Corrections or additions?

This article by F.R. Rivera was prepared for the September 29,

2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

In His 80s & Painting Passionately into his 80’s

Octogenarian painter George Stave, who shows only rarely, is now

exhibiting recent work at the Morpeth Gallery in Hopewell. Born

between the two great wars, he is in the midst of an exceptional

career.

A chronic asthma condition exempted Stave from military service in the

1940s, when many of his contemporaries were being drafted; in 1940, at

17, he enrolled in the Chouinard Art Institute in his native Los

Angeles. Two years later he joined Paramount Studios in Hollywood – as

a painter, not an actor.

At Chouinard Stave learned "French Impressionist painting and

Florentine drawing;" and his gift flowered. There, he met a professor

who offered him his first teaching job. Teaching would also follow his

stint at Paramount, where he acquired scene-painting skills for a much

larger canvas than he had ever seen at Chouinard.

Decades later he put these skills to advantage in New York in the

worlds of theater and television. At Paramount, Stave, (pronounced

Sta-VAH by his Norwegian father) spent many hours in the picture

library. When I visited Stave at his home and studio in Cranbury he

showed me his own extraordinary library, which contains scores of

large format-art books dating back to his student days. It is a rare

day, he explains, when he does not spend an hour or two poring over

the world’s great painting contained in these books.

In the library, Stave talks of painters and paintings. He moves easily

among Vermeer, Zurbaran, and his durable favorite, Giorgio Morandi. He

is particularly proud of the several editions of Morandi, which he

eagerly shares with me. Listening to Stave "talk painting,"

spontaneously linking periods, styles, and influences with such

clarity and accuracy, I am reminded of a now-famous remark by Robert

Motherwell (Stave’s teacher and sometime mentor at Hunter College back

in the early 1950s.).

Motherwell said: "We painters must carry the entire history of art

around in our head." If that prescription was passed from teacher to

student, George Stave is still renewing it. When he is not studying,

Stave is painting – with an obstinate discipline that leaves him

little time for anything else. He concedes that his growing obsession

to paint "ever longer hours" has turned him into something of a

recluse.

"I paint several hours in every morning. After lunch and a short nap

to recharge the batteries, it’s back to the studio for a couple more

hours. I’d go longer if I could stand longer," he insists. His studio

time is so closely guarded that any non-painting activity has all but

vanished from his routine.

Even when he is at the wheel, the trip involves painting. His SUV,

equipped with a supply locker and portable easel, converts instantly

into a tailgate studio. Its rear doors open on whatever scene he

chooses to paint.

He has not traveled extensively since he took a trip to Haiti with his

daughter in 1985, although he acknowledges that travel is one of

life’s enduring pleasures. "There is so much to see! Not to mention

wonderful things to eat and drink." His travels took him far from

Salinas, California, where he first moved with his parents in 1933 and

where he went to high school.

Between Salinas and Cranbury, this painter’s journey has included

lengthy stays in Paris, New York, and India. In 1951 Stave spent a

year traveling in India on a Fulbright grant. It seems clear that the

highly-saturated reds and saffrons committed to memory from that

period have resurfaced in his still-life paintings more than 50 years

later.

From faraway places and less exotic locales nearer home, Stave has

scavenged and collected. His painting preparation begins at the pawn

shop or flea market when he selects his subjects, making the first of

a thousand decisions to follow. Stave knows instinctively which

objects to carry home and which to leave behind. Most of are small

enough to hold in the hand.

The artist has hundreds of objects – spice tins, bottles, boxes,

shells, porcelain, figurines, coins, medals, and beads. When they are

not packed away in one of several cabinets in his studio they are

likely getting pulled for audition in one of his many still-life

arrangements.

A more recent development is the use of garments, posed as an artist

would pose a model. Stave also paints landscapes and interiors, but

like Morandi, the painter he most admires, he is at his most

persuasive in still-life, where the viewer can experience the

pleasures of a double-read: alternately the celebration of materials

exquisitely painted and an abstract map of color and shape.

Stave is a colorist with a penchant for analogous harmonies – families

of red, for example, calibrated over a range of warm and cool. He is

equally comfortable with dissonance, as in a palette of chrome yellow,

colbalt-violet, and ivory. He loves the loaded brush, particularly

when it delivers luscious patches of impasto. Whether it’s an

imprinted box of cologne, as in the work entitled "Jardin D’ Amour,"

or a floral applique, as in the painting "Etsuko Nakajima’s’ Kimono,"

he creates surface ornamentation to delight the eye.

Stave’s paint handling exhibits the confidence of a painter at the top

of his game. He captures those half-notes between the opulence of

light and of fugitive shadow. It all falls into place so lovingly and

it so indulges the senses that a little voice inside calls out "Let’s

have just one more little look."

A still-life is like the smallest of rooms. It is a space invitingly

reachable, summoning the viewer in to share it and then closing the

door behind. This sense of intimacy is heightened when the subject is

wearing apparel, a kimono, robe, or skirt that belongs to a person

unknown. They lie motionless, their beauty paused in eternal readiness

for the master or mistress.

When his wife, an antique dealer, brought home a Chinese skirt, Stave

knew he had to paint it. That first painting led to other garment

paintings. For the moment at least, the attention once lavished on the

architecture of boxes and tins shifted to undulating folds and

decorative piping. Stave, ever self-analytical, worries that taking a

beautiful work of art such as a kimono and turning it into another

work of art, a painting, is somehow misdirected. Art history offers

numerous examples to the contrary. The same Velazquez who painted

Queen Mariana and the Infanta Margarita devoted no less of his genius

to their courtly gowns.

Stave’s long career as a painter has put him the company of many

artists whose names one would recognize. Given his modest demeanor he

scrupulously avoids dropping them and attributes his acquaintance with

Motherwell, Saul Bellow, James Baldwin, Kenzo Okado, and Larry Rivers

to having been in the right place at the right time.

Stave is a man of character and intelligence. None of his personal

qualities, however, is more important than his discipline. Without it

we would have none of these extraordinary paintings.

– F. R. Rivera

George Stave, Recent Work Morpeth Gallery, 43 West Broad

Street, Hopewell; 609-333-9393; gallery hours: Tuesday through

Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; through October 16.


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