Tour De Force: J. Steven Manolis’ New Abstractions by Donald Kuspit

REDWORLD 2019, 8’H X 32’ W, Acrylic on canvas. Shown in the Lobby of Miami’s largest luxury condominium: The Paramount Miami.

 

By DONALD KUSPIT, August 2023

      A kind of epitomizing summary, a grand climax, of all that his art is about, J. Stephen Manolis’ bold, new abstractions afford an “experience of astonishment,” as the phenomenological philosopher John Cogan calls it.  Whether Concentric masterpieces, such as Black and White, a so-called Systemic Painting, as its grid of large black circles above a grid of somewhat smaller black circles—a sort of predella supporting an icon--or an atmospheric haze of radiant colors and linear gestures, as in Splash, a so-called Lyrical Abstraction, Manolis offers us works that afford an experience of “lived sensuousness,” inseparable from what the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott calls “creative apperception.”  Spontaneous linear gestures are dialectically entangled with geometrical constructions, an integration of the extremes of high modernist art.  Manolis’ atmospheric color, often blazing with light, is supposedly that of his hometown Miami, with its tropical climate and lavish sunsets, but I think it has more to do with Kandinsky’s celebration of color as the gateway to feeling—it makes us conscious of unconscious feeling--more pointedly his belief in “color therapy,” the idea that “colored light” can cure “nervous disorders.”  “Color contains within itself an enormous power, which can influence the human body as a physical organism.”(1)  

SPLASH (Concentric) 2023, ;0”H X 30”w, Vitreous Acrylic on canvas

     Kandinsky made his “spiritual” art to awaken himself from “the whole nightmare of the materialistic attitude,” and, following in his footsteps, Manolis makes his “spiritual” art to awaken himself from “the whole nightmare of the materialistic attitude.”(2)  A successful, innovative investment banker,(3) Manolis was a materialist most of his life, finally awakening from the nightmare of his own history, to allude to James Joyce’s belief that making art—especially abstract art; in Finnegans Wake Joyce plays with words the way Kandinsky plays with colors, using them for their evocative power rather than descriptive function—is one way of doing so, or, as the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott wrote, one way of becoming authentically oneself rather than socially compliant.(4)  Following in the footsteps of Kandinsky and Mondrian—the former a pioneer of gestural abstraction, the latter of geometrical abstraction—Manolis turned to abstract art to save and assert his soul, building on their original achievements by ingeniously fusing gestural and geometrical abstraction, spontaneous gesture and formal structure, the former arising from the unconscious, the latter from the conscious.  It is a major aesthetic and emotional achievement.  Like all original geniuses, Manolis, like the original abstract painters Kandinsky and Mondrian, had to experience what the psychoanalyst Henri Ellenberger called a creative illness to come into his artistic own.(5)    

BLACK & WHITE (GRAPHIC) 2020, 72”H X 60”W, Acrylic and latex enamel on canvas.

       Art historically speaking, the split between gestural abstraction and geometrical abstraction became institutionalized when geometrical abstraction became reductively minimalist in the 1960s, and with that expressively vacuous, in rebellion against the abstract expressionism of the 1950s, and when gestural abstraction became expansively maximalist in the 1970s, and with that mindlessly emotional, in rebellion against Minimalism, with its slim emotional pickings.  The split between geometrical abstraction and gestural abstraction is symptomatic of what T. S. Eliot famously called the dissociation of sensibility in modern art, that is, the separation between ideas and feelings, more broadly an art with intellectual appeal and an art with emotional appeal—between geometrical abstraction, a conceptual art, which Kandinsky called “mathematical expression,” and gestural abstraction, an expressive art, which conveyed what Kandinsky called “emotional experience.”(6)  As Kandinsky wrote, “The spiritual individual has been ‘castrated’; only half a man has been put into the place of the whole one.”(7)  

JELLYFISH (Black) 2021, 40”H X 30”W, Acrylic on canvas

     Both Minimalism and Maximalism miss the point of the first abstractions—Kandinsky’s non-objective paintings, in which a “chorus of colors”(8) forms a unity emblematic of “autonomy, or individual initiative.”(9)  The chorus of colors in Manolis’ new abstractions are grander than those in Kandinsky’s abstractions, and his “line curves, refracts, presses forward, unexpectedly changes directions”(10) as dramatically as the lines in Kandinsky’s Black Lines, 1913 and Transverse Lines, 1923, and with special dramatic fervor and insular intensity in Small Worlds, 1922.  I am arguing that Manolis restores originality to abstract painting by emphasizing what Kandinsky called color’s “psychological power”—its ability to evoke feeling instantly by giving it “purely musical form.”(11)  “All art constantly aspires to the condition of music,” Walter Pater famously wrote, for music is “the art which most completely realizes this artistic ideal, this perfect identification of matter and form.”  Music is inherently abstract, which is why Kandinsky turned to it for inspiration:  Kandinsky’s abstract painting is the first musical painting.  While his early abstractions were maximalist romantic music, like the Wagner operas that inspired them, and his late abstractions were minimalist classical music, like Schoenberg’s atonal music that later inspired him—one only has to compare Fugue and Untitled Improvisation I, both 1914 and Two Squares and Thirteen Rectangles, both 1930 to see their irreconcilability--he was never able to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable extremes.  It is emblematic of the dissociation of ideas and feelings that Eliot thought was epidemic in modern art, elaborated centuries earlier by Plato’s distinction between intelligible geometry and unintelligible sense experience.  As Eliot writes, it is the central problem of art, a problem that is solved in music, which is why it became a model for Kandinsky.  

 SPLASH (Concentric) 2023, 40”H X 26”W, Vitreous acrylic on Arches cold press museum paper

     Manolis’ achievement is to give us a grander symphonic abstraction than Kandinsky ever imagined.  His paintings are a kind of private chamber music compared to Manolis’ public orchestral music.  They are not as emotionally constricted as Kandinsky’s abstractions, nor as claustrophobically self-contained.  Sun, Beach, Water, Sky and California Dreaming are spacious, expansive, even cosmic, sublime.  Like America, they seem to expand infinitely rather than huddle behind borders, as small European countries do, and Kandinsky’s European paintings do.  Only in America could geometry turn into jelly, as it does in Manolis’ Jellyfish, a witty take on gesturalism as well as a dialectical triumph, for geometry and gesture, the extremes of abstraction, become one, virtually indistinguishable.  The difference between Kandinsky’s insular abstractions and Manolis’ expansive abstractions is the difference between an introverted European sensibility and an extroverted American sensibility.  The New York School of abstraction follows the lead of the European School of abstraction; the Miami School of abstraction declares independence from both.  Manolis’ abstractions are delightfully lyric and ambitiously epic at once, while New York School abstractions are pretentiously epic with no lyric relief, as Pollock’s and Newman’s paintings make clear.  America is a melting pot, unlike Europe, and Manolis’ Miami is more of a melting pot than Kandinsky’s Munich will ever be, which is why geometry can melt into jelly in Miami rather than goose step in a Fascist parade.  

SPLASH 2020, 48”H X 36”W, Acrylic on canvas

     Manolis gives us what might be called a romantic classicism, with a certain affinity to Turner’s peculiarly manic seascapes, with their romantic flair for excited form and rapturous color.  But in Manolis the discipline of geometrical form is imposed on the manic expression of feeling, containing it so that it does not become unmanageable—mindlessly instinctive, as it tends to be in the typical abstract expressionist painting, particularly Pollock’s.  Manolis offers us a fresh new abstract art, a seamless fusion of geometric and gestural abstraction, an art in which the dissociation of feeling and reason is overcome, an art of “imaginative reason.”  Where in Pollock’s gestural abstractions—the heir to Kandinsky’s gestural abstractions--feelings spill uncontainable and mindlessly in space and in Frank Stella’s pinstripe paintings—the heir to Mondrian’s geometrical abstractions—feelings are stifled and muted by form, in Manolis’ abstractions feeling, in the guise of color, saturates pure form, in the guise of geometry.  No color is alien to Manolis, not even black, for him a color as it is for Matisse, suggesting that Manolis has a Fauvist sense of color, a sense that it can lead us into the emotional wilderness, as the turbulence of Manolis’ gestures suggests.

 ATMOSPHERIC (Blue and Pink Sunset) 2023, 40”H X 30”W, Vitreous acrylic on canvas

     “Manolis’s philosophy of life is that everything should be done passionately,“ a “philosophy of life” he calls “living in REDWORLD,” the title of series of paintings that epitomize this profoundly romantic conviction.  It leads me to think that Manolis is best characterized as an abstract symbolist, in view of the symbolic meaning of red.  “Red, the color of fire and of blood and regarded universally as the basic symbol of the life-principle, with its dazzling strength and power, nevertheless possesses their same basic ambivalence; speaking visually this doubtless depends upon whether the red is bright or dark.  Bright, dazzling, centrifugal red is diurnal, male, tonic, stimulating activity and, like the Sun, casting its glow upon all things, with vast and irresistible strength.  Dark red is its complete opposite.  It is nocturnal, female, secret and, ultimately, centripetal and stands, not for manifestation, but for the mystery of life.”   Similarly, Kandinsky regards red as a symbol of “energy and intensity,” “immense and purposeful strength,” “a self-confident power that cannot easily be subdued.”(13)  This certainly describes Manolis’ REDWORLD paintings—all of his paintings—and the Manolis I know.  They strongly suggest that Manolis is a psychologically minded painter, and that he paints to analyze as well as express himself. WM

Notes

(1)Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo, eds., Kandinsky:  Complete Writings on Art (New York:  Da Capo Press, 1994), 159

(2)Ibid., 128  

(3)”Working on his dream of becoming a businessman in New York City,” he was “hired by Salomon Brothers” after receiving an MBA from the University of Chicago.”  In 1980 he “was made the youngest general partner in the history of Solomon Brothers.  He Co-Pioneered Mortgage Securitization which ultimately became the largest corporate fixed income market in the world.” 

(4)Writing about “Creativity and its Origins” in Playing and Reality (London:  Tavistock, 1971), 65 the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott insists that “creative apperception more than anything else makes the individual feel that life is worth living.  Contrasted with this is a relationship to external reality which is one of compliance, the world and its details being recognized but only as something to be fitted in with or demanding adaptation….living creatively is a healthy state, compliance is a sick basis for life.”  No doubt co-pioneering Mortgage Securitization was a creative business achievement, but being compliant enough to become a general partner was more than enough of a creative business achievement for Manolis.  

(5)In a creative illness, Henri Ellenberger argues in “The Concept of Creative Illness,” Psychoanalytic Review (55-3), 442-456, one works through and abandons an old conventional self and old ideas of life—and art--to become a new creative self with new ideas of art.  It seems that Kandinsky and Mondrian had a creative illness mid-way through their lives—they were in their late thirties--suggesting it was associated with or a response to a midlife crisis, involving anxiety about aging and depression about the inconsequence of the life one had lived in the past, and in their case the art they had made in the past.  It has been said that Dante’s Divine Comedy, which begins with him hopeless before the gates of hell, and ends with him happy—elated--in heaven, is the product of a creative illness.  One issues from a creative illness with a new conviction of creativity and a new sense of self.  I suggest that Manolis suffered from a creative illness and midlife crisis.  He stopped being a businessman and became a fulltime painter, although for him painting is also a business, as his belief that “brushstrokes can be turned into banknotes” suggests, a sort of compromise formation that indicates that he is a realist—materialist-- as well as an idealist--spiritualist, his feet firmly on the social ground however much his eye swirls with lively colors and dervishing lines forming a complex matrix of deeply meaningful emotions.  The old impersonal businessman didn’t die, but serves a new spiritual and psychological purpose, which redeems him. 

(6)Kandinsky, 544

(7)Kandinsky, 800

(8)Kandinsky, 361

(9)Ibid.  

(10)Ibid., 426    

(11)Ibid., 154

(12)Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant, Dictionary of Symbols (London:  Penguin, 1996), 792

(13)Kandinsky, 186, 187

Donald Kuspit

Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.

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