More on Sam Spanier

Sam Spanier (1925-2008)

After studying with Hans Hofmann, and formative years spent working in Paris, by 1953 Sam Spanier’s career as an artist had already begun to meet with critical acclaim. That year, he had his first solo gallery show, and was selected by Milton Avery and Hans Hofmann to receive the prestigious Lorian Fund Award. His second solo show, in 1955, was curated by renowned museum director, Gordon Washburn. Early exhibitions of Spanier’s work were reviewed by Dore Ashton, Donald Judd, Fairfield Porter, Stuart Preston, and Irving Sandler, among other important writers of the period. In a 1955 review for Art Digest, Sam Feinstein described the paintings:

Romantic, darkly lyrical, the images are shadowed with a tender brooding but emanate a Byzantine richness; the areas of color emerge through films of translucent and semi-opaque tones which smolder and smoke around the lighter, fire-hot passages.

In 1957, Dore Ashton described Spanier’s use of color as “soft and luminous. . . and usually geared to mystery and ambiguity.” In these early works, lambent embers of color recalling Mark Rothko’s paintings of the same period, are often barred by gestural black strokes—as daring and stark as those of Franz Kline.

While few, there are other postwar American artists whose spiritual journeys were formative in the development of their work and career; Mark Tobey comes to mind, as does Richard Pousette-Dart, a founding member of the New York School. Pousette-Dart’s withdrawal from New York City in 1951, to work in relative rural retirement, enabled a stance of stylistic independence, but also isolated him from the engines that drive an artist’s career. Similarly, in the early 1960s, Sam Spanier’s increasing involvement with his own spiritual quest separated him from New York’s commercial gallery circuit, and brought him to Woodstock, New York, where he was very active in the Woodstock Artists Association, which honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007. The path he took bifurcates his career, and the sacrifice he made of his public artistic success must have been one that was deeply felt.

As early as 1954, Dore Ashton recognized Sam Spanier as a “haptic visionary.” Spanier’s developing spiritual life is richly reflected in his later work, from the mid-1970s to the final years of his life, and his artistic endeavor cannot be separated from consideration of the life of dedication to which he remained committed. The inner life remains apparent in his subject matter—as early as 1960, Irving Sandler had written that the people in Spanier’s paintings “seem to have witnessed some transfiguring event.” But it is even more manifest in the radiant explosion that has occurred of the color and light which were smoldering in the early works. Spanier is one of the 20th century’s great colorists, and the heavy, obstructing ambivalence of gestural black in the early works has receded to cloisonné lines enclosing figures and forms that range from single Rouault-like portraits and abstract figures, to landscapes redolent with sunlight. The works of this period were created intermittently, and witnesses to Spanier’s working method can attest to the release and delight that making them afforded him. They are indeed exuberantly and profoundly loving and joyful—as was the man—and the essence of both their art and their spirit is in the effulgent light and color that they emanate.

Melissa De Medeiros
January 2009