by John Chilver
Review of Myron Stout at Inverleith House, Edinburgh, 14 June - 26 July 1998. Pitched to and rejected by 3 journals in 1998; unpublished.
At a time when artists court maverick status as if it’s a career strategy, it can be salutary to encounter work of genuinely accomplished eccentricity. In the case of the criminally unknown – in the UK at least – Myron Stout (1908-1987) there was never any suggestion of intentional outsiderness. Yet Stout’s painting looks like an art historical anomaly. It is of the 1950s but too cool to be caught up in the existential shtick of ’50s abstraction. Too much convinced of art as a community practice to be bothered with heroic individualism. Too obsessed with the depictive insinuations of line and shape to be minimal. And too complex to be understandable in Greenberg’s terms.
Like many idealistic American painters of his generation, Stout was at first overwhelmed by a role model named Mondrian. In the 1940s he studied under Hans Hofmann, from whom he seems to have gained a belief in a submerged but recuperable relation between natural forms (of plants or landscapes) and the elements of abstract painting. But Stout was never a painter of abstracted landscapes. It would be the slackest category error to expect the forms in his paintings to correspond to single objects or even single classes of objects in the visible world.
From 1955 Stout worked solely in black and white. His spare vocabulary consists of enclosed curved shapes upon open grounds, placed symmetrically, uniform black on uniform white or vice versa. There is no modelling. And no composition, other than centring. The paintings are modestly sized at around 3 feet by 2 feet and always portrait format. The best ones, like Hierophant or Aegis (both 1955), are dense, demanding logos – though too dense to be corporate. They achieve a poised tension between figure and ground, and between contour and volume. This effect hinges on the peculiar quality of the curved ends and junctions of Stout’s floating shapes – though given their compacted density, ‘floating’ cannot be quite the right word. The curves are drawn such that it becomes impossible to view these contours as other than those of a solid curving away from us in space in several directions simultaneously, like a sphere or a limb but unlike a cylinder. Hence the two-dimensional curves must be seen as signs for three-dimensional volumes. It is impossible to view them as flat. Stout wrote: “flatness is something we never see, but only know. The eyes are not constructed to see flatness....” Here in his reasoned opposition to Greenberg’s contemporaneous position we get a taste of Stout’s radicality. For him flatness is not at all a given material condition, but an illusion, or a text for which we must acquire a literacy.
It would be mistaken to say that Stout’s subject is figure and ground because figure and ground here are signs for other realities than the narrowly visible. And as signs they soon accumulate the force of myth. It is here that Stout offers lessons to contemporary painting and to abstraction in particular. For him abstraction is never an optical vehicle onto which other symbolic materials can be deposited at will (think of Ross Bleckner’s Aids paintings or Mark Francis’s recent viral paintings). In painters as diverse as Philip Taaffe, Carl Ostendarp and Jonathan Lasker you’ll find something more akin to Stout’s attentiveness to the nuances and implications of ‘figure’ on ‘ground’.
Always obsessive, Stout made himself the beneficiary and victim of his own perfectionism. Between 1955 and 1980 – the year of his Whitney Museum retrospective as well as the moment when his eyesight began to decline – he completed only six paintings. Any one particular state of an image was ever liable to further adjustment. It is hardly surprising then that for Stout an image was more a Platonic form than a concrete object; more an energy grasped in the mind than a tactile object continuous with the furniture of our surroundings.
Although this intelligent show at Inverleith House was small – only six oil paintings (four of these “unfinished”) and nine pencil drawings – there was plenty to look at. Myron Stout’s art stems from a utopian modernism as divorced from our times as any outlook could be, yet his images look bafflingly well-judged to address us now. This show was the first of Stout’s work in the UK. It shouldn’t be the last.
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