J. Steven Manolis - Qatari Rhapsodies & Sonatas
“When it comes to Color, and the intellectual pursuit of ‘Communicating Through Color,’ Wassily Kandinsky’s long-awaited heir-to-be is J. Steven Manolis, whose works signal an ebullient 21st century renaissance of the long absent glories of Abstract Expressionism.”
Seen in an art historical perspective, J. Steven Manolis’ Qatari Rhapsodies and Sonatas series of paintings are the consummate statement—the climactic grand realization—of so-called “musical painting,” that is, painting that emulates the condition of music, “the ultimate teacher,” as Wassily Kandinsky, the originator of musical painting, asserted. For him, pure color was like “pure sound:” both “exercised a direct influence upon the soul,” he wrote, which, under their spell, “experiences a nonobjective vibration that is more complex…more ‘supersensible’”—“spiritual,” “mystical,” to offer other words he used—”than the effect on the soul produced by a bell, a vibrating string, a falling board.”Not since Kandinsky has the visceral character and emotional power implicit in color been recognized and communicated as completely and convincingly as they are in Manolis’ red paintings. They’re all the more important because they restore Abstract Expressionism, with its painterly color—color gestures, conveying a lived experience of color—to credibility after the assault on it by Minimalism, led by Josef Albers and Ellsworth Kelly, who regarded color matter of factly, not to say dispassionately, as a physical phenomenon, rather than as a spiritual phenomenon; that is, as invariably informed by its perceiver’s feelings, more broadly his outlook on life and values. Color falls flat in their paintings, rather than elevates the surface (and the viewer), as it does in Manolis’ paintings. They have a two-fold art historical significance and value: they epitomize the modernist pursuit of color as an independent phenomenon that began with Impressionism and that came to fruition in Kandinsky’s paintings, where the primacy of color is an aesthetic end in itself and an emblem of autonomous selfhood; and they are a renaissance of Abstract Expressionism.
Their high spirits are bracing, a tonic for body and soul; they have a magical effect, for they fulfill the unconscious wish for an aesthetic and emotional sanctuary—a beautiful and joyous hortus conclusus—in an emotionally ugly world, thus repairing the damage done to it by its indifference to beauty. As the poet and critic William Gass wrote, “in a world which does not provide beauty for its own sake,” and “where the loveliness of flowers, landscapes, faces, trees and sky are adventitious and accidental,” “it is the artist’s task to add to the world’s objects and ideas” “beings whose qualities harm no one,” yet whose beauty “rewards even the most casual notice.” One cannot casually notice Manolis’ paintings; their beauty is overwhelming, and instantly impacts us body and soul. To discover and experience Manolis’ beautiful paintings is, then, unusually uplifting, all the more so because they are peculiarly humane, unexpectedly so for abstract painting, which, as Mark Rosenthal wrote in his survey of Abstraction in the Twentieth Century, tends to be a “hermetic” cognitive—formal—exercise rather than an out-going intersubjective experience, bringing with it a sense of intimacy rather than confirming one’s isolation. Manolis’ abstract paintings are a fresh new rejuvenating start for a tired old abstraction.
Red was the most spiritual—“internally alive”—of all colors for Kandinsky, for it is a “limitless…highly lively” color, “turbulent” and “warm” at once, conveying “immense…purposeful strength.” The “uniformity of red” is “the final chord of a symphony that takes every color to the zenith of life, like the fortissimo of a great orchestra,” Kandinsky declared. Kandinsky gives red a central place in his scheme of colors—for him it is the most dominant color, for it contains in itself blue and violet as well as orange and yellow, suggesting Manolis’ obsession with red—his ideologizing it, amounting to an idealizing identification with it—is not misplaced. His REDWORLD series of paintings, 2015-2017—a tour de force—proclaim his command of red: not even Barnett Newman’s all-red Vir Heroicus Sublimis, 1950-1951, burns as brightly—shines as forcefully, as though with an inextinguishable inner light—as Manolis’ REDWORLD paintings. Manolis’ vermilion, a brilliant scarlet red, conveys “the constancy of a powerful emotion: it is like a steadily burning passion, a self-confident power that cannot be easily subdued,” Kandinsky wrote; Newman’s oddly anemic red has the worn out look of a spent emotion. Both are masters of chromatic abstraction—color field painters—but Newman’s flat, deadpan red looks spiritless next to Manolis’ sizzling vermilion, all the more intense and assertive because it is given painterly presence.