Driven to Abstraction
After half a century of study, painter Stephen Tanis says he can’t linger too long on any one thing, which makes his upcoming show an interesting study in styles.
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Stephen Tanis has been working on his latest self-portrait for weeks.
“Pain,” he says, looking at the unfinished work, then glancing at himself in the smudged mirror hanging to the right. “I want to show this guy’s in pain.”
No, that’s not right.
“I mean, that he knows what pain is, that he’s felt pain. Not that he’s in pain this very moment.”
Tanis’ art reflects the return to the values of classical still life and figure painting to contemporary American art. Preparing for his exhibition that opens January 13 at the University of Delaware Museum, the 63-year-old artist and retired professor has been revisiting his old paintings for weeks.
While taking digital images of them, he’s watched a young artist age apprehensively, and he’s seen his paintings veer from abstract to figural to still life, then back around again, self-consciously taking from Old Masters and giving as good as he gets.
Among these works is the oldest painting that will appear in the exhibit, a self-portrait done at 22, when he was a sophomore in college.
During a brisk early evening in late October, this 41-year-old painting lay on its framed back staring up at the ceiling of a small room near his cluttered home studio in Arden.
There’s no sign of pain in that self-portrait, either imagined or evoked: cool blues and grays fold in intersecting planes to create a figure at once haughty and alone, a young man daring the viewer to define the artist.
By contrast, the portrait of the artist as an older man sizzles with hot reds and yellows. Lines channel his face. His eyes—one clear, the other blurry, perhaps because it’s unfinished or maybe because it emotes a puzzling ambiguity—make the viewer much more uncomfortable than the older painting of the younger man.
The most famous self-portraits in Western art, from Rembrandt to Van Gogh, show the younger artist as a study in confidence, a rebel with a cause: to change how we see. The later self-portraits of these masters invariably show the artist the worse for wear, eyes dimmed.
“If you look at older artists, the psychological depth increases,” says Janis Tomlinson, director of University Museums at the University of Delaware. “Where earlier they establish themselves as part of a society or as a rebel against it, that relationship changes over time.”
Tanis is in competition with the masters rather than with contemporary artists, says Robert Straight, an artist and UD professor who has known Tanis for decades.
Stephen Tanis sees the world in warm and cool colors, in planes and textured colors.
“Once you achieve it,” he says of this way of visualizing the world, “you try, try and try to reveal it. It’s a way of seeing.”
He looks embarrassed.
“Some painters don’t care about these things,” he says. “I do.”
When Tanis was 15, his mother suffered a brain aneurysm and died. “I didn’t know what to do,” Tanis says. “It was all downhill after that. The center of the home was gone.”
It was a home for Tanis, the youngest of three children born to Margaret and Thomas Tanis, which had begun in Paterson, New Jersey, the year World War II ended.
Tanis always knew he was smart. He skipped fifth grade. That made him younger than everyone else in his classes.
Even when the family moved to a suburb called Ridgewood when he was 11, Tanis seemed surrounded by older people, whether classmates, athletes or artists.
Like his older brother David and father, he was athletic. Like his older sister Margaret Ann and mother, he was artistic. He grew to 6-foot-4, played basketball, football and ran track. But it was his skill at drawing that drew attention.
His parents sent him to the Ridgewood Art Association to study with landscape painter Arthur Maynard, then 38 years old. Maynard studied with realist Frank Vincent Dumond, who died in 1951.
“I always drew,” Tanis says. “I was a good draftsman. But I was a goof.”
He was 13, after all, but Maynard saw something in Tanis.
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