Knowing what you can and can't do

Theodoros Stamos will go down in the history books as a first-generation Abstract Expressionist, as a younger colleague of Pollock, de Kooning, Motherwell, Rothko, and the rest of that extraordinary group of painters. That is the category within which art history will place him. But he is also something else: a remarkably sensitive painter whose recent work articulates a kind of darkly luminous lyricism neither attempted nor achieved by any other Abstract Expressionist.

A recent Stamos painting or work on paper is simplicity itself, and generally consists of two or three simple shapes, as many colors, and a line or two. Although abstract in appearance, it projects a strong aura of actuality, and is much closer in spirit to the nature-drenched watercolors of Samuel Palmer and to the paintings of Redon, Dove, and Avery than to those of the mature Mondrian or Kandinsky.

In fact, had he been born a century earlier, I suspect Stamos would have painted subtly lyrical landscapes or sensitive studies of nature's tinier miracles. What Redon did for flowers, seashells, and butterflies, Stamos might have done for moss-covered rocks, seedlings, exotic crustaceans, and all the tiny living creatures that exist just beneath the surface of land or water.

All these things are implicit - and often even quite explicit - in his early works. They have not, however, made themselves visible in his recent work, even though their spirit affirms and helps give identity to the profoundly earth-animated nature of his paintings and watercolors of the past decade or so.

These works also reveal Stamos's deep attachment to the ancient Greek ideals of harmony, balance, and proportion, and to his personal standards of taste. Everything in his paintings serves a multiple function, for his canvases are extraordinary distillations of complex ideas, forms, experiences, sensations, and ideals. A line, color, or shape must not only resonate with mood and atmosphere, it must also meet the highest formal standards of a dedicated modernist and contribute toward the fashioning of an icon for highly charged philosophical intuitions and ideas.

This dramatic distillation and compactness, while effective as art, causes problems for anyone trying to define the nature of his work. Unlike the paintings of so many contemporary artists which celebrate self-exposure, and resembling burst-open suitcases full of dirty underwear and sundry other personal items, Stamos's paintings are the soul of mystery and discretion. They resonate with significance, but are more like neatly packed and carefully locked suitcases whose keys have been thrown away by their owners.

Faced with this situation, the viewer can only remain intensely alert to whatever resonances Stamos's paintings give off, and then attempt to match them to his or her own feelings, intuitions, and experiences. The search for the substance and meaning of his art is similar to a search by radar for an unseen object - with one dramatic distinction. The viewer may gradually zero in on the significance of Stamos's work, but full comprehension will never be achieved. That should come as no surprise, however, for his paintings are art, not illustrations with clearly defined stories to tell.

True art lovers, of course, won't care. For them, the beauty of art lies precisely in its openness and lack of finality, in its never-ending ''dialogue'' between insight and mystery, clarity and ambiguity, beginnings and endings, order and chaos. Nothing interests them less than a painting or sculpture that no longer enchants or challenges - or whose formal structurings or thematic implications no longer stimulate or irritate the imagination.

Such work, to them, is not really art. If it is not pregnant with life and meaning, and generative in its impact, then it is nothing but garbage - or a piece of decoration or illustration.

Stamos's recent paintings are profoundly pregnant with life and meaning, and subtly generative in their impact. They are also modest and unassuming and make no dramatic bid for the viewer's attention. Should a viewer be alerted to these paintings' potentials as art, however, the process of probing and appreciation will begin immediately and almost certainly will continue on indefinitely.

The first real insight into and appreciation of a recent Stamos painting or watercolor is an intensely private and deeply interior occasion. The closest parallel to it I know is the discovery of a truly private place in a crowded city park, or the first glimpse of greenery in spring. It is quieting and affirmative, and yet also subtly exhilarating. The best part of it all, however, is that this delicate balance between discovery, affirmation, and exhilaration will remain in effect no matter how often the work is viewed.

Stamos's authenticity as an artist is beyond dispute. He is one of the relatively few artists of the past few decades to have struck artistic bedrock and to have defined his art by it. Stamos knows exactly who he is as an artist, and precisely what he can and cannot do. Every line, color, texture, or form is dead on target and exquisitely in tune with the work as a whole.

This is as true of his largest canvases as of his smallest watercolors. Proof can be found in two murals he recently executed for an office building in Cologne, West Germany. Both are roughly 17 feet high and 13 feet wide, and both possess his unique and special qualities even on such a monumental scale. The mural reproduced on this page is in many ways a summation of his work of the past decade. Its simple and yet highly evocative central form is brought to life by a rich, deep royal blue over which a thin wash of purple has been placed. Vaguely calligraphic lines have been sketched on its surface, and at the top and bottom Stamos has included two highly personal symbols. Nothing could be simpler - or more effective.

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