Evelyn Statsinger (1927–2016), who was born in Brooklyn and studied at the High School of Music and Art and the Art Students League in New York, and the University of Toledo in Ohio, moved to Chicago in the late 1940s to study at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). The school’s proximity to the Art Institute of Chicago, and its encyclopedic art collection, was one of the draws for Statsinger, who once said about herself: “I look at everything.” 

Many writers have commented on Statsinger’s relation to nature in particular. The press release for her current exhibition, Evelyn Statsinger: Currents at GRAY New York gallery (April 8–June 18, 2022), curated by Dan Nadel, opens with this statement: 

[For] fifteen years, I have intently watched [the] daily life of plants and animals in both the forests and the fields …. Bits and pieces of specially observed things begin to represent the whole, and juxtapositions of real things make imaginary combinations. Combinations are open and ambiguous to interpretation, so that the viewer may wander in the same state of grace as the painter.

Evelyn Statsinger, “Central Forces” (1985), oil on linen, 24 1/4 × 26 inches

While it is obvious that Statsinger closely observed and was inspired by nature, I think it is equally important to mention the role that Japanese art played in her work. Statsinger’s interest in Japanese art began early. According to Jason Foumberg, in his insightful catalogue essay for her 2015 exhibition at the Richard Gray Gallery in Chicago: 

[…] during her student years at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, on the cusp of an early aesthetic breakthrough in the late 1940s, Statsinger gained special access to the museum’s Asian art collection and dedicated several days to exhaustively viewing every single Japanese print there. 

Statsinger, who explored a singular path throughout her career, spent a year in Japan in 1965 (returning again later). I think she began making her best work in the mid-1970s. The eight paintings and five works on paper in Currents were done between 1982 and 1992. If the drawings are any indication of what Statsinger accomplished in this medium, she deserves an entire exhibition devoted to this aspect of her work. Her touch, and the attention that she pays to line, pattern, shading, and closely related tones, makes these works a delight to scrutinize — for instance, one sees a spoon-like shape lying atop a semicircle emerging above what could be a landscape on the lower left of “Conflagrations.” Compositionally, the drawings are more conventional because of the use of a horizon line, as in “Shiftings” (1983). In these drawings, repetition, pattern, and texture evoke things and surfaces. Statsinger has created a world that is simultaneously microscopic and macroscopic, cellular and cosmological; the inexplicable and enigmatic coexist. We have entered a world that is parallel to ours. That it has taken so long for it to be seen and perhaps embraced in New York is not surprising. 

Evelyn Statsinger, “State of Flux” (1987), oil on linen, 36 × 50 inches

The major reason that Statsinger’s work is not better known in New York is because of the city’s long antipathy toward Surrealism, particularly work that ignored Cubism and/or was overtly figurative. More importantly, as Sandra Zalman brilliantly argues in Consuming Surrealism in American Culture (2015), authorities such as William Rubin, chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art for more than 20 years, wanted to make Surrealism fit their narrative of modern art and its emphasis on formalist aesthetics. The importance of Cubism, the grid, and allover composition that so many New York art world experts routinely emphasized prevented them from considering the work of Statsinger and so many others. I think it is for these same reasons that few critics discuss the importance of Japanese art to Statsinger’s compositions. 

Statsinger did not appropriate from Japanese art; she absorbed aspects of how Japanese woodblock artists structured space — the shifts in scale and the compressions of near and far they were able to attain in their views. She also soaked up and modified the juxtapositions of pattern and texture without regard to perspective, and how many different patterns and textures could be incorporated within a print. The primary difference between the space in a Japanese print and what we often encounter in Statsinger’s paintings is that the former opens out to Mount Fuji or some other landmark in the distance, whereas the layered space in the latter often feels claustrophobic.  

Evelyn Statsinger, “Shiftings” (1983), graphite, pastel and colored pencil on paper, 19 1⁄4 × 19 1⁄4 inches

In “Forest Gift” (1987), one of the exhibition’s most simple and figural paintings, Statsinger uses a dry brush to apply the greens and oranges that dominate it, the nub of the canvas peering through. While the centrally placed, volumetric form in the shape of almond suggests a space, everything else contradicts that reading, as patterns and leaf-like shapes are coextensive with the picture plane. Statsinger abuts and disrupts distinct forms, patterns, and shapes to arrive at incongruities. Her visual conundrums are what set her work apart from that of others. Yet they do not strike this viewer as arbitrary.    

What are we looking at in “Central Forces” (1985) and “State of Flux” (1987)? The titles suggest conditions and change rather than things and stability. While Statsinger’s work brings to mind organic and inorganic specimens seen under a microscope and aerial views, we cannot tell what is benign or malignant, growing or deteriorating. The artist’s recurring use of greens, browns, reds, and oranges suggests nature as the source, but the compositions and forms are not necessarily decipherable. The spatial compression is unsettling and cramped. The cropped edges underscore our inability to get a larger, more comprehensive view. Our thwarted attempts to name and place what we see in a category hints at the multiplicity and endlessness of reality. We tend to think of infinity in expansive terms. Statsinger suggests that the opposite is also true, that the layers of visibility each thing embodies is incessant. That vision of the natural world is unlike that of any other postwar artist.  

Evelyn Statsinger, “Rural Flight” (1987), oil on linen, 40 1⁄8 × 32 1⁄8 inches

Evelyn Statsinger: Currents continues at GRAY New York gallery (1018 Madison Avenue, 2nd Floor, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through June 18. The exhibition was curated by Dan Nadel.

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John Yau

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook,...