The earliest of these works, Quartet, 1948, was painted in Stout’s Provincetown studio; its untitled relative in blue appeared the following winter during his last year of teaching in Hawaii. The rest emerged over four years of a profound transition as Stout shifted his life from Hawaii to Provincetown. The nexus of his transformation became New York, where he studied intermittently at the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Art and lived off and on at the Chelsea Hotel.
At the Hofmann School, Stout drew from the model or still life alongside Jan Mueller, Wolf Kahn, Paul Resika, Jane Freilicher, Larry Rivers, Anne Tabachnick, Paul Georges, and occasionally Joan Mitchell. The New York school on 8th Street shared the block with the Whitney Museum of American Art, attracting students and artists to gather around the corner from the school at the Waldorf Cafeteria. The issues they voiced found formal deliberation in the panels of the Artist’s Club, down 8th Street to the east; Stout often listened in, later becoming a member. Summers sessions in Provincetown offered a casual flow of talk from suppers in shanties to cookouts on the beach, and through both New York and Provincetown floated extraordinary episodes of live jazz.
Students brought dried canvases from their studios to group critiques, including a few of these paintings. Similar flickering patches of color in the work of Hofmann students from different periods (Jan Mueller, John Grillo, James Gahagan come to mind) reflect their common exploration of the implied movement of color—in and out of depth. The impact of Mondrian on the Hofmann milieu was then quite potent. Former Hofmann students Lillian Olinsey and Harry Holtzman had helped Mondrian move to New York, and he had only recently passed away. Stout was particularly fascinated with Mondrian’s neoplasticism and claimed, “However straight Mondrian’s lines may seem, they are not straight,” reasoning that in plastic reality, “a line is swaying in and out, so that however straight it seems when conceived two dimensionally, it is still not straight three dimensionally.”[i] Hofmann emphasized the role of color in plasticity to a much greater degree than Mondrian, and wrote in 1951: “Form not arrived at through the fire and blood of color is only design.”[ii]
Stout embarked for France and Italy in the summer of 1949, where he experienced first hand the phenomenon Hofmann called “color light”: “In nature, light creates color; in painting, color creates light.” Stout was captivated by the stained glass of St. Chapelle in Paris and the “brilliance and imprecision” of the Byzantine mosaics. In Venice, the full sense of color of Titian and the Venetian painters, as well as the temperas of the 14th century Florentine and Sienese, resulted in his “multicolored, multifaceted, multiplaned” paintings of 1949-50. Upon entering a major Matisse exhibition, Stout nearly broke down in tears. The experience was like walking into St. Chapelle; the light was “coming through the paintings and you were bathed in the light from these paintings.”[iii]
Stout’s journals the following year trace a fascination with what he called a “diagonal axis” in the works of Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto, Rubens and El Greco, an axis that created “the pathway to a tremendous and powerfully charged space” in which the painter could establish, “through an infinity of poles, currents which flow and leap everywhere.” His paintings began to veer away from the horizontal and vertical toward a more diagonal composition, rising and falling on a central kinetic axis “with implications of spiraling.” Stout described this “vital inter-polar play of movement” as akin to a move in the dance called the Charleston, in a horizontal sense (hands placed on the knees, changing from one knee to the other every time the knees come together), or in a vertical sense like a rotating barber pole, where the end of the movement feeds the beginning in a cyclic “compression of time and space.”[iv]
Rising branches of trees and bright Provincetown flower gardens inspired sensations of color and movement to be made visible in a painting. Crimson poppies, high hollyhocks, and roses, vivid in the reflected light of the Cape, created an impulse that evolved through the process of work. Stout credited Hofmann for instilling in him the necessity of keeping in touch with nature. “When a painting ‘begins to die,’” Stout wrote in his journals, “it is doing exactly that—it is losing its connection with life—with reality. It has lost touch with its source in nature.” In 1952 with this imperative at heart, he concluded his studies with Hofmann and decided to live year round in Provincetown. Stout always expected to return to color, but never “got to the end” of his explorations in black and white.[v]
[i] Myron Stout, Journal entry, ca. 1950. Selections from the Journals of Myron Stout, edited by Tina Dickey with an introduction by Rob Storr. New York: Midmarch Arts Press, 2005.
[ii] Hans Hofmann, Typescript, 1951, Hofmann Papers, Archives of American Art.
[iii] Myron Stout, interview with Kathryn Maartens, Tape 2, June 13, 1977, and Tape 6, June 27, 1977, Estate of Myron Stout.
[iv] Journal entries December 11, 1950 and October 17, 1952; also Stout, Maartens interview, Tape 6, June 27, 1977, Tape 7, July 5, 1977.
[v] Journal entry October 17, 1952; Myron Stout interview with Robert Brown, March 26,1984, Oral History, Archives of American Art.