The list of art "stars" living in northern Ohio is short. Briefer still is the roster of those whose accomplishments are recognized internationally. Cleveland Institute of Art emeritus professor Julian Stanczak's status as one of the premier abstractionists in the world is unquestioned — increasingly so as the decades of his career pile up and his explorations of the optical properties of plane and color continue into ever-fresh territory.
This is all the more remarkable since Stanczak's current acrylic paintings are direct descendents of the short-lived op art movement of the mid-1960s, an experiment that Stanczak himself helped to bring to prominence in association with painters like Bridget Riley, Victor Vasarely and Richard Anuszkiewicz. Stanczak and Anuszkiewiecz both did their undergraduate work at the Cleveland Institute of Art before earning MFAs at Yale in the mid-1950s under Josef Albers, the influential Bauhaus artist known for his extensive exposition and applications of color theory.
As early as 1971, critics like Lucy Lippard, in her book Changing, tended to dismiss op art as too predictable and shallow to address fundamental contradictions and ambiguities of plane and depth perception, relying on a slim vocabulary of moiré effects and the afterimages of close-valued colors. Yet such limits are not at all apparent in Stanczak's luminously mysterious recent works, on view this fall at MOCA.
On the contrary, they evoke a sense of rustling infinities, as the oranges, reds and violets of his 50-section, 2008 work "Parade of Reds" seem to dance and pluck an astoundingly rich variety of tones and cadences, making a type of visual music. In "Parade" and two other large, multi-panel works called "Continuous Line + White" and "Continuous Line + Black," Stanczak creates meadow-like expanses of vibrating color and line, inviting the eye into a world of gentle perpetual motion, wavering in a kind of mathematically-inspired breeze. Speaking of the freedom of boundless time and space, they also offer endless opportunities for escape and concealment. By contrast, a series of 10 recent two-by-two-foot black-and-white paintings on board seem cautionary — like a brief catalog of traps, catching vision and detaining it in narrow corridors.
Born in Poland in 1928, Stanczak lost the use of his right arm (he was right-handed) as a teenager in a concentration camp near the Siberian city Perm. Escaping, he wandered alone through the chaos of World War II, eventually reuniting with his family in Tehran. They spent the remainder of the war years in a Polish refugee camp in Uganda, where Julian received his first instruction in fine art. In 1948, the family emigrated to London and then to the United States. It's tempting to read something of the terror and sheer scale of his experiences as a very young man into the tightly woven, evasively ambiguous and, finally, miraculous paintings of his maturity, which often seem like metaphors for the hidden meanings and missing dimensions of our world.