Optical Vibration: a look back at an innovator of Abstraction

Nassos Daphnis, CITY WALLS (1969-1975), November 10th, 2022 - January 30th, 2023, Richard Taittinger Gallery, NY. Courtesy of Richard Taittinger Gallery, NY, and The Nassos Daphnis Estate, NY.

Nassos Daphnis City Walls 1969-1975

Richard Taittinger Gallery

November 10, 2022 through February 14, 2023


This knockout show of an innovative series of vibrant “Minimalist” paintings that are important investigations into the spatial implications of pure planes of color by the Greek American painter and early member of Leo Castelli’s stable should not be missed.

In 2016 Sotheby’s Institute hosted a panel discussion.  At the last minute there was a scheduling conflict and Richard Taittinger, who had recently opened his eponymous gallery on the Lower East Side was invited to replace Jeffrey Deitch.  At the panel Taittinger told the story of how he had found a space to do a pop up show.  When talking with the space’s owner about what he was proposing to do, he was informed that the owner’s father was a painter, in his 90’s and still painting.   

So it was by fortuitous happenstance that Taittinger discovered the vital and historically important body of work that Daphnis created over the course of his long lifetime, both absorbing the major influences of early 20th century abstraction in Europe and America, and in turn influencing key players in movements that were replacing the dominance of Abstract Expressionism starting in the the mid to late 1950’s on the NY art scene.  Daphnis was the first artist Taittinger picked up, and since then he has sensitively and adeptly curated a series of shows chronicling important developments in Daphnis’ successive bodies of work, as well as his contribution to the Castelli circle and important NY art movements of the 1960’s and 70’s. 

The current and fourth show in Taittinger’s series is entitled City Walls, 1969 -1975 and showcases 19 pieces incorporating diamond, star and target shapes that Daphnis created during this period.  The works are related to Murals and Wall Drawings developed by him in conjunction with commissions from the City Walls Inc. public art program, which he helped to found in 1967. 

Nassos Daphnis, CITY WALLS (1969-1975), November 10th, 2022 - January 30th, 2023, Richard Taittinger Gallery, NY. Courtesy of Richard Taittinger Gallery, NY, and The Nassos Daphnis Estate, NY.

Daphnis was a pioneer.  His scientifically precise explorations led to inventions that kept him at the forefront of the New York geometric abstract school.  He singularly introduced the paint roller brush (1954), Magna painting (1957), Plexiglas sculpture (1962), Epoxy painting (1966), Giant-scale murals (1969), Gestält Arc Series (1976), and Computer-generated works (1985).

Though recognized for his mastery of geometric abstraction and his evolution into so called Hard-Edge painting, a close look at his oeuvre suggests he was a dedicated and disciplined experimenter who was actually a bit ahead of the curve.  His early paintings and sculptures inspired a substantial number of the Minimalist artists that followed him.  So he was exploring the boundaries of abstraction stripped of a previously dominant “expressionism” before the term “Minimalism” became current.  

Well-respected New York art critic April Kingsley observed this in 1981 when she wrote of his work: “Some of Daphnis’ paintings from the later 50s are so radical you’d assume they’d been painted at least 10 to 15 years later. His devotion to purity predicts 60s minimalism; his systemic approach predates systemic painting.”   

The dynamic pieces in this show are in a range of primary and secondary colors along with black and white, and are early influential investigations into the spatial dynamics of color painting stripped of expressive brush marks.  The colors rotate among their variations, in a highly disciplined visual dance.  One sees the influence of Josef Albers’ color studies, which Daphnis takes in a more monumental direction.  The paintings also have a conversation with the work of Frank Stella, Sol Lewitt, even the early target pieces of Jasper Johns among others.  Daphnis’s investigations seem to both predate and coincide with developments in Op-art as well as Minimalism, but a deeper look at his lifelong experimentation with both materials and the three dimensional implications of two dimensional media reveals his work can also subtly speak to contemporary trends. 

Go see this show.  It is a historically important visual joy, and well worth a viewing before it comes down.  WM


Christina L. Schmitt

Christina L. Schmitt is a writer, poet and painter based in NYC.  She is currently reworking a cycle of poems that personify numbers.  Her paintings have been described as both mathematical and mystical. 

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