Whitehot Magazine

Gary Stephan: Tape on Paper

 Gary Stephan, 23, 1995


By ERIK LA PRADE April 18, 2024

Gary Stephan has always been an artist interested in investigating the basic elements which go to make up a “painting.”

Originally from Brooklyn, NY, Stephan attended Parsons School of Design, NYC, from 1960-61; The Art Students League, NYC, in 1961; and Pratt Institute, NYC, from 1961-64.  While at Pratt, he studied industrial design but left without graduating. In 1967, he graduated from The San Francisco Institute of Art, with an MFA.  The artist Rand Hardy, a fellow student and friend, remembers Stephan’s work at that time as being “image driven and surrealistic in nature.”  Stephan has called his stylistic brand of surrealism, “the unreliable space.” This phrase offers us a clue to his early involvement with picture space.  After graduating, Stephan moved back to New York, gradually “transitioning from imagery to abstraction.”[i]

Stephan returned to the East Village, NYC, in 1967. There he found himself at the highly-charged center of an emerging art scene, surrounded by other artists experimenting with new techniques, materials, and ways of thinking about traditional artforms. Eventually, he moved to 76 Jefferson Street, where he lived and interacted with a seminal group of artists: John Duff, Neil Jenney, and Robert Lobe, among others, who were all experimenting with a range of new materials and techniques. In Stephan’s case, he created “paint-tinted” works using polyvinyl chloride, a very toxic industrial chemical, which he eventually gave up for health reasons. During 1968/69, he met and became an assistant to Jasper Johns. Stephan’s first two exhibitions were with The David Whitney Gallery, in NYC.

A number of Stephan’s early 1970’s works were abstractions; assemblages having a cubist quality, made of painted acrylic and oil on wood, sometimes spray painted; “small, flat, eccentrically shaped empty frames that incorporated into the picture the negative space of the supporting wall.” [ii]

Stephan’s current show, TAPE ON PAPER, at the Anders Wahlstedt Fine Art gallery, adds a new chapter to his career-long interest in working with a variety of unusual materials and techniques in order to achieve his desired effects.

In a 2017 interview, Gary Stephan spoke about his work and how our perception of it is both manipulated and engaged in our encounter with it. This quote can serve as a useful introduction to Stephan’s current exhibition:

In my work, I try to have enough dependable information that there is a way to compare it to the missing part.  The purpose is to re-engage viewers so that instead of them passively taking in the work at the level of style, you offer them the opportunity to engage the problematics of the picture space.  In engaging them, they become co-constructors. [iii]

The works in this show were created by applying black masking tape to watercolor paper.  Stephan presents us works that are both visually intriguing and mentally engaging; each work is essentially a paradox.  He wants us to “engage the problematics of the picture space,” and in that way become “co-constructors.” 

The visual “information” with which Stephan provides the viewer concerns the interactions between the white spaces and the taped forms breaking up those spaces.   This interaction and the positioning of the forms creates a sense of tension; the space is active, not passive as it might look at first glance.   

Viewed from a few feet away, these pictures have a clean, finished surface.  The forms look even and balanced.  But viewed closeup, we can see that the artist changed his mind about the placement of certain lines which alter the final effect of the painting.  In a number of works, such as one titled 56, Stephan uses white tape to edit a black line inside the form.  This editing process breaks up the clean design of the work, but I found it enhanced the piece because it allows us to “see” his thought process changing direction while he was working on the piece. 

When I first saw these works, I thought Stephan was leaning toward Mondrian, but there isn’t any color in them, and there was more than just a flat plane.  Then I thought that these works have a cinematic quality and the designer Saul Bass, who created some of the movie titles for Alfred Hitchcock, came to mind.  When I mentioned this to Stephan, he told me, “one of my absolute favorite opening credits is his design for the movie North by Northwest.

Then, as I walked around the room or circled back to take a second look at a particular picture, it was clear to me that the artist had created his own pictorial rules.  Here, although a picture may initially appear flat, upon further scrutiny it appears to open up spatially, which intrigued me, because something was happening; the picture was drawing me in.  When I asked him about this Gary told me;

That’s what they’re about.  When I moved to New York, I gave myself this marching order; “Expand the experience of picture space.”  I said, “there’s the big job.”  I’ve been banging at it for decades. [iv]

 It is Stephan’s very specific placement of forms upon the white ground of the picture that give these pictures their force or kinetic energy. 

Gary Stephan, 57, 2019

Stephan began this series in the fall of 2019, and finished it in the spring of 2020, doing a total of eighty works, eleven of which are in this show.  Each work is titled with a number, giving the viewer a sense of progression in his working process.   Two of the works, number 56 and 57, have a kinetic quality while appearing static.  They push and pull their balance points as they appear to move toward or away from one another.  Their large white forms may also be seen as concrete shapes or, alternately, as “empty” spaces defined by the black areas surrounding them. This spatial ambiguity, depending on the viewer’s point of view, is how Stephan engages us in “the problematics of the picture space, enlisting us as his ‘co-constructors’.”   Or, to paraphrase Marcel Duchamp’s famous statement; A work of art is completed by the viewer.”

Earlier pictures, such as The Future of Reading, from 2016, seem to foreshadow what Stephan is doing with the pictures in this show.  Those earlier pictures featured large irregular areas of color defined by black taped edges.  These new taped pictures, foregoing color altogether, have an enhanced spatial element giving them a quasi-sculptural effect.

I asked Stephan how he came to do these taped works; 

If you think about my paintings from the last four or five years, they have a lot of black lines in them that tend to be fairly regular; quarter inch, half inch, three quarter and one inch width.  And, I was using the black tape on the paintings as a way to kind of draw and test out where edges might go, having to connect paint.  One day I thought, “Why do I have to turn this drawing idea with tape into paint?  Why don’t I leave it as tape and have it be a surrogate for a painted line?”. . . I just got out some watercolor paper and did it directly.  And it would be a new kind of drawing idea.  Once it got going, they were weirdly simple.  If you looked at them carefully, you can notice there are pencil lines here and there.  I would mask them in roughly, very lightly on the page, with a pencil.  And when I kind of thought I had where everything went, I would start putting tape down.  I could usually make one in a day or a day and-a-half.[v]

 Gary Stephan, 59, 2019

Another work, 59, seems to form a trilogy when added to the other two.  59  may be the most complex piece in the show.  The shapes on the left and right side of the page appear to mirror each other to some extent.  However, it is the white column dividing the page in half and acting as a fulcrum that is the central factor in this work.  It forms a pivot on which these shapes balance like a seesaw.  

Some other works in the show seem less complex but still offer the viewer a visual puzzle.  This is the case with 23 (see photo, top), where two squares, connected by a central black line, appear to slide in two different planes, about to change positions; front to back, up and down.  A work without a number, Untitled 2022, presents a square appearing to tilt as it pivots off a wide piece of tape supported by nothing but the white space around it; a visual balancing act, evoking the weight and monumentality of sculpture. 

Untitled, 2022

In 29, two rectangles protrude toward each other from left and right sides of an enclosing “frame,” appearing to alternately attract and /or repel one another over the intervening space, like a pair of magnets.  The space itself seems to be exerting the balancing force that keeps them from rushing together or apart.

29, 2019

These visual paradoxes are presented not just to amuse us, but rather to make us think of the function of “background” spaces versus the “subject” in flat-surface works.  Compositional balancing work, which the artist here strips to its bare essentials, has always been a concern of the artist, since the laws of perspective were “discovered” in the early Renaissance by painters such as Paolo Uccello and Andrea Montegna. Although many artists in the 20th Century left behind the realistic illusionism that the discovery of perspective made possible, Stephan’s pieces illustrate the continuing importance of composition in creating “space” and movement within a painting.  His work reminds us that “abstract” does not necessarily mean “flat” and that careful manipulation of the areas within the flat picture frame can create very real spatial effects.  His works educate the eye and the mind to the delicate and precise compositional calculations which artists make to achieve or obliterate spatial effects on a flat plane, and, in so doing, remind us, philosophically, that the world is built on paradoxes which only we can sort out. WM

TAPE ON PAPER can be enjoyed at Anders Wahlstedt Fine Art, at 526 West 26th St, NYC, through April 20, 2024.

[i]  Email note from Rand Hardy to author, 2024.

[ii]  Richard Armstrong and Richard Marshall.  FIVE PAINTERS IN NEW YORK.   “Gary Stephan” by Richard Armstrong.  Exhibition Catalogue, Whitney Museum of American Art,  1984, Pgs 62-67. 

[iii] Jennifer Samet. “Beer with a Painter: Suzanne Joelson and Gary Stephan.  An artist couple talks about paintings with a punch line and a street full of rats.”    HYPERALLERGIC.  August 26, 2017.

[iv] Author’s interview.  3/29/2024.

[v]  Ibid.


Erik La Prade

Erik La Prade has a B.A. and M. A. From City College.  Some of his interviews and articles have appeared in Art in America, The Brooklyn Rail, ArtCritical and NewsWhistle.  His book, Breaking Through: Richard Bellamy and the Green Gallery, 1960-1965, was published in 2010.  MidMarch Arts Press.  His forthcoming book, WEATHER, is published by LAST WORD BOOKS.  Olympia, Washington. 2020

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