Treasures from the Vault: Steven Sorman

Jenna Gilley, Associate Curator of Exhibitions

Like many, I have a love-hate relationship with abstraction. I find it difficult to accept a work of art as just that—a collection of color, shape, and line. Sure, abstract pioneer Kazimir Malevich’s monochromatic paintings are cool once you know that he is attempting to tap into the sublime, but isn’t it still (Minimalist fanatics spare me) just white squares? The elitist ideology surrounding abstraction is ironic considering that one of its main goals was to bring art back to a “primitive” level, transcending language and pictorial symbolism in such a way that, theoretically, ANYONE could find it compelling.

Kazimir Malevich, Russian b. Ukraine, 1878. Suprematist Composition: White on White. Oil on canvas, 1918. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.

I’ve been sitting with abstraction more though, particularly in light of the opening of a Sense of Place: Abstract Art in Northern Indiana at the FWMoA in early December, and I’ve found that there is something beautiful and downright natural about abstraction. The interaction of color and texture appeals to my basic senses. I want to touch the pieces, feel the freedom of pouring a bucket of paint on a canvas or scribbling with reckless abandon like I used to do as a child. Even though there is no inherent image to study, I also find myself seeing pictures in the works—botanical specimens, amoeba-like critters, architectural wonders. Perhaps I’m just projecting my fears and desires being stuck inside from the cold and COVID, but it is true that humans innately form chaos into order, particularly through biomorphic imagery. Don’t believe me? Disney has made a whole industry out of this exact notion: think of the humanoid furniture in Beauty and the Beast and the charming characters of Cars. Essentially, these are “abstract”, inanimate objects which someone looked at and related to.

Steven Sorman fully understands this aspect of abstraction, and revels in it. Sorman was born in Minneapolis in 1948 and earned a degree in Fine Arts from the University of Minnesota. A painter by training, Sorman’s print journey began in the early 1970s, when he became interested in woodcuts. Without a press, he had to develop another printing method, rubbing his hand and a stylus on the back of the plate to transfer the ink to paper. Experimenting with printing techniques would eventually become a hallmark of Sorman’s style, which he honed at Echo Press in Indianapolis and later Tyler Graphics Ltd in New York, a premiere printing company which has worked with the likes of Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, and Helen Frankenthaler. After more than 20 years at Tyler Graphics, Sorman is now recognized as one of the most innovative printmakers of the 20th century. The Fort Wayne Museum of Art is honored to host his archive of over 400 works, donated in memory  of fellow artist and friend David Shapiro.

Steven Sorman, American, b. 1948. after whom, before you. Acrylic gouache, oil pastel, polymer, and pigment on paper, 1990. Gift of the Artist in memory of David Shapiro, 2014.149. Photo courtesy of the FWMoA.

Despite the number of works we have acquired, there is one Sorman beauty that is a personal favorite of mine: after whom, before you. A collaged drawing made up of three rectangular sections: a red top, which takes up about a fourth of the composition; a large multi-colored blue bottom; and a small black panel to the lower right, this works swaths of white meander throughout, sometimes stopping at their respective collaged edges and sometimes flowing through them, uniting the disparate panels together. Loops of other colors also wind organically, mimicking the fluid, curving shapes Sorman is known for. A mixture of hard edges and flowing, bleeding painterly lines keeps things interesting.

One thing that a picture does not do justice is the SIZE of this thing. It’s huge; over 8 feet tall and almost 5 feet wide! Thanks to the size, the piece has a real presence. It’s almost life-size proportions also gets me thinking about how my body relates to the work. In this context, I begin to see an angelic figure facing to the right, departing the scene. Their wing is created by the flowing curve of the meeting of the white and swirling black shape, while their body is composed of the blue section to the immediate right, starting with the blotchy light-blue head and curving down to the hovering, cobalt feet. Additionally, the blue lined dome filled in with green shapes in the upper red portion reminds me of the “Peace of Earth” Christmas cards many of us receive. Although this is just forming pictures in the clouds, so to speak, it is interesting how abstract art can evoke feeling and thought without actually being representative, and in a different way to everyone who views it. The description for this piece in our database actually describes the “wing” shape as a seashell, proving another staff member had an opposite take.

Detail shot showing the piece’s title, after whom, before you. Photo courtesy of the FWMoA.

The title of this piece is also an intriguing puzzle. Sorman notes that his titles are indeed important, a “wave in the direction of meaning” for the viewer. They usually relate to his process or to the series of a body of work. For example, Sorman created a piece called Said, and then years later when he created a similar piece, he titled it Said Again. By this regard, perhaps after whom, before you was created in between works titled Whom and You. Or, more likely, perhaps we can toy with the meaning all we like but, ultimately, there is no “truth”. Like Sorman’s abstractions, each are intentionally loose and vague enough to suggest whispers of meaning that still allow the viewer to make their own deductions based on personal tastes and experiences. Sorman’s connection to introspective poetry is explored further in a collaborative poetry book with Patricia Clark.

Another reason I enjoy this piece is that it’s pretty, almost indulgently so. I love seeing the messy flow of the hand in the curling lines, the happy blots of ink blossoming from the surface, and the vibrant play of colors varying in size and translucency. Again, this appeals to our innate desire to touch and play. Often abstract art is conceived as the minimalist, hard line– clean, simple, pure. This notion was formed in abstraction’s early days from Cubism’s attempt to reject indulgent naturalism. Or, in the hand of the brash Jackson Pollock. God FORBID abstract art to be, dare I say, decorative. But here’s the thing– art has been intended to be decorative for most of its history (Sorman himself noted this in an interview in 1989). Sure there were often other ritual or social implications to its creation, but because it ultimately has no physical function, art is an introspective object showing us what we find interesting, disturbing, and, yes, beautiful. Sorman combines the hard, strong edge of geometry through his use of collage with the lovely softness of flowing lines in a killer combo that continues to challenge the traditional notion of abstraction.

Mary Abbe Martin, “Steven Sorman: Prints from Tyler Graphics”, Tyler Graphics Ltd. 1985

Pinky Kase, “Vignette, Prints by Steven Sorman”. University of Missouri, Kansas City & Tyler Graphics. 1989.

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