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
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
"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
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
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
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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