Julian Stanczak, globally renowned Op artist based in Cleveland, has died at age 88
Steven Litt, The Plain Dealer
Julian Stanczak, a native of Poland who survived World War II as a child to become a globally renowned exponent of Op Art and a revered professor at the Cleveland Institute of Art, died Saturday morning at his home here at age 88.
Barbara Stanczak, the artist's wife and a respected abstract sculptor and former Cleveland Institute of Art professor, shared the news of her husband's death in an email to more than 80 friends and associates across the art world just after 9 p.m. Saturday.
"I want to let you know that Julian is in paradise now," she wrote. "He has found peace after an exciting life filled with tragedies as well as many blessings, success, hard work and glorious visions which he communicated through his art."
Reached at home late Saturday, Barbara Stanczak said her husband died under hospice care after having been treated for pneumonia and other illnesses.
"Everybody knows he was a unique human being, not only a talented artist, but as a person, unsurpassed," she said.
Working through pain
Despite suffering great pain in recent years from injuries suffered as a child in a Soviet labor camp, Stanczak continued to turn out astonishingly precise and meltingly beautiful geometric abstractions that radiated serenity, calm and a sense of wonder about light, color and the visual energy of linear patterns.
And, after decades in which his work and that of other Op Artists was viewed with enormous disfavor, if not ridicule, Stanczak lived long enough to see a complete turnaround in the art world's view of his art.
Over the past decade and a half, Stanczak's work was the subject of more than 20 exhibitions in the U.S. and Europe and numerous publications including a 320-page monograph written by Polish art historian Marta Smolinska published in Polish and English in 2014.
Prices for Stanczak's work have also skyrocketed in recent years, reaching as high as $300,000.
In 2012, Bloomberg-Artnet listed Stanczak as No. 6 on its list of the 15 "hottest artists" in the world, based on percentage increases in prices from the starting year of 2000.
"I am numb," Stanczak said in a 2009 interview at his home and studio in Seven Hills. "Once you get older, you look at it with a cat's smile. It's very pleasant, but where have you been all this time when I needed you?”
Stanczak was a diminutive man who lived an epic life. He escaped from the Soviet labor camp in Perm, Siberia in 1942 at age 14 and traveled through Teheran, Iran and India; before living out the war years in British-controlled Uganda, where he nurtured dreams of becoming an artist.
Rise to greatness
Stanczak later studied art in London, England. He emigrated to the United States in 1950 and earned a bachelor's degree in art at the Cleveland Institute of Art in 1954. He then proceeded to Yale University, where his professors included the famous former Bauhaus instructor Josef Albers.
After completing his master-of-fine-arts degree at Yale in 1956, Stanczak took a teaching position in Cincinnati, where he lived until he moved to Seven Hills in 1964, with his wife.
They turned a modest, mid-century home into a comfortable modernist-style refuge filled with artworks and with furniture that Stanczak built by hand. And they raised their children, Christopher and Danusia and cared for Stanczak's aging parents, who moved into the house across the back yard
In a large studio on the rear of the house, Stanczak produced vibrant geometric abstractions with precise linear and geometric patterns in scintillating hues and patterns.
Creating with one arm
Amazingly, he did it all with the use of only his left hand and arm.
After Soviet troops occupied his hometown of Borownica, Poland, Stanczak was deported at age 11 with family members to the labor camp in Siberia.
He was beaten so severely there that he lost the use of his right arm - a terrible fate for a future artist who was right-handed.
"I still dream I am using my right arm," Stanczak said in a 2009 interview at his home and studio. "Then in my dreams, I correct myself."
Stanczak made up for his handicap in numerous ways including his construction of rotary cutting device made of gears, spools and blades that allowed him to slice strips of masking tape he needed for his abstractions in highly precise widths.
Stanczak's type of art was so precise that deviations from perfection would have drawn the eye to any flaws.
Yet Stanczak achieved extreme precision both in his taping and painting techniques and in his ability to mix colors in highly subtle gradients of hue and light-dark value.
In 1965, Stanczak participated with artists such as Victor Vasarely, Bridget Riley and Richard Anuszkiewicz in "The Responsive Eye," the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York that made Op Art an instant sensation.
Stanczak later said Op Art "is nothing but scrutiny of how we go about seeing -- how much is sight, how much is mental interpretation."
After a surge of popularity in which Op Art patterns appeared on everything from album covers to apparel, the movement suddenly fell into eclipse as a victim of rapidly changing art world movements and styles.
Roller coaster reactions
The leading critic and art historian Barbara Rose wrote at the time that, "Op Art goes Pop [Art] one better by being considerably more mindless."
Barbara Stanczak said viewed such harsh attacks to be the work of "throat-cutters."
Despite being considered quaintly irrelevant by critics and curators for nearly three decades, Stanczak continued to pursue his vision.
"Having those 30 years of anonymity in Cleveland and being away from New York made his work stronger," Barbara Stanczak said in a 2009 interview.
Meanwhile, he became a highly respected instructor at the Cleveland Institute of Art, where he taught from 1964 to 1995, and where his students included future luminaries such as the landscape painter April Gornik, and Dana Schutz, known for her bold, imaginary visions.
Barbara Stanczak's email announcing her husband's death was addressed to Gornik, Grafton Nunes, president of the Cleveland Institute of Art, and numerous collectors, art dealers and artists.
In addition to his wife, Stanczak is survived by his brother, Mark Stanczak, and his daughter-in-law, Mary Stanczak, both of Seven Hills; a son, Christopher Stanczak, of Los Angeles; a daughter, Danusia Casteel, of Norton, Ohio; two grandchildren and a great grandson.
Arrangements are in care of Ferfolia Funeral Home in Aurora. Donations may be made to the Julian Stanczak Scholarship Fund at the Cleveland. Institute of Art.