Several years ago we came across an artwork by Julian Stanczak described as oil on plastic. Believing Stanczak worked exclusively in acrylic on canvas or panel, we did not purchase the piece, but later inquired of the artist whether he had worked in those materials. We were pleased to learn that Stanczak had executed a series of oil on plastic works for a 1972 solo exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC and that many were still with the artist. The discovery of Stanczak’s works on plastic led us to consider other artists who were investigating new materials in the 1960s, a period that saw both enthusiasm for technology brought on by the Space Race and a renewed interest in the Constructivist and Bauhaus artists of the 1920s. For our exhibition New Materials, New Approaches
, we selected three artists, Mon Levinson, Leroy Lamis, and Julian Stanczak, who expanded Constructivist ideas on light and space through new materials and made the viewer an integral element in the activation of the work. Each artist re-purposed industrial materials in innovative ways to create art that rewarded the engaged viewer with shifting imagery of line, color, and reflection.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF PLASTIC IN ART
Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner, the two Russian Constructivist brothers, incorporated plastic into their sculptures of metal and wood in the 1920s. The theories of the Constructivists were expanded by the instructors at the Bauhaus in Germany who felt art and industry could have shared goals. When the Bauhaus was closed in 1933, many of its instructors came to America. One in particular, László Moholy-Nagy, was already using plastic in his investigations of light when he arrived in Chicago in 1937 to direct The New Bauhaus. The first American artist to use colored acrylic sheeting in his geometric reliefs was Charles Biederman in 1938. The following year the makers of Plexiglas, Rohm & Haas Company, hosted a competition with the Museum of Modern Art for sculptures made of Plexiglas to be shown at the 1939 New York World’s Fair in the Hall of Industrial Science, Chemicals, and Plastics. Alexander Calder won the competition and was the only participant to make further work in plastic.1
In the 1940s-1950s, the Abstract Expressionists expanded painterly approaches to oil on canvas and sculptors like David Smith extended welding practices in industrial and found metals. It was not until the late 1950s, however, that artists again considered plastic.
In the 1960s plastic came into its own as a material for artists. Constructivist and Bauhaus attitudes to art and industry had opened the way for artists to embrace new materials in their art, creating an atmosphere in which artists no longer felt tied to the traditional materials of oil, clay, and bronze. By the 1960s artists felt free to look for whatever material and approach helped realize their creative vision. Levinson, Lamis, and Stanczak turned to plastic in sheet form, known as Plexiglas, because of its smooth surface, its luminosity, and its ability to be opaque, clear, or colored.
The notable trend of artists using an expanding range of materials, particularly plastic, received museum attention in the late 1960s. The exhibition A Plastic Presence
was an international survey of 51 artists, which opened at the Jewish Museum in November 1969 then traveled to the Milwaukee Art Center and the San Francisco Museum of Art. The American artists of note included Leroy Lamis and Mon Levinson as well as Richard Artschwager, Eva Hesse, Craig Kauffman, Louise Nevelson, and De Wain Valentine. A Plastic Presence
was the first exhibition at a New York institution to define the diverse group of artists working in the wide-ranging medium of plastic. Two other exhibitions offered more discussion on the reasons artists were turning to plastic: Made of Plastic
at the Flint Institute of Arts in 1968 and the 1969 annual exhibition of American paintings and sculpture at the Krannert Art Museum at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Both exhibitions focused on the diverse uses of plastic in a range of styles recently created by artists, including Lamis and Levinson. The Krannert’s catalogue essay written by the head of the University’s industrial design department, James R. Shipley, and the museum’s director, Allen S. Weller, identified the new artist as equal parts organizer and technician in art works that employed “the materials, instruments, and processes of contemporary technology.” They noted the artist’s approach to commercial materials extended their use and handling beyond the purposes intended by the manufacturers.
In 1960 Mon Levinson developed his language of layered planes found in his later plastic constructions through cut paper compositions built of shadows and reflections. Levinson called these works Knife Drawings
as the cut edge of the paper created the “lines” of the composition. A work from this series, Reflected Color III
, 1964 is included in our exhibition. Inspired by the Knife Drawings
, Levinson searched for a more rigid material to enable him to make structures as well. He visited stores for the fabrication of retail displays along Canal Street in New York and discovered plastic fit his creative vision because of its ability to be malleable when heated and rigid again once cooled. Levinson started working in both clear vinyl and opaque white plastic in 1960, slicing, tearing, and melting his materials. The resulting layers of manipulated plastic presented in wooden boxes about six inches deep were titled Space Reliefs
. When Martha Jackson selected a Space Relief
for her gallery’s 1960 exhibition New Forms-New Media II
, it was the only work executed in plastic. The Knife Drawings
and Space Reliefs
were shown together in Levinson’s first solo exhibition in New York held at Kornblee Gallery in 1961. The clean geometry of the paper works contrasted with the organic quality of the plastic reliefs. The two series were brought together through their white coloration and shared focus on the contrast of positive and negative space. With the Space Reliefs
Levinson established plastic as his primary material and continued to experiment with plastic’s transparency, rigidity, and reflection of light for the next ten years.
Mon Levinson next used an additive approach of layering, which he saw as a move from chaos to order. In tonal vinyl reliefs like Rectangles I
, 1964, Levinson worked with tinted sheets of vinyl that became deeper in color when layered, creating gradations of tone with each level of the composition. The vinyl reliefs permitted Levinson to use color in a way that was intrinsic to the material. In the freestanding Sculpture #3
of 1965, Levinson layered opaque white Plexiglas to create both a positive side and a negative side to the sculpture. The construction of Sculpture #3
motivates the viewer to walk around it to see how it was built and how the additive elements on one side create the depth on the other. In works like Sculpture #3
, Levinson demonstrates Constructivist ideas on volume and space. In Sculpture #3
and the tonal vinyl reliefs, we see the irregular polygon shapes found in the Knife Drawings
, which continue into Levinson’s Op constructions of the mid-1960s.
Mon Levinson’s next breakthrough came in 1964 with constructions using lined Plexiglas. With taped lines applied to a clear sheet of Plexiglas layered over another taped sheet, Levinson discovered the moiré effect. Caused by pattern interference between two sets of overlapping lines, the moiré effect’s intensity is determined by the distance between the two layers. Learning how the moiré effect worked allowed Levinson to determine the speed of the shifting image in each construction; adding another Constructivist dimension to his work, time. As in Sculpture #3
, the moiré constructions motivate the viewer to investigate the work as it shifts in front of him. Eager to experiment with this effect more thoroughly, Levinson found a commercial art product called Zipatone that provided uniform patterns of lines. Enlarging the Zipatone sheets of tight squiggly lines at a film processing business, Levinson now had the raw materials of lined patterns on both paper and clear acetate film sheets to broadly experiment with the speed effect in his moiré constructions. In examining the differences line and tone could have on the time and speed of his moiré constructions, Levinson progressed through a number of series with titles such as Positive Moving Planes
, White Moving Planes with Shadows
, and The Edge Contained
In the late 1960s Mon Levinson simplified his compositions to focus on the reflective properties of plastic. In early pieces of this kind like Light Play X
, 1968, Levinson used formal geometry to consider light as a raw material in his work. In the clear Plexiglas works, Levinson aimed to de-emphasize the object to draw attention to the play of light and shadow around it. In a review of his 1969 exhibition of the light works at Kornblee Gallery, critic John Gruen noted the works created “geometric illusions extending beyond the actual work....Levinson’s work has always had a classical purity. This show is no exception.” (New York Magazine, Nov.24, 1969, p.65)
Mon Levinson continually found and mastered new materials to achieve an envisioned idea. In our exhibition, this is evident in both Light Diamond
, 1967 and Stepped Shift I
, 1968 in which Levinson used thin lighting sheets created for aviation purposes on the backs of the constructions to add color and radiance to his linear Plexiglas compositions. Levinson learned of the lighting sheets from one of the manufacturers he had developed a relationship with when he first began working in plastic in 1960. Surprised to find manufacturers were pleased to have an artist exploring their materials, Levinson was often sent items which were not commercially available like the aviation material. Levinson’s construction Stepped Shift I
, 1968 was included in Robert Rauschenberg and Billy Kluver’s E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology) exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in 1968 called Some More Beginnings
. The aim of E.A.T. was to encourage the interaction of engineers and artists to see what could be accomplished when art met science. Stepped Shift I
was illustrated in the E.A.T. catalogue with its unusual electroluminescent panel, yet unlike most of the pieces in the exhibition, no collaborative engineer was listed. Levinson had created the technically adventurous work on his own! Levinson’s initial goal in using plastics was to avoid the brushstroke and emphasize the overall quality of the forms, not the incidence of their making. This aim led Levinson to repeatedly discover new materials and approaches to investigate his primary interests of space, time, and light.
Leroy Lamis first worked with plastic in 1958-1959 as an extension of his investigations into glass and prisms. Lamis had been using prisms and their refraction of light to break up the solidity of his welded metal sculptures. He found the limited manipulablity of prisms and glass restricting and looked for a new material with which to investigate light. An early attraction for Lamis to plastic was that it could be cut and glued. Further, as he said in an interview in The Cedar Rapids Gazette
in October 1960, “One advantage I’ve found in using [plastic] is the way in which it transmits light, much like glass. Yet it’s much more sculptural than glass. It’s an extremely exacting material that requires nothing less than perfection....Its greatest advantage is the unique optical effect of plastic. It’s a beautiful thing in itself.” In the fall of 1962 Lamis made a plastic cube construction in which he was sufficiently confident in its success to begin numbering his work. His second numbered construction, also made in 1962, was an angled cube of clear Plexiglas within which were several I-beam forms of Plexiglas in decreasing size. Lamis was inspired to create his plastic cube constructions by the Russian Constructivist Naum Gabo’s statement that light and space should be the defining elements in art and light is the cause of movement. Lamis achieved both of Gabo’s statements as his plastic constructions come alive with light, rewarding the viewer who moves around them with mesmerizing reflections in a seemingly endless space.
In the catalogue text for Leroy Lamis’s solo exhibition at Dartmouth College in 1970, the Director of Visual Studies, Matthew Wysocki, wrote of Lamis’s constructions: “These luminous structures become shimmering cubes which recede into a symmetrical progression....[I]f one can transcend their physical scale, the space becomes infinite in each structure. The apparent openness and film quality of each sculpture create a color and light sensation which further heightens its silence and greatness.” In the text, the works are placed in three categories of plane constructions: #1. vertical and horizontal complementaries (like Construction No. 169
, 1969); #2. twisted planes (like Construction No. 191
, 1970); and #3. radiating compounded cubes (like Construction No. 228
, 1975). Each of these assembly methods was developed in the first three numbered constructions. Using these three modes of assembling the inner components, Lamis created enclosed worlds of his own architecture. In the introductory essay for Lamis’s first solo exhibition at Staempfli Gallery in New York in 1966, George Staempfli wrote: “[Lamis] builds cubes, rooms within rooms, houses within houses. Though they are often completely transparent, they are invulnerable, fortified and inaccessible. The enclosed space, protected by multiple layers of deceptively transparent walls, is like a sacred void, mysterious and still.”
Aware of the Constructivists’ opposition to color as an optical surface, Leroy Lamis felt plastic with its embedded color provided the opportunity for a sculptor to work with color. Using colored and clear Plexiglas, Lamis created a three dimensional approach to Josef Albers’s color theory. With a limited number of colors, Lamis developed multiple variations of the original source colors through layering and reflections. Over the course of his plastic constructions from 1962 to 1978, Lamis used only eight colors in addition to clear and white Plexiglas. He ordered plastic directly from Rohm & Haas in 4 x 8 foot sheets of clear, white, green, amber, red, and blue. Later colors used by Lamis included purple in 1964, light and dark blue in 1965, and bronze in 1971. Lamis did not add black Plexiglas to his constructions until 1972.
The constructions are built from the inside out, mimicking organic growth. In the essay for Leroy Lamis’s 1979 retrospective at the Swope Art Museum, he is quoted as saying, “I like the geometric order of growth in nature, like the rhythm of the tides, the growth rings of a tree, and the valves of a sea shell....My work is a glorification of technology but is rooted in the tradition of organic development.” Although Lamis used plastic to create constructions without evidence of the artist’s touch, he had a hands-on approach to the works. He sawed his pieces with machine-like precision and used a syringe to create the exact joins without bubbles or other imperfections common to the fabrication process. Lamis never considered using a fabricator or making editions of his works as he was committed to the full process of the construction’s creation. In 1966 the president of Rohm & Haas, Dr. F. Otto Haas, visited Lamis’s exhibition at Staempfli Gallery and had the works photographed to document them as remarkable demonstrations of sheer skill in handling Plexiglas. When Lamis received a commission to create a sculpture for the 14 recipients of the New York State Council on the Arts award in 1970, he constructed each sculpture over the year rather than submit a master design to be reproduced. Lamis enjoyed the process of his work and took satisfaction in the perfect execution of his constructions. Lamis created his last plastic construction in May 1978— his work had reached a technical perfection and complexity that could not be improved. In 1982 Lamis found a new art form to engage him— computer generated imagery.
Julian Stanczak developed an intolerance to oil paints while completing his MFA at Yale University in 1955-1956 that led him to experiment and investigate alternative paint materials. With acrylic paints not yet fully developed, Stanczak worked with dry pigments and eggs with some linseed or sunflower oil before trying out paint mixtures like acrylic resin or Rhoplex produced by Rohm & Haas with extenders like chalk, mica, and pumice. Stanczak also looked for suitable support structures for his work from traditional materials of canvas and board to newer supports like masonite and plastic sheeting. In Stanczak’s own words, “Plastics came about in the late ‘50s and they tempted me to explore them as a novel art material.” Stanczak was open to trying whatever combination of paint and support aided him to achieve his investigations of color and line.
With the introduction of water-based acrylic paints in the early 1960s, Julian Stanczak began to develop his laborious process of taping and building up layers of paint. When working freehand, Stanczak used thinned paint to achieve an even texture and the accumulation of paint required many layers. With tape, Stanczak could apply the paint thickly and achieve clean edges with the tape’s removal. The controlled juxtapositions of color applied in lines led the color to blend above the canvas rather than on it, mixing optically side by side rather than being physically blended. This in effect let the mind do the mixing. Stanczak’s method of taping challenged him to examine how the density of lines produced the sensation of measured space and a transparency effect with which the artist continues to work. Stanczak strove for a fusion of colors in his compositions to create a single color experience— a “color meltdown” as the artist calls it.
Because color is difficult to control, Stanczak occasionally returned to black and white to investigate the other fundamental element in his work— line. Always interested in the beat of the line and the rhythm it could convey, Stanczak talks of lines “taking the eye for a walk.” As Stanczak recently said in an interview for the abstract art
A shape’s position, form, edges, and size all have implications for its speed of reading and
suggestions of space. They exert power and have their own right to exist. The purity of
line as edge needs very few cues before forming stories or familiar recognizable patterns.
In order to understand the power and needs of form, I stayed with black and white paintings
for quite a while, and I return to them from time to time.
In 1970 Julian Stanczak was presented with a challenge by Gene Baro, then director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Baro was organizing a series of solo exhibitions of artists working in prints and drawings. He had seen Julian’s paintings and prints at Martha Jackson Gallery and offered Stanczak a place in the Corcoran’s exhibition series. Stanczak informed Baro he had no formal drawing practice suitable for exhibition and Baro replied he had two years to develop one.
With the lure of a museum solo exhibition, Stanczak first considered how drawings could be their own sovereign art form. He also considered the persistent side effect of the presentation of drawings— the inevitable placement of a drawing behind glass and the resulting reflection. Stanczak felt this reflection aspect had not been utilized or respected as an active part of drawings. Considering how to activate the reflection, Stanczak used illustration board treated with a glossy finish as his surface. He then sprayed a thin layer of oil to achieve an even texture once the tape mapping out his composition was removed. The Linear Structure
pieces in our exhibition result from this process and were exhibited in Julian Stanczak’s solo exhibition at Martha Jackson Gallery in March 1972. Liking the effect of a shiny surface reflecting onto the glass which then repeated the reflection, Stanczak searched out more reflective materials for his drawing surface. Stanczak found in particular polished aluminum and white Plexiglas permitted a smooth removal of his tape, allowing the lines to be crisper. By considering the nature of a drawing and experimenting to develop a process to achieve his vision, Stanczak developed a unique series of works with the finest interplay of black and white lines realized in oil on plastic such as Descendent
In Gene Baro’s catalogue text for Julian Stanczak’s solo exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in September of 1972, he said:
Stanczak’s concern is with the shifting, evanescent quality of visual experience that nevertheless
leaves impressions in the mind, images caught in flux....Stanczak expresses in exquisite formality
the universal state of losing the visible even in grasping it....A formal art, yes, analytical and
intelligent, but also intensely personal, reflecting on an inward as well as an outward vision.
Stanczak’s studies in line are activated by the struggle between what the eye sees and what the mind wants to read, resulting in the suggestion of a moving form. The 1972 suite of works elicits this response and evokes the limitless feeling of space without gravity while narrowing in on the smallest detail of lines in a composition to test the fundamentals of drawing.
A single Plexiglas mobile in 1943, now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.