traditional small town or suburban place. He likes American houses, and has even turned a fake half timber apartment house into a cubist icon! At the same time, lately, his paintings have been getting thicker and thicker but brushstroke by brushstroke, and these are small, not large, at the same time that he has begun using perspective, sometimes with pressured vanishing points, which are actually overperspective in a normative sense. The same paintings have a variety of brushstrokes as they need to, because he is using the brush to describe houses, trees, weeds, and clouds, and these at different distances from the eye. He also uses the ever present telephone and electric lines as lines which move through the space a la Giacometti. While they might once have been invented lines, they are now always presented as observed ones.
Don't get stuck in my listing anomalies. His paintings now make wonderful sense pictorially, and at the same moment that his pictorial strength makes the space and surface tensions sting, his paintings also have a level of American realism. The realism is very convincing partially because it comes at us through his cubist and expressionist sensibility. Part of the time, when we look at his work we can see an apparent typical American regionalist at work in his northeastern world. At the same time, the same paintings show the hand and eye of another sophisticated post abstract, figurative painter. And there are a few things more. Often in a painting which includes rich naturalistic detail, the whole landscape, all of the buildings can be subtly off the true vertical. They lean this way and that. This is not a flaw. It becomes an extra formal surprise and helps make these paintings the unusual creatures that they are. Think of it. Beautifully realized in color, as seen in light, with constant changes based on contrasts. They are realized in detail, but with paint so thick that in anything other than somewhat diffuse light the glare from the many slightly different facets gets in the way of seeing the painting. Under a diffuse light, the thick paint seems to have been absolutely necessary to have made the forms so perfectly placed. The otherwise eccentric cuts and lines in the plane folllow, delimit and proclaim the most important axes which produce the intense spatial movements which verify the spaces.
Do the paintings feel like puzzles? No, they are so fully felt and so intensely worked through that they are fulfilling experiences. All of the unusual and surprising qualities which I experience are within the painting its space and its world. I have to bring them out one by one to describe the experience. But in the experience of the work we get them all together. When I am looking at the work I am inside his paintings, and any critical vocabulary starts working after- wards when I remember the experience.
A few years back I went to Dartmouth to see a large show of his there. I thought, then, that those were the best paintings he had ever painted. I am sure I was right, but the new work in this show is even better. If anyone can paint this well at this point in late modernism, in relative obscurity, we are still doing well. Stanley's aim is not to get the most notoriety, or be the most peculiar there is, but to use all of his power and individuality to paint as well as he can. None of the rough edges are worn away, they are all there and at the same time the work is the apotheosis of the American Northeastern small town.