Kenneth Stubbs
(American artist, 1907-1967)

photograph of the artist
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Kenneth Stubbs was a fortunate man. He came at a very early age to love art and the practice of art and was able to arrange things so that he spent a great deal of his lifetime drawing and painting. That was not an easy thing for an American born in a small Georgia town in 1907. The place meant that he had to leave in order to pursue his goals. The date meant he arrived at maturity just in time for the Great Depression, which faded with no borders into World War II. Neither event produced a substantial market for American art.

The war, however, did provide Stubbs with the means to earn a livelihood and he used it for the rest of his life. In his three years of Navy service, he learned how to design, write and direct animated and live training films. Back in civilian life, he lived on that knowledge and skill, allowing his talent and art freedom to roam where they would, with no need to produce salable merchandise.

The result of that freedom was a large body of very impressive work, a too small but representative sample of which constitutes the present exhibition.

Stubbs drew incessantly and, like many artists, produced more drawings than any kind of painting. But the principal thrust of his paintings was squarely in the tradition known loosely as geometric abstraction. Although, as we see in this show, he was enormously gifted in the classical realistic depiction of what was in front of him, he was never tempted into either of the twin art fashions of his early years in art: Social Realism, dealing with underclass urban life, and The American Scene, dealing strictly with scenes of America well beyond the city limits.

Not surprisingly, when both fashions were superseded by Abstract Expressionism in the late 1940s and '50s, Stubbs kept on painting as he had been doing for some time, absorbed in the endless challenges he found in that highly intellectual approach to art. In the 20th century, the artist Stubbs most nearly relates to Picasso's younger contemporary countryman, Juan Gris, who has been justly called "the cubest cubist." Stubbs studied at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington and taught there for some years both before and after World War II. In Provincetown, he studied with one of the early advocates and exemplars of abstraction on the Cape, E. Ambrose Webster. Yet by far the artist most influential for Kenneth Stubbs was a 15th century Tuscan, Piero della Francesca.

In 1948, Stubbs, then teaching once more at the Corcoran, married Miriam Margolies, a "government girl" who had come to the capital to join the war effort and, like many others, stayed on as the post-war government, far from returning to its former size, continued to expand. In 1949 the couple embarked on an extensive tour of Europe. Their itinerary included, at the urging of the artist Leon Kroll, a friend, the market town of Arezzo, where Piero had done his most monumental work in the Church of San Francesco.

They stayed at Arezzo longer than planned. They managed to erect scaffolding in the church and make a film, never released, of the great cycle that is Piero's supreme achievement.

What Piero did was to intoxicate himself with a mathematical principle called The Golden Section. So did Kenneth Stubbs. The Golden Section is simply a proportion, a ratio of linear measurement in which a line is divided in two, the longer section relating to the shorter section exactly in the proportions that the whole, undivided line relates to the longer. That's the essence. There are ramifications that reach back to the pyramids and out to eternity in the minds of adepts. You don't have to know the ramifications, you don't really have to know that essence to appreciate the mathematical structures that shine through the paintings of Kenneth Stubbs as they do through those frescoes in Arezzo and Piero panels in many great museums.

The operating principle for both artists is that everything relates to everything else, not only in linear length, but in shape and in color. In a Stubbs painting as in a Piero, it is possible to start anywhere, really, and move to an adjoining area across, up, down and diagonally away, all around the painting as if you were flipping cutout shapes, lines or their equivalents in color. Everything relates to everything.

In the nature of things it is easier to follow this trail in the smaller abstractions and still lifes than in the large figure groups, if only because pears and pitchers are less compelling than men and women. The painting I think of as "Still Life with Martini Glass" is an excellent example. So are any of the smaller paintings that look like totally abstract arrangements but on inspection turn out to be objects on a table. Watch for repeated and reversed triangles, color relations reversed or duplicated in other tones.

Pleasant as this kind of find-the-face-in-the-cloud detective work is, it is not only unnecessary, it can distract from the point of the painting, which is never the sheer mathematics of The Golden Section, but the revelation contained within and presented by the close union of the mathematics and the subject matter. The math will work for you even if you are totally unaware of it, as it does in interest-bearing bonds and, less happily, in calculations of your withholding tax. There was, after all, a long period during the rise of docentry in this country's art museums when uncounted millions of school children emerged from their obligatory visits unshakably convinced that Renaissance painting was all about triangles. Don't risk it.

Consider, instead, the way the manner works for the matter in some of the major works. In "Basketball," for instance, the fragmentation of forms makes for a cascade of players and ball upward (opposite to most cascades), up, up, up as the eye moves from plane to plane of the human tower to the magic ring of the basket. But this is exactly what happens in a real life game when the Celtics are trouncing the Knickerbockers one more time. We don't see it this clearly in real life, but we feel it and it is assuredly there. Piero would understand at once: that's what he did himself in "The Story of The True Cross" in Arezzo -- make visible that which is invisible.

"Swinging" celebrates that childhood delight probably better than anyone since Robert Louis Stevenson, who called riding a swing "the pleasantest thing that ever a child can do." But it also celebrates that moment that comes to most moving things, if they're lively enough, when they begin to merge with geometry, in this case spherical geometry. The spheres, invisibly present, upon which the trajectories of the swings are traces, seem to be circles and the trajectories arcs, but that's because, if you don't count the thickness of the pigment, paintings are two-dimensional, spheres three.

The arcs of the two swings are parallel and they move in complementary directions, as in ballet. The feet of the girl to the right shape the space around them exactly as do the trees to the left. The drastic foreshortening of the swing frame itself intensifies everything, compressing space, time and our responses.

What all of this does is convey to us what Stevenson knew through an unusual memory or an artist's automatic identification with his subject, the child's exuberance and exhilaration while going up in the air and down. When you think of it, this is very close to the feeling people got dancing to the big-band jazz of the years before and during World War II, known as Swing.

It was well named. "The Dancers" was probably stimulated by dancing to just that kind of music. During their courtship, Kenneth discovered that Miriam loved to go dancing. Well able to take a hint, he enrolled in a dancing class and tripped the light fantastic with his light of love, Miriam, who soon became his wife; whereafter, she reports bemusedly, Kenneth went dancing with her maybe five times in the whole course of their marriage.

"The Dancers" commemorates that experience recollected in the tranquility of some time later. The scene in the painting could well be a dance studio rather than a ballroom because of the presence of a floorlength mirror on the left side of the painting. As in Manet's great mirror picture, "The Bar at the Folies Bergere," you don't realize at first glance that there is a mirror. As in the Manet, so here, the glass increases the crowd by a measurable percentage. After a bit you can begin to match the dancers at that side of the room with their reflections.

But the whole group has values of its own. From a documentary point of view, the painting reminds us, or instructs us, depending on the age of the viewer, that in those days people actually danced with one another in pairs, each holding each and moving in unison, one forward, one back, left foot echoing right and so on, in a manner that must strike many as curious, although it does seem to be making a small comeback now. But the whole group has a unity as strong as that of any couple in it, indeed as that of any individual. It is, after all, not that easy to pick out an individual and be absolutely sure that all the pieces are pieces of the same person. There is a mingling of identities expressed in the fragmented dancers and the ambiguities of the fragments. That pattern of lights and darks in the several colors also echoes the action of the famous mirrored ball hanging from the ceiling, slowly spinning and reflecting ever changing patterns of spots of light. That compressed unity of the group -- reinforced by the foreshortened shallowness of the space -- is an aspect of the scene not present in the works of much better known dance hall painters as Lautrec and Renior, who present the group of dancers as a milieu rather than as a discrete, many-headed being within the milieu. As far as I know, this special insight of Stubbs was not duplicated until the opening of the party scene in "Company," the first of the revolutionary musicals by Harold Prince and Stephen Sondheim; under Prince's direction, the whole cast danced on stage locked together in the jigsaw-like arrangement first seen in this painting by Kenneth Stubbs. What matters is not who had it first (Stubbs did) but that two highly original artists in entirely different media looked freshly at the same subject and saw the same thing for the first time.

It might be easy to dismiss the more realistic, earlier paintings as the work of a talented artist waiting to find himself. Such is not the case. The superb portrait of Grace Powell, also known as "Seated Woman," dated 1935, is a profile view with the sitter in more or less fancy dress, and with her home landscape, Provincetown, in the background. As it happens, each of those notes -- the profile view, the fancy dress and the landscape background -- also characterize Piero's two best known portraits, those of Federigo da Montefeltro and his wife, Battista Sforza.

Drawing is the probity of art, said Ingres. He could get an argument on the point nowadays from any number of artists who don't possess that particular proof of probity in any great degree. Stubbs would not have had to worry. His drawing penetrates his paintings, and the drawings for their own sake, of which some hundreds survive, are masterful in an assortment of different ways. He occasionally did Sumi drawings, in which the ink itself seems to direct the flow of the drawing. There are precise and accurate sketches of street scenes in Italian cities and, over and over again, still lifes in his own studio or kitchen and scenes of the Provincetown beaches, the sand, the scrub grass, the bulkheads put up to keep the sand in check, the water of the Bay, the sky above. In all of them you get a powerful sense of place and an even more powerful feeling of a man, in Hokusai's self-description, crazy about drawing.

The feeling for mathematics inherent in the artist's work was also to be encountered in other areas of his life. His recreation of choice was not merely chess, at which he was a master, but the German variation, Kriegspiel, in which the players sit back to back, each with his own board and men, and a referee to tell them what moves can not be taken. It is not surprising that both in Washington and on the Cape, he relished tournament play.

Long before it became very marginally fashionable in America, Stubbs mastered the intricacies and the sheer patience of the Asiatic game, Go. As the war in Vietnam wore on -- and wore down the American patience -- Stubbs noted that while our side was as usual playing war as if it were football, the North Vietnamese, as they had done for centuries with mighty invaders, were fighting as if playing Go. He would not have been surprised at the outcome.

The viewer of his work is not surprised to learn that he was a music lover, particularly partial to opera, ballet and chamber music, all three forms rigid in the mathematics of structure. He also read widely in Oriental literature, having taught himself enough written Japanese to read the Go manuals.

Kenneth Stubbs died in 1967, of cancer, after having been in coma for six months at a Washington hospital. He is buried in the Provincetown Town Cemetery.


Frank Getlein, art critic for The Washington Star, The New Republic and for National Public Radio and Television, is also the author of many books.