Gary Stephan’s paintings insist on abstraction while feeling like pictures of real places. In a 2000 essay for Cultureport.com, Peter Schjeldahl likened Stephan’s works to Marianne Moore’s definition of poetry: “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” Schjeldahl wrote, “Stephan deploys catchy, evocative shapes in illusionistic space, where they often behave to the eye as if possessed of natural gravity or buoyancy. He sets perception and metaphor in quivering tension, subtly and delightfully. We savor their interactions as if they were characters in a play or film.”
Gary Stephan was born in Brooklyn in 1942. In the early 1960s, while he was studying industrial design at Pratt Institute, he took painting classes and started painting at night. In 1967 he received an MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute. He then moved back to New York, where he still lives. He had his first solo show in New York in 1970 and exhibited with the Mary Boone Gallery from 1978 until 1993.
Stephan’s 1988 painting “The Stacks” is a tower of sharp-edged black shapes that fill up the canvas like an approaching tornado. He told Constance Lewallen in a 1990 interview that when he is creating this kind of work, “Sometimes it really gives me goose bumps. I don’t enter the picture saying to myself, ‘Why don’t I make one that’s like a tornado.’ I just let it roll along and I think ‘Oh my God, look what I’ve got here.”
Crown Point Press published a portfolio of Gary Stephan’s etchings in 1990. He told Lewallen that printmaking gives him another angle from which to view his work. He likes being able to see several states of an image at once because, he says, “you get to live two futures, like, ‘What if I hadn’t gone to college. Would it have been all right?”
Stephan’s work is held in many museum collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
Gary Stephan has been honored with a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and the American Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In a 2001 review in the New York Times, Ken Johnson wrote, “Mr. Stephan has contributed significantly to the imaginative freedom that abstract painting enjoys today.” Stephan is represented by Kienzle Art Foundation in Berlin where he had a retrospective exhibition in 2017-18 and also Devening Projects + Editions, Chicago. Stephan teaches in the painting department at the School of Visual Arts, New York.
-Kim Bennett, Crown Point Press