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.

Stephen Tanis’ classical still life and figure paintings, some of which will be on display at the University of Delaware starting this month, command prices of $7,000 to $55,000. Photograph by Christian KayeStephen 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.

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“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.

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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.

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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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“I was his protégé,” Tanis says. “I was a little embarrassed. I lived in a world of adults. They’d all be drinking after class and talking about art, and I’d split and go home because I had school the next day.”

Maynard taught Tanis how to draw figures, something that in mid-20th-century America was not a popular a skill.

“It’s surprising how influential studies at a young age really can be to an artist’s development,” says Straight.

Modern American art gloried in abstraction. Maynard would have none—or mostly none—of it. “He hated the art world,” Tanis says. But Maynard loved both art and the idea of realism portrayed unsentimentally—not picture perfect, but constructed carefully, through geometry and color.

“Maynard had an attitude that affected me,” Tanis says. “He had a certain approach, the way you build a painting through planes and forms, warms and cools, and build the form from within. If you can get control of those things, you can get something going.”

Maynard’s—and Tanis’—artist-heroes included Spanish painter Diego Velázquez, American painter John Singer Sargent and the Flemish painter Anthony van Dyck—realists with attitude, unlike, say, Andrew Wyeth, a realist whom Maynard did not care for.

“Wyeth is a romantic realist,” says Susan Isaacs, an art history professor and curator at Towson University in Maryland. “Steve’s realism is of the here and now, and when you look at Wyeth’s, it’s nostalgic. There’s no nostalgia in Steve’s work.”

Tanis was getting better by the week under Maynard’s tutelage. But then his mother died and his childhood ended.

Tanis left home at 16 after he graduated. He also left painting behind, working summer jobs in Ocean City, New Jersey, in 1962. As August became September, he realized the last thing he wanted to do was return home to his newly remarried father.

“I didn’t want to hang around and work,” he says. “I wanted to get out of northern New Jersey.”

He joined the Marines for a three-year stint that ended in 1965, when Marines first were deployed to Vietnam.

Tanis wanted to go to aviation cadet school, but his eyes weren’t good enough. So he applied to the University of Cincinnati and majored in graphic design.

When he graduated in 1970 with a degree in fine arts, he was accepted to the exclusive Cranbrook Academy of Art near Detroit. The main attraction at the school was abstract painter George Ortman.

“I was curious about it,” Tanis says of abstract art. “I was beginning to see a real intellectual basis to it.”

“The dialogue for art has changed,” says Susan Isaacs, an art history professor at Towson. “Steve is very contemporary, and he’s part of this new dialogue.”

But instruction under Ortman also nudged Tanis back toward figural or representational painting.

Ortman, says Straight, “always referred to figure drawing and Old Master drawings as a way of structuring his abstract work, so he encouraged students to take part in weekly figure-drawing sessions. Steve always took part in those sessions, even though he was doing abstract paintings.”

Ortman’s classes reinforced what Tanis learned earlier with Maynard.

“I actually believe that probably Steve always felt that he could express himself and use his skills better with representational images,” Straight says. “We have had conversations where he’s said that even though his abstract work was successful, it never felt like he was doing his own work.”

“Modern art attempted to find a different approach to art-making,” Isaacs says. “But in the broadest sense, when you shift from modernism to postmodernism, which begins in the late ’50s and early ’60s with pop art, then you have artists who are not as concerned with creating or inventing something new.”
Maynard rejected modern abstraction long before. Tanis found pop art interesting but formulaic. At the same time he learned to see art from a much broader perspective.

He is now a postmodernist, combining images, forms and themes from the past and present to evoke a personal vision.

“I began to see how the art world evolved and changes with movements,” Tanis says. “I withdrew from the modernist stance, rejected it, and never looked back. It wasn’t in my nature and what I was interested in visually.”

Tanis taught drawing at UD in 1972 and stayed for almost 29 years. He helped develop its bachelor of fine arts and master of fine arts programs in 1976. Several of his students, including Don McLaughlin, Lisa Bartolozzi and Jim Lee, are successful practicing artists.

As a postmodern American artist, Tanis caught the wave of a baby-boomer generation of artists that deserted modern abstract art and its core belief that artists must reject all that came before them and start from scratch. The range of Tanis’ work has encompassed self-portraits and still  lifes. His works command prices of $7,000 to $55,000.

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During a 15-year stretch that began in the late 1970s, he created paintings with the works of the masters, mostly Baroque, appearing in his paintings, including the large “Judgment,” painted in 1994, in which the backdrop of the picture is a copy of Peter Paul Rubens’ “Last Judgment,” with nudes on the left ascending to heaven and those on the right descending into hell.

Tanis added two realistic figures at the front of the painting, either challenging the master’s depiction, or simply commenting on them.

He visited Spain for a year in 1979, then lived in Italy for a year in 1985, which further influenced his use of the Old Masters.

“I did a lot of these,” he says. In “Judgment,” he approached it head on. But in many other paintings from this period, he includes the artifacts, the framed paintings, in the background of several still lifes.

“I liked the way they looked spatially,” he says. “I really don’t know why I did them.”

Tomlinson has an idea why. “In a way he’s kind of testing the Old Masters,” she says.

But after 2000, Tanis took another post modern fork in the road, and painted realistic group portraits of people in familiar poses.

Some of these paintings include “Denouement” and “Freethinkers,” both from 2001. The former is based on “Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery,” a theme covered by several artists during the Renaissance and Baroque periods. The latter was based on Caravaggio’s “Incredulity of Saint Thomas.”

You don’t create in a vacuum, Tanis says. “I learned everything from all other art. I wanted to figure out a way of working representational art into contemporary times—not like pop art, but individualistic.”

“This whole notion of being avant-garde, that’s not the issue anymore,” says Isaacs. “The dialogue for art has changed. Steve is very contemporary, and he’s part of this new dialogue.”

His style attracted a New York art dealer as early as 1985.

“The modernists said you shouldn’t take from the past, so Stephen countered that when that viewpoint was not very popular,” says Sherry French, who owns a self-named art gallery in New York City that has been dealing in Tanis’ work for decades.

“People paint what they believe, what they feel strongly about. What he was doing was what I was doing with my gallery. We were anti-modernist.”

This includes a plethora of still lifes that Tomlinson says take a seemingly innocuous subject to a new level. That’s because still lifes are their own worlds, and the artist is master of that world, Tanis says.

Though different from each other, “Basket of Apples,” from 1988, “Pears” from two years before, and 2005’s “Pomegranates” reveal Tanis’ belief in the radical individuality of form. Like Van Gogh’s frantic sunflowers, each fruit seems to have a personality of its own. Tanis views them like figures.

“They have skin and surface,” he says. “They have relationships with each other, just like figures.”

One of Tanis’ more fascinating paintings is the tenuous “Self-Portrait with Model” from 1994.

Tenuous, because Tanis takes over the background and center of the picture from a nude model crouching before him. Though the model’s body scintillates the viewer, she—and, sooner or later, the viewer—cannot help but note the artist’s hand, tentatively straightening out the cloth on which she curls herself.

“A nude pose is risky,” Tanis says. “I decided to have her interact with another model, and it turned out to be me. It’s a breakthrough painting for me.”

He’s nervous in the painting, aware of the naked woman before him, and as he tries to describe the moment portrayed.

“You always are a little bit nervous around nude models,” he says. “That’s what this is about, too.”

Though Tanis most recently has been painting a self-portrait, as well as those paintings based on biblical themes explored in Baroque art, he is unsure where he will go next.

But it will be a little different.

“I can’t linger for too long on anything,” he says. “Visually, the world is an exciting place. Or it could be that I’m not that disciplined.” 

UD Museums exhibit
Where  Old College, University of Delaware campus, Newark
What  Paintings of Stephen Tanis
When  Jan. 13 to March 8
The exhibit  35 paintings from 1967 to the present, with loans from about 14 institutions 
and private collections
Public reception  Feb. 19, from 5 p.m.-7 p.m., with a talk by the artist at 5:15 p.m. The reception is open to the public free of charge, but an rsvp is requested:

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