Kenneth Stubbs
(American artist, 1907-1967)

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Kenneth Stubbs (1907-1967) was an artist with unusual talents and interests, the combination of which help explain and define his artistic sensibility: he loved music and mathematics; he played two of the oldest and most challenging board games, chess and Go; and he had a long career making animated training and informational films for industry and government agencies. What these biographical factors point to is a highly tuned intellect and an analytical mind, characteristics also clearly evident in the present retrospective exhibition of Stubbs' still life paintings. As in the separate but interrelated moves that make up a game of chess or Go, or the incremental frames comprising an animated film, these still life paintings become an integer (a whole work of art) by virtue of the interplay of component parts. Like the chess master who is able to "see" the perfect game in his mind's eye even before it takes shape on the board, Stubbs, as artist, plays a similarly sophisticated visual game with the flat shapes comprising his paintings. The abstract or semi-abstract shapes he employs are only loosely tied to objective reality but have a logic, harmony, and beauty of their own, which it is his job to make visible as he moves them into a composition.

The connection between Stubbs' analytical creativity and his passion for games like chess and Go deserves amplification. The game of Go is ancient, having originated 4000 to 5000 years ago in China where it is called Wei-ch'i, while its formal Japanese name is Igo, or Go as it is more commonly known there and in Western countries. When Stubbs, who as a young man was a tournament chess player of considerable skill, first encountered Go in the early 1940s, it was still relatively unknown in the United States, so he learned enough Japanese to read manuals and Go literature in order to improve his mastery of the game.

The game uses a 19 x 19" wooden board inscribed with lines on which players place white and black stones. Its basic rules are simple but with an endless array of subtle permutations that make it matchless in complexity and strategy. In historical accounts, Go was most popular in China during periods when the arts flourished, and among present day practitioners, the game appeals especially to mathematicians, musicians, and artists. The intellectual challenge of the game teaches balance and discipline—qualities inherent in Kenneth Stubbs' psyche and his art. "Good shape" is the highest form of compliment one Go player can give to another and describes the striking beauty of the captured and surrounded territories in a winning configuration of the black and white stones on the board. 1

"Good shape" certainly describes Stubbs' still life paintings. In Table with Green Background, from 1952, for example, the entire composition is made up of bold geometric patterns dominated by three obtuse triangles (one black and two overlapping orange). Tipped outward like opposing wings, these angular shapes launch off from the horizontal surface to create a dynamic balancing act of objects on a tabletop. The color palette is muted and restricted to black, sienna red, burnt orange, and sage green, with related variant hues. In Table with Green Background, as in all of Stubbs' still life works, the color and the facture of paint on surface complement the dynamics of pattern. A flat, unmodulated application of paint cooperates with striking and sharply defined color contrasts to animate and enliven the picture.

Two of the earliest still lifes in the exhibition, Webster's House with Provincetown Bay and Through the Window (both from 1934), celebrate another formative influence for Kenneth Stubbs. The usual still life objects in the foreground (long-neck carafe, a spoon, a cup, a drawing) appear on a table in the foreground of both these gouache paintings. However, as the titles imply, the real subject of the painting is the view through an open window with a house in the background—the house in Provincetown belonging to his teacher and friend, E. Ambrose Webster (1863-1935). An early and pioneering modernist, Webster was one of the first artists to settle in Provincetown (1900). 2 There he was active as a painter and teacher, establishing his Summer School of Drawing & Painting around 1910 and becoming a founding member of the Provincetown Art Association in 1914. Stubbs, who had studied at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C., first came to Provincetown in the summer of 1931 when he was twenty-seven years old. There he encountered Ambrose Webster, felt an immediate rapport with him, attended his art school, and then returned for another summer of instruction in 1934.

Though limited to two five-month periods of study, the impact of Webster's art and teaching on Stubbs was profound, so much so that the younger artist took up the charge after the master passed away in 1935, continued to teach his own students in Webster's manner, and, many years later, worked almost single-handedly to revive Webster's reputation through a series of exhibitions in the 1960s that led eventually to museum acquisitions and purchases by private collectors and thus to wider recognition of his genius as a painter. In reflecting on his relationship with Webster many years later, Stubbs commented,

"Too bad Ambrose Webster isn't here to discuss painting with me. I well recall those days in the summer of 1934 when I would go to his house nearly every afternoon to discuss painting and all sorts of matters with him. These talks made a lasting impression on me and my work. He was by far the most inspiriting teacher I every had—inspiring one to the ways of Art itself rather than just the ways of Study as the other, even Weisz, had done. Webster had an uncanny way of getting at things that really made up the picture and how these things could be organized into the form of the picture. 3"

Webster's "uncanny" method of organizing form into the composition of a painting had evolved from his own inherently analytical mind. Having begun his career early in the twentieth century as a fauve-like colorist, Webster moved gradually to embrace a strong, geometric foundation for his compositions, including an interest in the sense of order and balance made possible by application of geometric principles like the Golden Section. In their afternoon talks in the summer of 1934, Stubbs and Webster no doubt spent many hours looking at paintings by and discussing the theories of Quattrocento and Renaissance artists like Giotto and Piero della Francesca, 19th century artists like George Seurat, contemporaries such as Cubist painters Juan Gris, Albert Gleizes, Gino Severini, or Provincetown artist colleagues like Blanche Lazzell, Karl Knaths, and Ross Moffett—all of whom (at least at one time or another) adopted the mathematics and geometry in constructing their compositions.

While Webster and Stubbs also found great pleasure in the Golden Section as a compositional tool, we, as viewers don't necessarily need to have personal mastery of what some might consider an abstruse mathematical formula in order to respond to or understand these still life paintings. In reality the Golden Section is a relatively simple ratio—a proportion of linear measurement in which a line is divided in two with the longer section relating to the shorter section exactly in proportion of the whole, undivided line relates to the longer, and there is no need to decode each painting in order to respond to it. In fact, as in any art form, the very ingredient that often makes a work of art most successful goes on unbeknownst to the viewer or behind the scenes, so to speak. The artifice—literally the artistic skill or (to use the game-derived meaning of the word) the artful stratagem—is the creative juice and results in a pleasing effect that surprises and delights or provokes and disturbs us.

Stubbs' fascination with the Golden Section intensified around 1949 when he and his new wife, Miriam went on an extended art tour of Europe. The trip included (at the urging of his artist friend, Leon Kroll) a visit to Arezzo to see the monumental frescoes of the Legend of the True Cross by Piero della Francesca in the Church of San Francesco—an experience so powerful that the couple remained longer than planned in order to film the frescoes—a project that though enlightening, was never, unfortunately, completed.

The impact of Webster's teaching—both "the Study" (methods of composition, color application, light and shadow) and "the ways of Art" (art theories and the intellectual foundations that interested them both)—thus shaped the young Kenneth Stubbs, providing a powerful impetus for his subsequent pursuit of geometric abstraction as a dominant style. But, as is evident in works in this exhibition from the mid-1930s (the period of the interaction between student and teacher), Stubbs was, by no means, a neophyte. The two 1934 "view through the window" compositions are remarkably sophisticated for a twenty-seven year old painter. Similarly, Still Life with Pipe and Bottle and Still Life with Letter and Book are mature works. Composition and color in Still Life with Pipe and Bottle are complex and subtle at the same time—a complicated pattern of opaque and transparent layering of objects within a muted palette of repeated and echoing chromatic shapes.

Still Life with Letter and Book, with its upward spiraling movement, anticipates later works like Lacy Still Life and Glassware, both from 1960, in which the fracturing of objects and the tilt and thrust of geometric shapes intensify to such an extent that the overriding effect is one of motion. In fact, Stubbs' unique and important contribution to geometric abstraction is his ability to make the faceted components of inanimate objects, flat surfaces, and foreground-background planes dance or gyrate with dynamic flow and rhythmic movement.

The majority of works in the present exhibition are rendered in casein on either heavy paper, masonite, or canvas. The artist's choice of this medium for his still life paintings is telling: casein creates a smooth, flat finish. It is an aqueous and fast drying medium made from the protein of milk, so that when applied to a rigid surface like gessoed paper or masonite, the artist can achieve razor sharp edges and fine-line delineation of objects and planes in space, well-suited to a style like that of Stubbs that demands precision. The versatility of casein also enabled Stubbs to create either an opaque or a diaphanous effect. Opacity rules in The White Vase (1960) where the artist renders the deep-toned color still life shapes in a rich, velvety matte finish. By contrast a feeling of translucence characterizes another work from 1960, Glassware where the muted color palette suggests the overlaid and layered planes behind and around the objects themselves.

Stubbs' still life works are less tied to visual reality or the thing-ness of objects in space, especially when compared to his landscapes in which medium also plays a defining role. For many of his landscapes, the artist favored the translucent medium of watercolor or sumi ink washes. Even when the motifs of houses, trees, and buildings are rendered in angular, geometric shapes, the watercolor or ink washes inevitably have a softening effect. "The fact," he once commented, "that my watercolors and drawings are more nearly a reflection of nature is a matter of relaxed observation." Typical of many artists who work primarily in an abstract mode, Stubbs responded to the call of the land and sea around his beloved Provincetown where he, (and later in the 1960s he and his family) spent most summers and many happy hours in "relaxed observation" of the houses and trees or boats and dunes of the environs.

As can be readily seen in this exhibition, what distinguishes Kenneth Stubbs' still life works is their liveliness: a certain humor and bon vivance sparkle forth from each painting. In Diesel Engine Parts (1954), for instance, you half expect the conglomeration of comically shaped mechanical pieces to start up and drive away like a Rube Goldberg invention. Everyday and familiar objects appear and disappear on and behind the tilting planes and the cantilevered shapes. Whether the components are glassware, lemons, carafes, engine parts, or a pen, Stubbs succeeds in defying the notion and tradition of the still life genre. These paintings are by no means still—the operative word being life.


© Gail R. Scott
June 2005

Independent author, editor, and curator Gail R. Scott is well known as a scholar of the art and lives of Marsden Hartley, and Carl Sprinchorn. Her renowned 1988 monograph Marsden Hartley published by Abbeville Press is a fundamental document for those interested in this important modern artist. Ms. Scott's forthcoming monograph on E. Ambrose Webster will be published in 2006.


1 See Edward Lasker's Introduction in Go and Go-Moku: The Oriental Board Games. New York: Dover Publications, 1960, 2nd revised edition. The game of Go grew in popularity in Europe and America in the 20th century, with the founding of the American Go Association around mid-century. Stubbs was acquainted with Lasker and illustrated his book, Chess Secrets I Learned from the Masters (New York: David McKay Company, Inc., 1951) with thirty-two drawings of Lasker and other world chess masters. See also the American Go Association website:

2 Ambrose Webster's contribution to the development of American modernism is currently being rediscovered. See forthcoming monograph, E. Ambrose Webster: Pioneer of Modernism, by Gail R. Scott, Pomegranate Press, 2006.

3 From notes by Kenneth Stubbs in a 1962 notebook called "Scribble-in-Book," courtesy of Miriam Stubbs. Eugen Weisz was a mentor and friend to Kenneth Stubbs, and vice-principal of the Corcoran School in Washington, D.C., where Stubbs also studied.