ArtWeekend

The Desire for the Unattainable: Myron Stout’s Paintings and Drawings

Myron Stout, who was born in Denton, Texas, in 1908, made an early decision to be a painter but didn’t hit his stride until the late 1940s, after he had served in World War II.

Myron Stout, “Hierophant” (c. 1955), oil on canvas, 38 x 30 inches, private collection (all images courtesy Craig F. Starr Gallery)

This is the last day of an exhibition, Myron Stout at Craig F. Starr Gallery that no one should miss. Stout was not a prolific artist, and even modest-sized shows of his work are few and far between. He was known to have spent ten years on an easel painting and just as long on a small drawing. Two graphite drawings in the show are around the size of a postage stamp. His passionate fans include an unlikely miscellany of artists: Eve Aschheim, Mark Greenwold, Catherine Murphy, Gladys Nilsson, Thomas Nozkowski, Jim Nutt, James Siena, Philip Taaffe, and Trevor Winkfield. What they all have in common is an intense focus on shapes, lines, and edges — formal issues not divorced from feeling in service of the imagination.

Stout had his first exhibition in New York at the Stable Gallery in 1954 and his second one in 1957 at the artist-run Hansa Gallery in 1957. Although his work was included in important group shows throughout the 1960s and 70’s, he did not have his third show in New York until his retrospective, Myron Stout, at the Whitney Museum of American Art (February 5–April 6, 1980). By this time, Stout was losing his vision and was only able to work with the help of an assistant. Around 1980 he stopped altogether.

In the obituary he wrote for The New York Times, Michael Brenson cited the words of Stout’s longtime friend, the writer B.H. Friedman, from the Whitney’s catalog. Describing the artist’s paintings and drawings, Friedman wrote:

[Stout] has made from his deepest feelings what amount to ritual objects — objects so physical, so full of the grain and texture of life that they suggest metaphysical photographs taken somehow simultaneously at the dazzling speed of light and at the slow, grinding pace of eternity.

Since that large gathering of the artist’s work, there have been only a handful of exhibitions in New York that have brought together the black-and-white paintings and graphite drawings he did between the mid-1950s and the late-1970s, which is why this exhibition of five paintings and eleven works on paper dating between 1950 and 1979 at the Starr Gallery is a truly rare occasion.

Stout, who was born in Denton, Texas, in 1908, made an early decision to be a painter but didn’t hit his stride until the late 1940s, after he had served in World War II. It was while he was attending Columbia University, where he had gotten his M.A. in education before the War, for a doctorate  that would enable him to teach “art appreciation,” that a friend told Stout about a drawing class taught by Hans Hofmann on Eighth Street. It was January 1947, the beginning of his second semester at Columbia. Going to that class and meeting Hofmann motivated Stout to fully recommit himself to painting. It took about two years for Stout, who was on leave from a teaching job in Hawaii at the time, to disentangle himself from one life and begin another. Between 1947 and ’52, he studied with Hofmann intermittently, but by his calculation it added up to about “two years.” More importantly, he withdrew from New York in 1952 and moved to Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he lived in modest circumstances until his death in 1987.

After Stout moved to Provincetown he abandoned geometric abstraction and the use of color. The primary inspiration for his movement to pared down, biomorphic forms in black, white, and gray was his reading of Greek tragedies. Having read a book of Greek myths when he was a child, Stout returned to Greek plays and literature throughout his life.

Myron Stout, “Apollo” (c. 1955), oil on canvas, 40 x 23 inches, private collection

Four of the five paintings in the exhibition are of a single white form on a black ground, while the graphite drawings are gray, black, and white. The exception is “Apollo” (1955), the largest painting in the show, which measures 40 by 23 inches. In Greek mythology, Apollo was a complex, oracular figure. He was the god of music, poetry, the sun, and keeper of the herds, as well as the one who could bring plagues. Hermes made a lyre for him.

Stout’s “Apollo” consists of two forms: a white circle floating within a U-shape that could be the frame of a lyre or, more distantly, the horns of a sacred bull. By paring down his forms to memorable abstract shapes, Stout maintains a connection with his source. The key to this connection is drawing, which is the underpinning of all his work.

The balance between the white form and the black ground is so exquisitely calibrated they seem to switch places, with the black ground becoming the form and the white becoming the ground. If you move closer to the painting, you can see the differences in Stout’s application of the paint: the black ground is thin enough to reveal the texture of the canvas, while the white form has been built up and worked along the edges. The contrast is graphic and visceral. The shapes are mesmerizing— they evoke the archaic but do not feel the least bit nostalgic. This drive to get to the essence of things is something Stout shares with Constantin Brancusi. The difference is that Brancusi tried to get to the essence of observable forms – a head or a fish – while Stout aimed for mythical ones.

Myron Stout, “Aegis” (1955–79), oil on canvas, 24 x 20 inches, private collection

Stout’s titles hint at the artist’s preoccupations. The white tapering form in “Aegis” (1955–1979) can be translated as the shield carried by Athena and Zeus. A “Hierophant” (ca. 1955) is a priest who brings worshippers in touch with the holy through interpretation. The form in the graphite drawing “Tiresias II” (1965) is an inverted variation of the one found in “Hierophant” — it looks like an abstract mushroom or open umbrella. In Greek mythology, Tiresias was a blind prophet and clairvoyant. This is the kernel of Stout’s genius: he is able to imagine abstract forms from his reading in Greek literature. Although they were finished at different times, all the paintings in the exhibition were started between 1954 and ’56 — his first breakthrough into a territory all his own. In this three-year burst of creativity, Stout most likely began all the paintings that would consume him for the rest of his working life. I doubt that there are more than two-dozen completed paintings.

After meeting Hofmann and reading Greek literature, particularly the tragedies, the next big change happened when Stout went to New York and saw George Seurat: Paintings and Drawings at the Museum of Modern Art (March 26 – May 11, 1958). While drawing was central to Stout’s practice, and he was a firm believer in drawing from nature, the Seurat show inspired him to begin using graphite. Stout’s graphite drawings constitute a distinct body of work within this artist’s small oeuvre, and are one of the singular achievements in the medium in postwar art.

Myron Stout, “Untitled” (1977–79), graphite on paper, 5 3/8 x 8 inches, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the Gramercy Park Foundation, Inc., 1980

In his conté crayon drawings, Seurat feels his way across the paper, sensitive to the interaction between his drawing instrument and the paper’s tooth. Echoing Seurat, Stout’s graphite drawings are done in black, white and gray. The relationship between the graphite and the paper enabled him to focus on edges, varying states of solidity and dissipation, and the interplay between austerity and luxuriance.

A number of the graphite drawings are based on things that he saw, including Provincetown’s stone jetty and the view of the moon as it changed over the course of months, as seen through a row of clerestory windows stretching across one room of his modest apartment on 4 Brewster Street in Provincetown. In “Untitled” (n.d.), a drawing of the moon in its different phases, Stout chose a piece of paper that measured 2 ¼ by 13 ½ inches. There are eleven images of the moon, with some larger than others, moving from a sliver to a circle, with a rhythmic arrangement that embraces the symmetrical and asymmetrical, the balanced and imbalanced.

Myron Stout, “Untitled” (n.d.), graphite on paper 21 1/4 x 13 1/2 inches, private collection, Houston

This is what Stout said to Friedman about his graphite drawings in the catalogue published on the occasion of his retrospective:

When I start drawing, I work with the black and white areas as well as their enclosing lines. Jogging them back and forth. Feeling my way. Pushing a black area up. Starting out with a black area across the bottom. … [ I ] erase and mark out, and shift without actual drawing, more like in the painting process. So actually, I work both ways in drawing — both in the linear way and in the more painterly way of working with areas, in masses of black and white.

I hear in this statement Stout’s understated desire to attain a perfection that will only become visible to him when he completes the work. He expresses neither angst nor impatience with his process. His work arises out of the paradoxical combination of paring everything down, while employing a process of patient accretion. He caressed his work into being. No doubt Stout was aware of the paradox of reducing while adding. It seems that he briefly had a pet snail he called “Jocko” (short for “Jockey”), and was pleased when “it escaped.”

Myron Stout ends today at the Craig F. Starr Gallery (5 East 73rd Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan).

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