Modern Odysseys: A first generation of Greek American Artists

Modern Odysseys

A first generation of Greek American Artists

Modern Odysseys: Greek American Artists of the 20th Century
Organized by the Queens Museum of Art, New York
October 6, 1999 – January 30, 2000

“What we look is not who is great and who is a minor artist but who keeps art alive.”
–George Seferis (1)

Historical memory in short supply in this country, especially with regard to the many streams of artistic practice that are not regarded as current or cutting-edge at any given moment. In the early part of the twentieth century, Greek American artists first became significantly active in the United States and were an important part of the large population of immigrants from Greece.  They and their successors, men and women either born in Greece or children of Greek-born parents, contributed materially to modern American art. They were inheritors of an almost insurmountable tradition – both the great and often austere art of classical antiquity and the resplendent and awesome beauty of Byzantine icons. Their work became quickly integrated into the main currents indebted to European art. The earlier generation, in keeping with the time, assimilated fairly readily while the later generations, aware that there is no monoculture, usually have seen themselves as being part of both Greek and American culture.

There is an enormous variety of styles, mediums, and attitudes among Greek American artists. Some of the older painters, such as Aristodimos Kaldis, George Constant, and Constant’s brother in-law Theo Hios, worked largely in a modern, expressive manner. Furthermore, Constant and Hios were an integral part of the New York art world of their period; they exhibited in prestigious venues and were leaders of artist’s organizations. Constant’s early works show his great admiration for Pal Cézanne and were followed by Cubist-influenced paintings that explore the theme of unity between male and female, a motif that preoccupied him throughout his long career. In Constant’s works from the 1950s, man and woman have become abstract forms, built of colored squares and rectangles, architectonic forms that coalesced in his most ambitions painting Wall of Life (1959). Hio’s Self-Portrait (1938) is an incisive painting of the artists who participated in the W.P.A. (Works Progress Administration). His interest in the life of the working class is evident in the lithograph Workers and the related preparatory drawing Sewer Workers (both 1937). In the 1970s, Hios turned toward abstract painting, creating brightly colored mandalas. Kaldis painted colorful Greek landscapes using vigorous brushstrokes, recalling early paintings by Wassily Kandinsky that verge on total abstraction.

There are several Greek American artists whose mature work is almost entirely abstract, including Jean Xceron and Nassos Daphnis. Xceron came to the United States from a remote village in the Peloponnesus, lived in Washington, D.C., and New York, and went to Paris in 1927, associating himself with the Cercle et Carré  abstractionists. In 1938 he turned to the United States, where he became a member of the American Abstract Artists, an important group of painter and sculptors influences by de Stijl. Xceron’s paintings of the 1930s and 1940s are carefully constructed geometric works, mostly of intersecting horizontal and vertical lines and rectangles in fields of gentle light. From an early age, Daphnis was interested in botany and the metamorphosis of living plants, and after World War II began painting mysterious biomorphic pictures, such as Desire (1948), perhaps influenced by the Surrealist paintings he saw in Paris. Geometric abstraction in the United States was brought to a lofty position by Daphins’s later works, which evoke the intense light he encountered on a trip to his native Greece in 1950. Some of the paintings he made after that trip, such as 26-58 (1958), even anticipate Color Field paintings, and few artists have been his equal in creating pure forms as containers of pure color.

William Baziotes associated with the European émigrés in New York during the early 1940s, especially the poetry and experimented with Surrealist automatism creating works such as Florida Seascape (1945). By the mid-1940s, he had begun to make his signature paintings of Surrealist biomorphic figures against a lyrical abstract ground. Baziotes was the second artist (Jackson Pollock was the first) to be exhibited at Peggy Guggenheim’s seminal gallery, Art of This Century, in New York in 1944. One of the original members of the Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko, Baziotes was awarded a prestigious purchase prize from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1947 for Cyclops (1947), a crucial signal of the acceptance of the “New American Painting.” In his later works, the images appear to be immersed in an aquatic substance, and, as time went on, his carefully crafted works achieved a calm serenity. One such example is Untitled (1962), one of the last paintings he made before his untimely death.

Early in his career, Theodoros Stamos was painting biomorphic pictures, such as The Altar (1948), similar to those of his older colleagues Daphnis and Baziotes. He first showed at the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1943 at the precocious age of twenty-one, and was one of the youngest of the Abstract Expressionists. Stamos was fascinated by natural objects – by tidal pools and sea anemones, as well as by stones and fossils. He felt connected to the work of to the Pantheist sensibility of earlier American landscape painter of the Hudson River School and to the work of Milton Avery, and he frequently talked about Arthur Dove, who, like him, sought to express a close relationship to nature. “In submitting to Dove’s influence, Stamos discovered his true identity”, wrote one commentator in 1960 (2). By the late 1950s, when Stamos was living on Long Island in a house designed for him by sculptor Tony Smith, his colors became lighter and more lucid, and his canvases became larger and more abstract. One can see in his work from that time a luminosity that he discovered in his first trip to Greece. I recall that when Mark Rothko, who was his friend and mentor, took me to the opening of a Stamos exhibition at the André Emmerich Gallery in 1960, I was struck by the dramatic vibrancy and intensity of Stamos’s color fields. Whereas his early paintings dealt with the earth, the late canvases are inspired by the sea. In 1970 Stamos visited his father’s birthplace on the island of Lefkada, and he spent many of his later years there, painting works such as the large, luminous Infinity Field (1972).

Largely neglected in current writing on American art and design is John Vassos, a painter, muralist, and important industrial and architectural designer. He designed Art Deco buildings and interios as well as many industrial items, including his own Phobia (1931)

Polygnotos Vagis, son of a village carpenter and woodcarver, became of renown after immigrating to and studying in the United States. He was a partisan of a worldwide challenge to Beaux-Arts modelers, who would generally have their clay models cast in bronze by assistants. The direct carvers, however, believed that the finished sculpture should be the result of a dialogue between the carver and the stone (or wood). Vagis created quiet, self-contained sculptures of animals, such as The Snake (1942; in the Museum of Modern Art), and of human images such as Sleep (1931), in which he transformed stone into recognizable organic forms.

The nine carefully crafted wood carvings by Michael Lekakis shown in Americans 1963 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York were the work of a sculptor who had assimilated the Cubist and Surrealist traditions, who had assimilated the Cubist and Surrealist traditions, who had visited Constantine Brancusi on his first trip to Europe in 1952, and whose work seemed to be part of a personal dialogue with the modernist history of sculpture. His fragile biomorphic carvings retain the energy of the living wood, transforming it into abstract sculptures of rhythmic harmony. Many of his pieces appear as meditations on natural forms such as vines or tree trunks, while also evoking the entasis (slight convex curve) of ancient Greek columns. Lekakis made several trips to Greece, and the Greek tradition is of special significance to his work, as he stated in 1969:

Creation is not the result of what we want to do. It is the result of the whole cosmic process….If one approaches it right, he can give it form….The only thing that prompts this kind of vision is love…I mean the whole love, eros and agape, the divine and human reconciled, as the Greeks knew it…. This is what I am trying to do, to reconcile man and the cosmos. (3)

Dimitri Hadzi recalls the indelible impression that Lekakis made on him when they first met, just as Hadzi began thinking seriously about becoming a sculptor. His work went in a more expressionist direction, as seen in his early abstract design for the international competition for an Auschwitz memorial (1957-58), with its suggestion of flames, bones and outstretched arms.

Prior to that, Hadzi had visited Greece, where he first became aware of heroic form and content in sculpture. Wanting to live and work in a Mediterranean ambience, he settled in Rome, where he remained for about twenty-four years. When I first saw an exhibition of his bronzes at the Stephen Radich Gallery in New York in 1962, I was so impressed by his work that, as one of the United States commissioners for the Venice Biennale that year, I selected several of his bronzes to stand on the outside of the United States pavilion. Among these works was one of his famous “helmets”, which, with its giant toadstool cap, relates to the ancient image of the hoplite in Homer’s poems; another helmet is Elmo III (1960). I remarked at the time that “the transitions are accomplished so smoothly and poetically that the piece seems to be executed intuitively, which is, after all, the effect most artists want in their work and that only the most able and talented manage to attain.” (4) Hadzi’s oeuvre includes some of the most successful public sculptures in the United States. Throughout his career, Greek Mythology remained a major source of inspiration for Hadzi in his creation of eloquent cast bronzes and in his work carved in stone and wood. Helmet Bell (1995), which he made using his knowledge of Chinese Shang vessels, indicates a certain consistency in his oeuvre, which, as time went on, became more self-contained and classical.

Peter Voulkos has changed the craft of ceramics into the art of clay sculpture. Whereas ceramicists in America had by and large been making utilitarian objects, Voulkos began making “useless rock-and-roll” pots. In 1953, during a brief teaching stint at Black Mountain College, he met artist Robert Rauschenberg, composer John Cage, and choreographer Merce Cunningham and then went on to New York, where he met Franz Kline and saw Willem de Kooning’s paintings. Voulkos was inspired by the Abstract Expressionists’ emphasis on a working process involving chance and spontaneous action, but used clay and the potter’s wheel instead of paint and brush. He made pots and plates with cracks and holes and larger freestanding sculptures, often splashing on paint to emphasize the bulging, jagged, torque forms or to create a counterpoint to them. He also esteemed Japanese sculpture, especially the early Hani-wa terracottas, and became devoted to Zen spontaneity and discipline. In 1954 he left his home state of Montana and moved to Los Angeles to head the new ceramics department at what later became the Los Angeles County Art Institute. In order to execute his singular vision, he built his own kilns to fire massive stoneware pieces such as Little Big Horn (1959), which consists of several interior cylinders and rises to a height of almost four feet. In 1959, when I was the United States Commissioner for the first Paris Biennale, I included Voulkos in my selection of artists; he received the Rodin Museum Prize for the work presented there. The following year I curated a solo exhibition of his work at the Museum of Modern Art (in the Penthouse Gallery). Voulkos moved to Berkeley when he was appointed to the faculty of the University of California there in 1959. And continued working in clay. Then, seeking greater spatial expansiveness, he turned to bronze and built his own foundry in a 10,000-square-foot studio in an industrial section of town. Just as he had made great demonstrations in throwing pots, he worked before audiences when casting his bronzes, often using industrial tubes, which he might twist and coil before putting them together in undulating rhythms. Returning to clay in the 1980s, he made compelling plates, stacks, buckets, and jugs in wood-burning Anagra kilns, using a rough, primitive Japanese method in keeping with his characteristic textural approach.

Stephen Antonakos, born in Greece in 1926, arrived in the United States in 1930 and came to public attention with his stitched fabric Sewages and then his Pillows – enigmatic assemblages of found objects such as nails, buttons, shoes, and neon lights. In the 1960s, he began using neon tubes arranged geometrically into freestanding “cubes” as an essential element in his art, thus creating volume without mass. Antonakos fuses Byzantine tradition with the humanist geometry of ancient Greek stelae, seen through the eyes of a modernist influenced by the spiritual work of Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich. After constructing rooms, many of them deliberately left incomplete, and, having done neon installations for public transportation terminals, he has recently turned to creating sacred architectural art, such as the Chapel of the Heavenly Ladder, commissioned for the 1997 Venice Biennale. Based on the Greek cross in its ground plan, it explores liturgical and spiritual concerns. There, amidst a surfeit of noisy art competing for the visitor’s attention was Antonakos’s austere, quiet room of light and space, serving as a place of contemplation.

In this age of postmodernism, deconstruction, and semiological readings of cultural history in which art is too often reduced to mere “text”, it seems appropriate to examine works of art that are marked by individual authenticity. Authentic art, it must be remembered, is not a text, but has to do with inspiration and can be judged by many standards. Artists today pursue visions that, on the one hand, might seem traditional or, on the other hand, appear so outrageous as to be indecipherable to those of us who were trained to appreciate art that was designed to please the eye. Modern Odysseys provides another look at a varied terrain that has been much traveled, but little seen in a historical moment that tends to bury anything that does not conform to the standards of contemporary critical taste. Although some of the artists presented here have received acclaim and continue to do so today, too many have been relegated to an indistinct realm of the past. Modern Odysseys retrieves them in a context of an exploration of identity that is wholly contemporary.


Peter Selz

(1) George Seferis, On the Greek Style (Botton: Little, Brown, 1966) p.4.

(2) Kenneth Sawyer, Stamos (Paris: Editions George Fall, 1960), p.23.

(3) Michael Lekakis, quoted in Growings (New York: Foundation for Hellenic Culture, 1996), n.p.

(4) Peter Selz, 2 Pittori 2 Scultori (Venice: XXXI Biennale di Venezia, 1962), n.p.