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Personal Geometry: J. Steven Manolis’ Family Paintings

J. Steven Manolis’ Redworld Series more than holds its own in the history of monochromatic modernist painting—so-called ‘all-over color field’ painting. Picasso’s “Blue Period” and “Rose Period” paintings also are monochromatic, as Bruce Helander points out in his essay on the Redworld Series, but their mood-creating blue and rose are the backdrop for their figures. They are representational not abstract paintings, “impure” rather than “pure” painting, and as such, incompletely modernist. All the more so because they are not as attentive to the material medium—the ultimate concern of the modernist or pure painter, as the critic Clement Greenberg famously argued—as Manolis’ paintings are: their vigorous painterliness—Manolis is an abstract expressionist, his works richly composed of impassioned gestures—is at odds with Picasso’s conventionally flat handling. Manolis’ Redworld paintings have a greater affinity with Yves Klein’s “Blue Paintings”—more gesturally expressive than Picasso’s “Blue Period” paintings, but, like Picasso’s, Klein’s are figure-based, although his gestures have less body and energy, not to say emotional impact, than Manolis’ powerful gestures. His red paintings have a certain affinity with Rauschenberg’s white paintings and Frank Stella’s black paintings, as Helander suggests, but they are colorless, and as such expressively limited—inhibited, for without color emotional expression is peculiarly aborted, which I think explains the odd vacuousness of Rauschenberg’s and Stella’s paintings. They are “explorations”—celebrations? —of the Void, to refer to an exhibition of “The Big Nothing,” held in 2004 at the Institute of Contemporary Art of the University of Pennsylvania.

Helander has brilliantly and exhaustively addressed the universal meanings embedded in the red of the Redworld paintings. Quoting the historian Michel Pastoureau, who remarks that red is the “archetypal color,” and noting the extensive use of red in numerous traditional and modern works, Helander reminds us that the Redworld Series was given to Manolis’ undergraduate alma mater, the University of South Dakota, which happens to be in the town of Vermillion, “vermilion” being a particularly bright red pigment (consisting of mercuric sulfide, reminding us of Manolis’ mercurial painterliness, the mercurial fluidity of his handling). In an email to me, Manolis writes that “the actual painting of my Redworld Series expressly FOLLOWED the writing of the REDWORLD poem. I was trying to creatively capture, in color, and in my own ‘hand/style’ (i.e., beautifully!), even ‘commercially viable’ with the color Red the sort of passion and ‘FULL-ON; ALL-IN’ philosophy that I subscribe to.” Red, Manolis writes, “…is the most moving, powerful and inspirational color…it possesses life energy, and it is passionate, Passionate, PASSIONATE! Especially if it is displayed on scale…” Grand scale, as it is in the mural-like Redworld Series. “REDWORLD is: Art as Positive Activism; REDWORLD embraces equality, respect, and non-discrimination!” Clearly the Redworld paintings are ambitious in meaning as well as scale—the expression of an enlightened Weltanschauung, as well as a climactic expression of modernist painting.

When I saw some of the Redworld paintings in Manolis’ studio, and heard him talk about them, I noted that he mentioned, with what seemed to me a certain casual quickness, that the different geometrical forms in them had symbolic meaning; they signified the different members of his family. This struck me as an important clue to their inner meaning: they are peculiarly private, however grandly public—however meant for conspicuous consumption, that is, “commercially viable,” as Manolis, a successful businessman, said. Certainly, he is bringing to art the same drive that he brought to business. In a sense, Manolis was turning his life into art. He is as emotionally passionate as the passionate red of the Redworld paintings. Placing the geometrical forms in the field of fluid red suggests that he is as passionately engaged with his family as he is with his art. He is doubly creative—he has produced a large body of art and a large family: each complements and informs the other, each makes the other possible and meaningful. When art achieves lasting aesthetic glory, as Manolis’ Redworld paintings do, it is a sign that it has successfully metabolized life, to use a psychoanalytic idea, imaginatively worked through lived experience—deeply personal experience, experience that forms and informs one’s self, and the feelings associated with it, feelings otherwise difficult to work through, to come to terms with. There is no aesthetically significant art that is not in some way a transformation and transcendence of the artist’s personal history and experience.

In his email to me, Manolis talked a great deal about the “throw/splashes” “signature look” of his red—his technique—as well as its meaning; he had somewhat less to say about the geometrical forms, implying that they played a minor role in his paintings. But this seems to me deceptive, considering the fact that they loom large in many of the paintings, like famous actors performing on a stage. Indeed, there is a theatrical as well as sensuous grandeur to Manolis’ Redworld paintings: they are action and process paintings in more ways than one, for they show his sensuousness in hyperactive process. Thus, in Four Seasons, to take one example, parallel black lines divide the canvas in horizontal halves. Above them, in each of the four paintings, a luminous series of concentric circles, each nested in the other, with an emphatic unifying center, forms a kind of cosmic whole. To their left, a sort of crescent moon appears, composed of half circles, its openness in startling contrast to the concentrically concentrated circles, seemingly hermetically sealed. Below the black parallel horizontal lines, in the right corner of the painting, a painterly black triangle can be seen. It is incomplete—it lacks a base, a foundation—but it contains a small complete triangle, drawn with linear precision. Black concentric circles, paired with black crescent forms, are on its left. Below them are two black parallel lines, each composed of five black dots. Taken together, the circular forms and the linear forms seem to create a face, the two circles reading as eyes—wide-open, as though to stare the spectator down, as well as to take in the whole world—and the two rows of black dots reading as a mouth.

My anthropomorphizing of the geometrical pattern may seem absurd, but the geometrical forms do signify human beings, as Manolis acknowledges. This intricate geometrical pattern is repeated in all four seasons—implicitly the seasons of a human life. The “human”—and personal—point is made explicitly clear in Manolis’ description of Redworld USD, an eight feet high, sixteen feet wide masterpiece: “2 tracks of life, 4 seasons concentrics, lower panel JSM biography.” In this work, parallel lines once again divide the work in horizontal halves. In the upper zone, four bright concentric circles appear, suspended in space like giant suns. The lower space contains the same pattern that appeared in each of the Four Seasons—large incomplete painterly triangle and small complete linear triangle, along with what I have described, perhaps all too imaginatively yet emotionally accurate, a human face. This suggests, to my mind, that Manolis has reconciled, with subliminal astuteness, what Greenberg dismissively called the “all too human” of traditional representational painting with the obsessive concern with the handling of the material medium that is de rigueur in modernist painting. For Greenberg, it is the essential concern of art, for without sophisticated mastery of the material medium art cannot attain aesthetic value.

One might say that the “all too human” rises in geometrical disguise from Manolis’ churning painterliness, emblematic of his dynamic unconscious, to use Freud’s term. All of Manolis’ Redworld paintings are confrontational, overwhelming—they overwhelm us with their power, symbolized by the triangle, as he says. More to the psychological point, the Redworld Series is a kind of self-analysis in perpetual process, for the family members the geometrical forms symbolize are his internal objects, as psychoanalysts call them. They inhabit and inform his psyche. There don’t seem to be any bad objects in Manolis’ psyche—although the blackness of the geometrical forms makes one wonder—suggesting that his paintings reflect his determination—their power bespeaks it—to remain on good terms with them. He has collected them together into an ambivalent whole, for the seductive red in which they appear suggests his passionate love for them but the blackness of their symbolic forms seems depressing. All the Redworld paintings are depictions of Manolis’ inner life—symbolic self-portraits, in which the internal objects that inhabit his psyche and compose his self are represented in abstract form. His Self-Portrait confirms my interpretation: it is a group portrait, that is, a communal collective of his internalized family, and as such a portrait of his deepest self. The geometrical signifiers dominate the paintings; the red color field becomes their atmospheric backdrop, perhaps an abstract version of what in sacred art is called a “field of honor.” It confirms that the paintings are visionary, and suggests that the members of his large family—Manolis needs to make large paintings to contain them all, to contain his complex, dare I say contradictory, feelings for them—are sacred to him, and that in some uncanny way, the Redworld they inhabit is heaven.

“I represent my parents, wife (wives!) with double circles; my children and grandchildren with solid circles. I also denote my five grandchildren…with marks of five lines at various places on the perimeter of all my works….I have also painted stripes for a long time on my works. These represent ‘tracks of life’ for me. One stripe is the period from age zero to twenty-one. Why one? Well, you are still ‘in the nest.’ At age twenty-one, I introduce two tracks (irrespective of energy, education, etc., all humans have two tracks…either ‘coming or going!’). Thereafter three, four or more tracks. Someone like you [me] might have eight or ten ‘tracks of life.’ The more life and the more energy, the more intelligence and the more ‘life’ you lead, the ‘more tracks.’” If I had not had this contextualizing information, I would have viewed the Redworld paintings as an original solution to the familiar problem of integrating the geometrical and gestural—the poles of abstraction. Manolis shows them together, ostensibly in conflict, but paradoxically integrated, for they dialectically balance each other to form a “dynamic equilibrium,” the famous phrase Kandinsky used to designate a masterful abstract painting. With their symbolic meaning, Manolis’ Redworld paintings become abstract portraits of his family members and, perhaps more crucially, the geometrical forms give the paintings universal significance, for geometrical forms are universally comprehensible and unchangeable, unlike the changing human lives Manolis tracks. If gestural abstraction signifies the realm of sense illusion and geometrical abstraction signifies the realm of eternal ideas—for Plato more real than mutable, unstable appearances and signified by immutable, stable geometrical forms (he makes the distinction in the myth of the divided line in the Republic)—then Manolis’ aesthetically intriguing reconciliation of the gestural and geometrical indicates that his Redworld paintings are conceptually as well as personally profound, that is, intellectual as well as emotional achievements.

—Donald Kuspit was the winner of the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism (1983) given by the College Art Association and is a Contributing Editor at Artforum, Artnet Magazine, Sculpture and Tema Celeste, and the editor of Art Criticism. He has doctorates in philosophy and art history, as well as degrees from Columbia, Yale and Pennsylvania State University. He has received fellowships from Fulbright Commission, NEA, Guggenheim Foundation and Asian Cultural Council, among others. Kuspit has written more than twenty books, including The End of Art (2004); Redeeming Art: Critical Reveries (2000); Idiosyncratic Identities: Artists at the End of the Avant-Garde (1996); Daniel Brush: Gold without Boundaries (with Ralph Esmerian and David Bennett, 1998); Reflections of Nature: Paintings by Joseph Raffael (with Amei Wallace, 1998); and Chihuly (1998). He has written numerous art reviews, including critiques on Hunt Slonem, Maurizio Cattelan and April Gornik.


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