Off the Cuff: Barbara Stanczak, Visions of Intuition

Charles Shepard, President and CEO

American art became increasingly serious after World War II. Offspring of the G.I. Bill, art departments sprouted up at universities across the country and suddenly there were degrees to be earned, galleries to be courted, and markets to be targeted. Although the two most widely read art magazines in the country got their start thirty years prior to the war, the highly influential 20th century American art critics Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg did not have an audience until the postwar emergence of a distinctly American style of painting, Abstract Expressionism. Almost overnight, painting seemed to define American art. As corner man for painting’s great heavyweight Jackson Pollock, Greenberg championed his boy above all other contenders. Greenberg and his rival Rosenberg, who held the towel for Willem de Kooning, formed the gentlemen’s club that ruled the modern art world of the mid-20th century. And while their colleagues Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, and Helen Frankenthaler spent as many hours at their easels as any of the boys, it was more than a decade before their careers gained much traction. Hartigan even started signing her work “George Hartigan” in an attempt to find gallery success. 

With more than half of the 20th century art world being dominated by painters, and most of them men, where did a young, artistically gifted woman who thought in three dimensions fit in?  In 1969, after attending the School of Arts & Crafts in Münster, Germany, Barbara M. Meerpohl arrived in the United States to continue her studies in painting, printmaking, and sculpture at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. She felt immediately at home in the creative freedom of the United States. Barbara found a home with her maternal grandfather, who at 93 and almost blind was still painting frescoes high in the ceilings of Catholic churches; here Barbara learned the traditional skills of a fresco painter. So while the aforementioned young women painters, as well as two aspiring, slightly older women sculptors Louise Nevelson and Louise Bourgeois, were struggling to survive in an inhospitable and unappreciative American art world, Barbara was forging ahead with her studio training in a nurturing environment. She not only excelled in her studies, she also met and married a young professor of painting at the Academy, Julian Stanczak.

A lit, abstract sculpture made of alabaster.
Barbara Stanczak, German American, b. 1941.Snow Blossom. Italian alabaster, 2000. Collection of the Artist. Photo courtesy of Barbara Stanczak.

Julian’s teaching and painting career was taking off and Barbara’s endless enthusiasm and energy permitted Julian to focus single-mindedly on his painting career. Barbara balanced home life and children while pursuing a Master’s degree in Art Education at Case Western Reserve University. In search of her own artistic fulfillment, she investigated every possible material – lead, copper, cast glass, hand-made paper – for their inherent expressive potential. These explorations paved the way to a daring, fearless approach to all materials and their ability to communicate authentically with the viewer.

Though originally sculpture was not her primary focus, working in three dimensions eventually proved to be her gift.  A neighbor offered her a chunk of a fallen oak tree in 1992, and she dragged a large piece into her garage to explore it with a single chisel and mallet. Constantin Brâncuşi, the pioneer of modern sculptural expression, theorized that a sculptor should know how to dig out the being that is within the matter. To my eye, that came naturally to Barbara. The implication of Brâncuşi’s observation, in contrast to the Nietzsche-influenced Modernist tendencies, is that there is life in the core of the matter. In a later interview, Barbara explained, “With wood or stone, you cannot make what you want to make, but what the material permits you to make.” She spent the entire summer developing a mutually satisfying relationship with the neighbor’s gift of oak and, as a result, brought the sculpture Cresting into the world.

Five wooden sculptures, unconnected, create this one work.
Barbara Stanczak, German American, b. 1941. Tiptoe through my garden. Wood, 2001. Collection of the Artist. Photo courtesy of Barbara Stanczak.

Barbara’s interest in carving seemed dated to some in critical circles who questioned why, after the accomplishments of Michelangelo, Bernini, or Antonio Canova, anyone would attempt to carve in either wood or stone. But in pursuing a more intuitive and less intellectual relationship with her materials and infusing them with strong references to the natural world, Barbara was, through carving, actually breathing a new life into contemporary sculpture by offering the world an alternative to the rectilinear and geometric favored by David Smith and his aesthetic descendants. In contrast, Barbara was bringing the earlier organic abstraction trend pioneered by Barbara Hepworth and Jean Arp up to date and making it relevant to contemporary audiences. 

Carving in wood inevitably led to carving in stone, and that discovery enabled Barbara to effectively double her studio environment by chiseling in wood inside the studio and carving stone outside surrounded by nature. She readily admits that throughout the 1990s, it was often harder than she anticipated to adjust her “will” to accommodate the truth inherent in the wood or stone. Nonetheless, gradually she grew comfortable with sensing what could be achieved with each different “block” of material. In stone, a notable example of this shift from the conceptual to the increasingly intuitive can be seen by comparing Barbara’s neatly regimented parade in Sunday Promenade of 1998 with her full out exploration of what her stone really has to offer in her tour de force Snow Blossom done just two years later.  Both are gorgeous, but in the case of the latter, Barbara embraces the spirit of this stone and lets her heart do all the work. Similarly, in her Gothic Nude of 2005, Barbara’s will drives the creation of this sensuous abstract figure, and this is a remarkable display of what she can make wood do. In her later cathedral-esque Nature’s Baroque of 2011, Barbara lets the wood’s voice help her tell the story of the wood’s intrinsic essence.

Abstract alabaster sculpture.
Barbara Stanczak, German American, b. 1941. Sunday Promenade. Italian translucent alabaster, 1998. Collection of the Artist. Photo courtesy of Barbara Stanczak.

Barbara Stanczak’s voice in the realm of contemporary art has unflinchingly linked sculpture’s history and traditions to sculpture’s present and future by connecting time-honored methodologies with contemporary sensibilities and a commitment to the natural world. She has quietly and fearlessly forged a path for sculptors (and their students) out of the wasteland of trends and “isms” that so dominated the last decades of 20th century sculpture and painting. In her work and life, Barbara has shown us the value that the spiritual and the intuitive in art continue to have, notwithstanding the focus of many contemporary sculptors on the cerebral and conceptual realms. It has been my considerable honor to share her work with you, especially in the context of this exhibition focusing on both her and her beloved Julian. As you experience Full Spectrum: Paintings, Drawings, and Prints of Julian Stanczak; Wood and Stone Sculptures of Barbara Stanczak, I am sure you will appreciate the richness of their life together and the treasure they have given the art world by their example.

Taken from the Full Spectrum: Paintings, Drawings, and Prints of Julian Stanczak; Wood and Stone Sculptures of Barbara Stanczak exhibition catalogue, available for free in the exhibition galleries through November 24th.

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