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The many marks of modern Art

One of the most intriguing photographs of recent art history is a 1951 group portrait of 15 American artists. They are shown posed in a cluster, some seated , others standing. None of them look particularly distinguished, yet this small band of artists altered the course of mid-20th-century painting. They all, in varying degrees, were active participants in the shaping of what we now call Abstract Expressionism.

Strictly speaking, this group photograph is not complete: Franz Kline and Hans Hofmann are missing, and Arshile Gorky had died three years before. Also, one or two of the artists included had only the most peripheral connection with the movement. Even so it is a remarkable document, for in it we find abstract Expressionism's prime movers: Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Willem de Kooning , Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, Ad Reinhardt, and Barnett Newman.

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And, seated in the foreground, looking more like a college football player than a successful artist, is Theodoros Stamos.

Stamos, although still only in his mid-20s at the time, had been in on the ground floor of this crucial movement. His early paintings, subtle, quasi-abstract evocations of germination and growth, had shared the same biomorphic vision found in the early works of Rothko, Gottlieb, Baziotes, and Newman. And his subsequent evolution into a more abstract style had been both natural and logical within the broad historic premises of Abstract Expressionism.

However, it is not his position as a first- generation member of that movement I want to discuss here, but as a painter whose growth during three and a half decades of some of the most dramatic and turbulent art activities of the century has been at all times consistent with his private creative vision. And as an artist whose growth was actually accelerated after particularly painful reverses.

Although I've liked various works of his since my first encounter with one of them around 1948, Stamos has never been one of my favorite contemporary painters. I really don't know why. I suspect it had something to do with the sparsity and severity of his style. I could respond to it, could respect both what he was trying to do and what he had actually accomplished -- but I could never really warm up to the paintings themselves.

That, however, has changed, at least as far as his most recent work is concerned. And thereby hangs a tale.

For Stamos, the 1970s were extremely difficult and painful. The art world, watching him suffer severe personal and professional setbacks at the beginning of the decade, wondered if he would ever again attain professional stature -- or even be able to paint. The feeling, in many quarters, was that his career was over.

Although Stamos himself speaks of this period as nine years of hell, he didn't give up. He did, however, feel the need to detach himself from the competitive art world, and to try to redefine himself and his work. In the process he returned to his native roots, to Greece, and most particularly, to the Greek island of Lefkada. Here, living a much simpler and more primitive life than he had before, and surrounded by the basic Earth realities of sea, land, mountains, and sky, Stamos sought the means for his personal and creative renewal.

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Utterly romantic as it may seem, this is exactly what happened. And what's more, it worked.

The first proofs of this have appeared over the past two or three years in a few galleries in New York and in an exhibition or two. Most noticeable was the change in imagery away from the geometrically precise forms of his "sun-box" series of the 1960s to softer, more atmospheric, and quietly elegiac compositions to which he gave the collective title "Infinity Field, Lefkada Series."

Their utter simplicity intrigued me. Most of them consisted of little more than two or three colors and forms, and a narrow -- sometimes straight, sometimes irregular -- band or two. Both his paintings on canvas and his smaller works on paper revealed a mastery of color and a quiet elegance not present to such a degree in his work before. I was oddly moved by them, and felt that here was something very much worth investigating further.

I was right, as I discovered one morning a few months ago in the artist's studio. He was about to leave for Greece, where he now spends half of each year , and was preparing his most recent work for shipment to his gallery.

He showed me a baker's dozen of just- completed paintings. It was a remarkable experience, for what I saw was evidence of an artist truly coming into his own. Not dramatically and with bugles blowing but quietly and subtly.

These were simple and gentle works, totally devoid of theatrics or showmanship, for Stamos is no painterly gymnast like Picasso, inventing and performing one astonishing feat after another.Nor is he a Pollock, crashing through the accrued forms of centuries to score one breathtaking artistic triumph. No, he is much closer to a deep, narrow, and quiet stream that flowed originally with semiconscious direction, was forced underground to locate its primary sources, and has reemerged sparklingly clear and purposeful.

The usual way to discuss new work like this is to analyze it along formal lines, to grapple with the issues of structural invention and stylistic significance, to ask why certain shapes are less geometric than those in earlier paintings, why a particular blue occurs so often, and what the verticality of an image signifies.

Appropriate as that approach may be in other situations, it seems totally beside the point with these paintings. Simple and unpretentious, they stand complete and without need of explanation.

What comes across most particularly in these paintings is bittersweet human experience. While they also subliminally echo age-old Mediterranean cultures and realities, and transcribe memories of sea, sand, and sky into two or three flat areas of color and a few lines, their primary reality is the transfiguration of human pain, doubt, and suffering into the simplest possible images of reconciliation with the primal forces of life.

And the miracle of it is that this is accomplished without recourse to specific human imagery and within a totally nonrepresentational style.

In the deepest and truest sense, Stamos's paintings are classical. They are fashioned in harmony with nature but without dependence on nature's outward appearance. They exist as living things, humble perhaps, and simple, but with an integrity and a vision of life and of art which is entirely their own. But they are also more than that. They are the formal distillation and vindication of ideas and impulses that first saw the light of day over 35 years ago in the formative period of Abstract Expressionism.

These recent works of Stamos are among the most quietly elegant paintings of recent art history. They are also among the most beautiful. If modernism is indeed dead or dying, as is so often claimed today, I can think of no finer swan song to its genius than these lovely works. If, on the other hand, it is only temporarily indisposed, it could do much worse than respond to what lies embedded within these simple but extraordinarily pregnant works of art.

The next article in this series appears on January 24.

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