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  • Steven Rosen

Julian Stanczak’s Contribution to Cincinnati Art

Julian Stanczak, the Polish-born American artist who lived near Cleveland and did important work in Cincinnati, had an international reputation that was only growing when he died on March 25 at age 88.

The abstract art that he called “perceptual painting” — sharply delineated lines and sections of color that seemed to change or move based on the light and the viewer’s movements — made a major cultural impact when Stanczak’s first show, Optical Paintings, opened in New York in 1964. He became known as a progenitor of Op Art, which took its name from that show.

But, until recently, that was seen as a fad that had faded. The recent revival, in my opinion, is due to a realization that at its best, Op Art is capable of the same kind of spiritual, questing dimension as a Mark Rothko painting or an Agnes Martin grid.

Stanczak represented its best, especially with his exquisite choice of colors and geometric shapes and his wise handling of straight and curved lines. As was pointed out in The New York Times obituary, a major New York Gallery — Mitchell-Innes & Nash — had mounted its first Stanczak show in 2014 and has a second slated for May.

Cincinnati has had something to do with this resurgence — and Stanczak, in turn, has had something to do with the city’s improved fortunes. In 2007, he created what his wife, sculptor Barbara Stanczak, considers a mural (others call it it a sculpture) along the north side of the Fifth Third Bank’s Fountain Square above-level parking garage. Occupying an entire block of Sixth Street, from Walnut to Vine streets, his “Additional” is among the city’s very finest public artworks of any type. Fifth Third commissioned it; gallerist Carl Solway suggested Stanczak to architect Jim Fitzgerald. The final work was fabricated to the artist’s specifications.

“It made a difference to downtown, didn’t it?” says Barbara, via telephone from the Stanczak home in Seven Hills, Ohio, near Cleveland. “It brought some life and cheer.”

It consists of 522 hollow aluminum bars in bright, rich colors. There are 325 vertical strips, each painted a similar one of three colors on its sides, so depending which way you’re walking or facing, and which sides of the bars you’re seeing, they all look green or purple — or you see a mix. That is a master lesson in manipulation of color combinations. (The effect is interrupted by a large decorative element above a passageway door.)

But giving even greater illusory depth, there are also 200 bars of different colors set at a slant to, and intersecting with, the vertical ones. The effect is to make you think they are swaying with the wind. Plenty of people, myself included, have at one time thought “Additional” is a mobile or kinetic piece, with those slanted bars moving in the wind so fast you never could see it.

CityBeat contributor Jane Durrell talked to Stanczak in August 2007 when he came to town for the dedication of his “block-long blockbuster,” as she called it, as well as for a small show at the Contemporary Arts Center that contained several of the working models. “(I’ve) always wanted to work in three dimensions,” he told Durrell.

Stanczak, who also has some major paintings and prints in Cincinnati collections, led an extraordinary life, according to published information. Born in Poland in 1928, he was sent to a Siberian labor camp after the Russians (along with the Germans) invaded to start World War II. There he lost the use of his right hand. He escaped in 1942, made his way to exiled Polish Army soldiers in Persia and left them for a Polish refugee camp in Africa, where he learned to write and paint with his left hand. After the war, he came Cleveland, got his master’s degree in art from Yale University, studying with Josef Albers, and became a U.S. citizen.

He taught at the Art Academy of Cincinnati from 1957-64, meeting his future wife here when she became an Academy student. She had come to Cincinnati from Germany to help her elderly grandfather, an ecclesiastical painter, with his work.

That local history helped Stanczak decide to undertake the challenging “Additional.”

“We both invested a lot of love and work in Cincinnati, and I thought this was a good project for Julian to be visible,” Barbara says.And so he will be in Cincinnati — always.

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