CULTURE

Theodoros Stamos, a key pioneer of modernism

In the wake of the postwar period, a new force emerged in American art, a distinct modernist style that bore the influence of the European avant-garde but claimed an independent position in art. «I believe that here in America, some of us, free from the weight of European culture, are finding the answer, by completely denying that art has any concern with the problem of beauty… We are freeing ourselves from the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you, that have been the devices of Western European painting,» artist Barnett Newman wrote in the catalog of the exhibition «The Ideographic Picture,» which he curated in 1947. The exhibition was one of the first attempts to put forth the new innovative spirit that had swept through American art and became associated with the so-called New York School. Theodoros Stamos, a second-generation Greek American who participated in «The Ideographic Picture» (he was then only 25 years old) was one of the pioneers of American modernism. His contribution is remembered in a retrospective exhibition of his work curated by Lina Tsikouta and being held at the Corfu branch of the National Gallery. The exhibition begins from the artist’s famous, so-called biomorphic works of the second half of the 1940s and stretches to the early ’70s, just a few years after his legal battle with the Rothko estate had began. One of the three administrators of Rothko’s estate, Stamos was accused of selling Rothko’s work at reduced prices. He was later acquitted of the original charges but the lawsuit somewhat marred his reputation. The same year that Stamos was acquitted, he donated 45 of his works to the National Gallery, thus gaining significant exposure to the Greek public. The current exhibition at the Corfu branch of the National Gallery consists of 30 works from Stamos’s donation. Although the vibrant, red-colored paintings that Stamos made toward the end of his life are not included in the exhibition to show the sharp contrast with the artist’s early, biomorphic works, the exhibition does highlight the diverse styles in which Stamos worked. His early works show organic, biomorphic shapes and refer to the primeval, mythic forces of nature. Clearly influenced by European surrealism, they also reflect the appeal of primitive art and archetypal images to modern art. These are what modern artists considered to be «pure» forms of expression. It is this interest in art and form that stand outside Western culture which led Stamos to study the art of China and Japan and to look into Zen philosophy. His so-called «Calligraphic» works of the early ’50s stem from this exploration into the culture of the Far East. The linear shapes of these works were combined with fields of color in his «Color-Fields Series» that Stamos produced in the second half of the ’50s. In the ensuing «Sun-Boxes» that the artist began working on in the early ’60s, expanses of relatively undifferentiated color (patches of color, each of a different hue) take up most of the painting. The works anticipate the so-called Infinity Fields of the ’70s, a series that resembles much of Rothko’s work. In these late works, the biomorphic shapes of the artist’s early paintings have given way to total abstraction. The expressive potential of color alone is their only tool. But the transcendental meaning that the abstract expressionists so longed to imbue their paintings with is what drove Stamos to paint both his biomorphic and his Sun-Boxes almost two decades later. The exhibition in Corfu helps put across this inner consistency in the work of an artist who is counted among the most important painters of American abstract expressionism. «Theodoros Stamos. Retrospective: Works from 1945-1973,» at the Corfu branch of the National Gallery (at the Kastelino in the area of Kato Korakiana, 26610.93333) through March 15. Hours: Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays 10 a.m – 2 p.m. and 6-9 p.m.; Thursdays and weekends 10 a.m. – 2 p.m.