by Pac Pobric
The shaped canvas is difficult territory. It is tempting to say that it offers more freedom than a traditional rectangular support. It is in fact more limiting. Shaped pictures demand that whatever adorns the picture’s frontal plane engages directly with the shape of the support. Failure to integrate fully one into the other leaves a work seemingly contrived. Ted Stamm’s dedication to the problems of the shaped canvas was admirable. His pictures are deeply and consciously devoted to these issues. For this reason, his work can be read teleologically. It is not a stretch to say that the strongest work in his recent exhibit at Minus Space titled DRG-37 resolves all of the problems that the other pictures either ran into or proposed. It reads as the major achievement of a tragically short career that took place during the 1970s.
78-WW-9 (1978) by Ted Stamm, oil on canvas (courtesy of MINUS SPACE)
The exhibit spanned a highly condensed period. Four paintings, a drawing, several photographs and a collage were on view. The earliest work was from 1974. As a collage it is nascent. Stamm seems to have moved away from its specific problems, opting instead to focus on non-objective abstraction, although he did engage in other activities as well. Chronologically the next two works 78-WW-6 and 78-WW-9 were from 1978. While they inaugurate the shaped canvas, they are not themselves successful. The irregular shape they share is a bit of a curiosity, but the paintings feel unearned. The two black lines which form a 90-degree angle on either picture fail to effectively respond to the novelty of the shaped support. The result is that the paint application feels imposed upon the canvas, instead of mutually discovered along with its construction.
Stamm seems to have realized their failure quickly. This left him having to reconsider what a shaped canvas could really do. In 1979, he painted ZYR-4. The work features a symmetrical cruciform painted on a support with only two rectilinear edges. Because of its symmetrical nature, the painted form is essentially non-composed. Yet it is submitted to the limits of a highly relational support. The move makes for a curious painting. Still, there remains some cognitive dissonance despite the picture’s sophistication in relation to the previous ones. The problem is still that non-relational aspect of the picture (the “readymade” cruciform shape) is still imposed on the highly composed shape of the work. Submitting the former to the latter leaves the figure surrounded by too much un-accounted-for ground. The unprimed white sections of the picture do not play well with the shape of the entire work. If the picture is still a kind of ‘failure’ this is why. This is not a slight against Stamm; in a teleological reading of a painter’s work, all the pictures must be read as kinds of failures. That is, until painting itself is ‘finished.’
ZYR-4 (1979) by Ted Stamm, oil on canvas (courtesy of MINUS SPACE)
DRG-37 is an altogether more successful piece. The picture is divided roughly in half across its horizontal axis. The top section is painted all in black while the bottom section is left unpainted and unprimed. Much of its strength lies here. Instead of subdividing the unprimed and the painted into various section of the picture plane, as does ZYR-4, this work realizes a kind of wholeness through a simple one-half division. Its sections are not scattered but organized. The paint application or lack thereof abides by the laws of the shape of the whole. It is the only work in the show made literally of two separate parts, neither of which would be particularly interesting on their own. The compositional strategy is therefore reinforced, yet nonetheless partakes of a complete painting. The use of the shape itself is also a major advance. It is much more curiously constructed than heretofore. This means that it is even more limiting than the shapes of the other pictures.
Yet Stamm makes the work look as if its realization was easy, as if the limits he imposed on his own work were somehow the opposite of limiting. Most importantly, this work realizes something very few pictures do: that a shaped picture can realize a full integration of the picture plane with the shape without using the monochrome. (The monochrome strategy is precisely how some of the best work of Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, and Imi Knobel function.) This is no small feat. Doing away with the most obvious means by which to make successful a non-rectangular painting, DRG-37 marks a novel departure. It’s a shame Stamm did not live long enough to build on this work.