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Frank Stout: Art and Life
July - October 2000
Frank Stout's art looks like Art: museum-ready, glazed and scumbled, modestly colored, sculptures on pedestals. Beware! These conventions are in the service of an unconventional mind. What appears to be homage may contain a sly joke; what appears to be light-hearted may surprise with an undertone of hard-earned gravitas.
Art plays our minds. It strikes chords that resonate in our senses and memories. Though a smile, even a laugh, may be imbedded in many of Stout's works, the chord his art strikes often contains, as an essential and identifying ingredient, a deep empathy for the individual personage he has created. He is able to invent faces that speak movingly of complex histories.
The ability to convey emotion through an individual depicted in a painting is one most modernist painters would find of little use. The presence of a figure with a layered personality in a Cezanne or Matisse would surely distract from the formal intent of the work. Even in commissioned portraiture, usually the outer layer alone is desirable-the sitter at his or her most noble, evidence of self-doubt or petty motives banished from view.
Exceptions stand out in art history. Famous among them are Velasquez's Pope Innocent X, in which anxiety and rage gleam through the pontiff's ostensible calm, and Goya's portraits of the royal family, as well as other less satirical but even more penetrating portraits by this master. It is Rembrandt, above all, who most consistently transmits from his mind to ours that sense of a fully sentient "other" somehow inhabiting the canvas.
Contemporary artists interested in conveying emotion through facial expression, such as Käthe Kollwitz or Francis Bacon, present archetypes, figures standing for humankind, rather than the isolated individual. Alice Neel, Lucian Freud, and Chuck Close zero in on the particular, but the examination of the mind does not go deep. Alex Katz and Philip Pearlstein will not, of course, permit any daydreaming; not for an instant are we to imagine anything but painted shapes before us. But Stout is on a different level, along with those few magic-makers who depict a mind to engage our own, among them the contemporary sculptor Daisy Youngblood and photographers Dorothea Lange and W. Eugene Smith.
When Stout was a student at the Boston Museum School in 1949-50, American painters Hyman Bloom and Jack Levine, then at the height of their fame, impressed him with their classical glazing and scumbling techniques. Levine's satiric multifigure paintings seem particularly related to Stout's later work. Perhaps a more profound influence, however, was the Austrian expressionist Oskar Kokoschka. Kokoschka taught at the school's summer program at Tanglewood during these years, and though Stout did not study with him directly, his ideas were much in the air among the students. Kokoschka was a master of international importance who stood apart from the tide of abstraction then gathering force. A key member of the "German Expressionists," he is known for the emotional depth of his portraiture. It may well be that his example helped Stout find his own distinctive voice.
Stout's eye is sharp but kindly. He notes the anomaly of an elaborate art deco façade on a small building in a Vermont town (Polish-American Club), but views the impulse toward high style without sarcasm. In the series of paintings of trailers, there is no suggestion of social commentary. He shows the little dwellings nestled comfortably in their surroundings, like the peasant homes in Rembrandt's etchings. Analysis is not Stout's aim-he does not take such a distance from the rest of us. His paintings of Philip Pearlstein make a gentle comment on this matter of distance. Pearlstein is a painter of figures who deals with the challenge of the modern by the familiar strategy of reductionism. In his elegant and justly renowned pictures, nude people become flattened shapes painted with dry precision. The possibility of emotion is absent, in the subject and, as implied by the restraint of color and brushwork, in the painter. Stout stakes out his own artistic territory when he portrays Pearlstein at work: the man diligent, friendly, utterly unprepossessing, his painting behind him dispassionate, monumental.
Around the 1970s Stout completed an extraordinary series of paintings he calls the "convention pictures," large group portraits done mostly from photographs he and his wife found at flea markets. As Breughel catalogued the village activities of his era, so Stout gives us a psychological catalogue of our anxious times. He captures us, all dressed up for a historical event, best faces forward.
Here we can appreciate how Stout's mastery allows him to dance where others might march. The organization of these very complex compositions has a fluid ease. The alternations of light across the surfaces, the free interplay between the paint as material and the image it creates temper the fast perspective of the tables, so that we meander slowly through the paintings as we would through Chinese landscape scrolls. There is ease also in the variability of description as Stout moves between deliberate close rendering and quick sketch, as well as in the depth to which he chooses to peer into these faces he has invented. Here, for example in Sirloin Brothers, is the CEO, confident and ruthless, here a junior executive elevated beyond his abilities and in dread of showing it. There is the "gee-whiz" office boy, and there . . . isn't that W. C. Fields?
In his career Stout has demonstrated a range of expression rarely seen. For most artists, their art is their manifesto, and single-mindedness is evidence of serious purpose. Those parts of their lives that include bouncing the baby or telling a bawdy story have no easy outlet in the studio. Picasso's separate phases each influenced legions of artists (Stout's recent sculpture surely owes him a debt), but his whole art/life, with its rich variety of voices, is a model for few. Stout moves with "throwaway virtuosity"* from painting to sculpture, from the emotive portrait to cartoon, from the sincere appreciation of observed beauty to tongue-in-cheek pastiches of the old masters. The currents of his life and his art are integrated into a flow in which impulses seem to arise and be given form with complete naturalness.
Francis Stout was born in Lynn, Massachusetts, in 1924, the grandson of Irish immigrants and son of a greengrocer who sold fruits and vegetables from first a horse cart, later a truck. In the Depression the truck, the business, and the family's home were lost; Frank, his two sisters, and his parents moved into his grandparents' house.
Frank attended technical high school, where he took courses in drafting. At 17, with World War II raging, he joined the Navy. While in training to be a cargo ship gunner, he was notified of his father's death and given early discharge. He returned to Boston and found work as a mechanical draftsman. He enrolled in a commercial art school, where he was assigned to copy reproductions of the masters as part of his training. His drawings from Ingres resulted in his teacher's recommendation that he enroll in the Boston Museum School. This he did, and for the remaining year and a half of his G.I. Bill he studied drawing and painting there. This was his only formal art education.
During this time he met Constance Lyle, a graduate student in social psychology at Simmons College. They became engaged, but the fact that she was African-American was more than his traditional-minded family could accommodate, and an irrevocable rupture with his family ensued. To this day, he does not know if his relatives are alive or dead.
After their wedding in 1951, the couple lived in an industrial building near the Customs House in Boston. Frank worked in a leather factory, did freelance drafting, and painted while Connie finished school. When she received her degree, they moved to New York, the new center of the art world. They found a loft on West 28th Street, on the third floor above a welding shop, a lumber shop, and a garment sweatshop. Connie did psychiatric social work for the city, Frank did drafting, and with their neighbors, the painters Tom Boutis, Blackie Langlais, and Alex Katz, they explored and became part of the art scene. Tuesday evenings would find them all at the latest Madison Avenue art openings, enjoying the talk, the art, and the free wine and hors d'oeuvres.
Then Connie was stricken with Lou Gehrig's disease. Only Frank was given the diagnosis. A friend from Boston, a Peruvian architectural student, had invited them to visit him in Lima. They booked passage on a freighter and sailed south. During that year, while Frank worked with architects designing and building Mardi Gras floats, Connie worsened and became confined to a wheelchair. It was time to return to New York. They remained on 28th Street until her death in 1959.
Frank found a new loft in a threadbare little four-story building in the center of the downtown art scene. He met and married Chaewoon Koh, and in 1960 their daughter, Mira, was born. On the floor below them, above the bar, were the painter Athos Zacharias,Ý his wife, and their child. On the top floor painters Emily Mason and Wolf Kahn lived with their small daughters. Frank recalls how the children would troop from floor to floor, spending an hour in each studio/home while the artwork progressed in the others.
The area was full of artistic ferment. The 10th Street galleries were around one corner; the Cedar Bar was around the other, as was the meeting place of "the Club," the weekly gathering where the avant garde would, in Stout's words, "make their claims of omnipotence while the rest tore them down." Robert Rauschenberg lived over the pool hall supply company next door, Marisol across from the Grace Church, Larry Rivers up near Union Square Park. Willem de Kooning was a frequent visitor to the building, and Stout recalls him rushing across the street to greet Mira on her way to the park in her stroller.
Before the move, Stout had been painting abstractions based on the decorations on Peruvian pottery. Now he began painting the humble objects around the loft. Using the heavy impasto and near monochrome palette of his abstract work, he focused on his kitchen sink, a tired fur coat on a hanger, underwear drying on a radiator. His first show, at the Tanager Gallery, was held in 1960. Later he affiliated with the uptown Dorsky Gallery, where he had solo shows in 1964, 1965, and 1966.
In 1965 Stout was invited by Win Tuttle, an old friend from the Museum School, to fill in for him teaching at Marlboro College in southern Vermont while he took sabbatical leave. Stout accepted, and when Tuttle decided to leave teaching altogether, Stout remained at Marlboro. There followed a hiatus in his New York career. His association with Dorsky ended after his 1966 show, and he did not have solo shows in New York again until the Landmark Gallery shows of 1979, 1980, and 1981.
The Vermont years have proved to be fertile ones for Stout's art, in spite of the reduced audience and the demands of teaching. Besides exploring the directions in painting and sculpture represented by the selection in the present exhibition, he has produced a large body of pure landscape paintings in oil and acrylic. He and Chaewoon lived and raised their daughter in a house of his own design built on a stream in the southernVermont highlands. In the late 1980s they bought a house in Tuscany, which they were in the process of renovating at the time of Chaewoon's death from cancer two years ago.
While dividing his time between Vermont and Tuscany in recent years, Stout has been especially productive in small-scale sculpture The materials themselves, many of them unconventional, seem to have ignited a new exuberance in his art. With a mastery earned by decades of drawing the figure, and with an accuracy of perception that makes sport of mere exactitude, he gives form to inspirations comical, sublime, or-in recognition of our human predicament-both.
From left to right: Beacon St. Convention, 1975, oil on canvas, 37-1/2 x 72 inches; Mayonnaise Convention, 1970, oil on canvas, 50 x 72 inches; Sirloin Brothers, ca. 1973, oil on canvas, 41-3/4 x 71-1/2 inches, Courtesy of David Rohn; Shriners' Convention, ca. 1973, oil on canvas, 49 x 74 inches, Courtesy of Diane L. Ackerman
Wolf Kahn on Frank Stout
Frank Stout and I were upstairs neighbors in a New York loft building way back in 1965. His daughter was a small child at the time, and I had two little girls, aged two and six. The treads on the stairs were worn from the little feet going up and down. With all this domesticity, it took me a little while to recognize that my neighbor was a first-rate painter. His subjects, even then, displayed that unique mixture of tenderness and a slightly malicious humor which continues to be characteristic of his work.
I can clearly recall one early painting of a flimsy black bra hanging somewhat disconsolately over a dirty-yellow radiator to dry. There was a still life of a banged-up coffeepot and pictures of cars with spooky headlights on the road at night. With these paintings Frank was beginning to make an impression in New York.
At that very point, he received the invitation to teach at Marlboro College. For a young artist with a child, a wife, and an intermittent and uncertain source of income, this was a difficult offer to refuse, even if it meant leaving the place "where the action is." It meant foregoing a larger public, critical acclaim, and the attention of collectors and museum people. It took a serious toll on Frank's subsequent public exposure.
However, unlike many young artists who leave New York to teach at colleges, Frank continued to paint and sculpt with undiminished energy and enthusiasm, and never really lost his verve or his inventiveness. The drying-bra humor of city life in the loft gave way to wry and affectionate descriptions of trailers and diners and commentaries on flea-market photos of group occasions. Little, affecting vignettes of Vermont life were part of his work, such as the winter landscape of the Fox Road cemetery, with its only spot of color the small American flag visible above the snow-covered graves.
When it was too cold to paint (paint can't be handled unless it's warm enough), Frank inventively used clay, wood, foam core, and wire screening to do his work. And in everything he did and does, he shows an enviable freedom, a real virtuosity. His work looks effortless and natural, exemplifying what Mallarmé described as "the condition to which every work of art inspires, that of having created itself."
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