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Joseph F. Stapleton
American Second Generation Abstract Expressionism
(1921 – 1994)
Joseph Stapleton (1921-1994)
Copyright Robert Solomon January 27, 2020
(Excerpted from the Joseph Stapleton biography manuscript)
Joseph Stapleton was born in Brooklyn on March 20, 1921. Growing up in the Flatlands section of the city, he was three years old when he began drawing. While attending grammar school at PS11 he was excused one day a week to attend a special art program conducted by Pratt instructors. By the time he entered Tilden High School in 1935, he was already earning prizes for his portraiture and figure drawing. Abram Lerner, who was assisting with an extensive, multiyear WPA auditorium mural at Tilden, noticed Stapleton’s work and encouraged him to join Lerner at a free weeknight WPA anatomy drawing class where they attended together for three years.
Stapleton spent his weekday afternoons after school at the New York Public Library immersing himself in kaisho, gyosho and sosho calligraphy, and drawing insects and biological and medical subjects. Graduating from Tilden with multiple honors including a St. John’s University scholarship, he enrolled at St. John’s on a dual track of Romance Languages and Sociology and earned frequent recognition for his coursework. He also took courses at the New School for Social Research and at Brooklyn College.
Stapleton spent his final semester in a three-month V-7 Navy College Training Program at the US Navy Reserve Midshipmen School at Columbia University and graduated summa cum laude from St. John’s in May 1943. Among his awards was the Moore Memorial Medal for highest average in religion class. Following the completion of his V-7 program, Stapleton entered active duty in the Pacific theater where he served as a senior intelligence officer and interpreter for General Douglas MacArthur in Tokyo where, among other duties, he published leaflets in Japanese for psychological warfare. While there, he continued to draw, capturing military scenery and portraiture.
Returning to New York in 1946, Stapleton was already considered an accomplished portrait artist. Along with many of his peers he enrolled at the Art Students League where, through 1952, he studied with Will Barnet, Carl Holty, Vaclav Vytlacil and others. He became deeply interested in jazz, and his admiration of Picasso, Matta, and especially Gorky began to show up in his work.
In 1950, Stapleton’s ASL instructor Vaclav Vytlacil, a New York area juror for the Met’s American Painting Today exhibition, selected one of Stapleton’s paintings for inclusion. At that time, his paintings were heavily influenced by Gorky. In 1951 Stapleton would begin a drawing series relying heavily on erasure. This series continued into the early 1980s. More than 250 of these erasure drawings have survived.
Over the next 20 years Stapleton’s paintings and drawings were included in a number of group exhibitions. His first solo exhibition was at the Carlen Gallery in Philadelphia in May 1955. Here he met renowned Philadelphia collector and art philanthropist Bernard Davis, Arshille Gorky’s first benefactor. Davis, who in 1959 founded the Miami Museum of Modern Art, purchased eighteen Stapleton drawings and paintings from the Carlen Gallery exhibition. This connection between Stapleton and Davis would last until Davis’ unexpected death in 1971.
In 1957, Stapleton, along with his close friend Knox Martin, and painter/sculptor Shirley West, were hired by Davis to co-direct his Avant Garde Gallery in a building he owned at Lexington and 30th Street. In addition to solo exhibitions for these three, other gallery artists included Elias Goldberg, Reuben Nakian and Julias Hatofsky. The gallery was not successful and closed in 1959. Stapleton applied for a Fulbright in 1958 to study in France, however his application was denied in the final round. That same year, Martin introduced Stapleton to his friend Charlie Egan. Egan liked Stapleton’s drawings and paintings and offered him a solo exhibition, which would occur in September 1963.
Stapleton’s father’s died in March 1961. A month later Bernard Davis offered Stapleton a solo exhibition at his newly founded Miami Museum of Art. However, Stapleton was preoccupied and never followed up with Davis’s offer. Davis offered an exhibition again in late June. However, Stapleton was now preoccupied with his mother who was undergoing treatment for a series of heart attacks. She succumbed in October 1962, and his time was now consumed by family matters. That November, after receiving a few of his drawings, Davis offered Stapleton a drawings exhibition. Stapleton again did not respond to the offer. He was now working on new paintings and drawings for his Egan show. As Davis used his museum not only to showcase his collection but also to jumpstart a number of artists’ careers including Duane Hanson, this represented a lost opportunity in Stapleton’s career.
In 1966, Friedel Dzubas introduced Stapleton to German Expressionist Jochen Seidel, who had moved to New York from Germany in 1961 to teach at Fairleigh Dickinson. The two became close friends. Seidel’s studio shared an open door with the studio of Mel and Jo Roman, also friends of Stapleton. Over the next couple of years, Seidel became unbalanced and suicidal and Stapleton and the Romans were forced to play caretaker roles. During this period, Seidel introduced Stapleton the concept of concrete poetry.
Stapleton began teaching at Pratt in 1971. Seidel succeeded in committing suicide in May 1971. Following Seidel’s death, Stapleton’s drinking became excessive, leading to a deeper depression. In 1973, Vaclav Vytlacil became too ill to continue teaching his premier Art Students League class and recommended that Stapleton take over as instructor. He would begin his calligraphic self-portraits in 1973 and would continue drawing them for ten years. The body of over 350 self-portraits in the collection (beginning in 1954 and extending to the late 1980s) includes over 100 calligraphic works. All of the self-portraits from the mid-1960s on reflect Stapleton’s exquisite line for which he gained much respect.
In late 1973, Radio Free Europe analyst Arthur Bresslauer began representing Stapleton’s work in Europe. Bresslauer was already exhibiting works by Knox Martin and Elias Goldberg in his Munich gallery. Bresslauer sold a number of Stapleton drawings and paintings over the next 15 years.
While Stapleton would also teach at the Art Students League’s Woodstock summer school for several summers, he would eventually lose the premier Vytlacil class as he was constantly showing up inebriated. Instead he was relegated to teaching on Saturdays. He would also be denied tenure at Pratt. Stapleton taught at Pratt through 1985, and at the Art Students League into the early 1990s.
Over the next two decades, with little income other than from his part time salaries from Pratt and ASL, and sporadic sales, Stapleton was forced to live a bohemian life. From existing sales records, the author estimates Stapleton earned less than $25,000 from his work during his professional career. While he eventually became reclusive and lost connection with many of his friends and peers, they thought him to be one of the most intelligent artists of the Second Generation.
Stapleton died on January 28, 1994. Stapleton’s obituary indicates the cause of death as emphysema. However, the impact of Stapleton’s alcoholism cannot be ruled out as a contributing factor.
American Painting Today 1950, Metropolitan Museum of Art, December 1950
Art Students League Diamond Jubilee Exhibition, Metropolitan Museum of Art, March 1951
Proteges, Associated American Artists Gallery, NY, September 1951
Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts Annual, Philadelphia PA, 1952
All Graphic Exhibition, Gallery East, NY, December 1953
Annual Exhibition Brooklyn Society of Artists, Brooklyn Museum (Stapleton was a member of BSA, probably 1950s-60s)
Five Painters, Perdalma Gallery NY, December 1955
Ester Bear Gallery, Santa Barbara CA, 1963
Traveling exhibition, MacKinley Helm Collection, 1963
Charles Egan curated exhibition, Washington D.C., Fall 1963
(Stapleton, Knox Martin, Reuben Nakian – Corcoran is mentioned in Stapleton Papers)
Gallery of International Modern Art, Calcutta India, November 1971
Annual Art Festival Community Synagogue, Sands Point, NY April 1973
Pratt Instructors Drawings Exhibition Pratt Institute, October 1974
Metropolitan Museum of Art Employee’s Association Art & Craft Exhibition Nov. 1975
Arthur Bressler Gallery, Munich Germany 1970s-1980s
Landmark Gallery, Summer 1975
Vaclav Vytlacil: Paintings & Constructions from 1930 (with Bourgeois, Ponce De Leon, Rauschenberg, Rosenquist, Smith, Stapleton, Stefanelli, Twombley, etc.), Montclair Art Museum, Montclair NJ, November 1975
First Annual Art Exhibition C.J. Jung Foundation Center, NY February 1975
Six Artists Jankovsky Gallery, NY October 1976
Womanart Gallery, NY 1978 (with Shirley West)
Art for Public Places Saginaw Art Museum, Saginaw, MI March 1979
Survival of the Fittest: Works on Paper, Ingber Gallery, NY, September 1985
Knox Martin and Joe Stapleton, Art Students League, October 1994
Philadelphia Print Club (have not yet confirmed a date)
Carlen Galleries, Philadelphia PA, May 1955
National Philatelic Museum, Philadelphia PA, 1955
Hofstra College Museum of Art, 1956
Avant Garde Gallery NY, December 1957
Charles Egan Gallery, September 1963
RISD Museum, Providence RI
Tufts University, Medford MA
McMullen Museum, Boston MA
Fairfield University Art Museum, Fairfield CT
Bernard Davis Collection, Philadelphia PA
The Chrysler Museum, Norfolk VA
Birla Institute, Calcutta
Pratt Institute, NY
Art Students League, NY
Numerous private collections
Elaine Gottlieb, Arts Magazine, January 1958 (Stapleton solo exhibition, Avant Garde Gallery)
The infinite number of linked shapes of which these paintings are constructed have an almost unconsciously Disneyish effect; yet they are also tortuous and bulbous life forms, forms floating, flaring, flying; they seem to exist in a universe of their own, to explode out of their own chaos into shapes attempting a resemblance of life. These are very personal paintings; in Breckenridge Landscape the artist has typified his attitude toward Texas, where the people themselves, he states, are “like cactus.” Flashing Red, in which the flaming, tormented line tries to break through an overwhelming whiteness, and an unnamed canvas consisting of yellow ocher [sic], red, black and white swirling, centrifugal, rounded forms, are especially successful.
Brian O’Doherty, New York Times, September 14, 1963 (Stapleton solo exhibition, Charles Egan Gallery)
Stapleton is showing concentrated drawings of definite interest. The drawings, nameless and preserving a similar reticence about their subject matter, send pointed, thorny forms windmilling around with the help of feathery strokes. These forms, densely psychological, are jointed in ways that suggest human and animal life...
John Gruen, New York Times, September 15, 1963 (Stapleton solo exhibition, Charles Egan Gallery)
The paintings and drawings by Joe Stapleton at the Egan Gallery showed both quality and distinction...steeped in the vocabulary of Gorky and Matta, an emotional force and a deep sense of dedication (felt particularly in the drawings) give his abstractions true solidity.
Jonathan Ribner, Associate Professor, 19th Century and Modern Art, Boston University, March 2018
Characterized by incisive, economical contour, Stapleton’s impressive drawings deserve to be more widely known. Within the narrow confines of a repeated self-portrait format, Stapleton was able to demonstrate a surprising variety of touch...
Artful Tradition: Comfort and Wit Distinguish and East Side Apartment. Architectural Digest, November 1987, p200 Right: Dressing the Bride, an oil by Max Weber, hangs above the fireplace, and above the sofa is The Green Child by Joseph Stapleton…
Lawrence Campbell. Elias Goldberg Paints a Picture. Art News, November 1963, p66
Although he may spend weeks “in solitary,” occupied with his paintings… [Elias Goldberg] is not isolated. His friends include several avant-garde painters, all of them younger than himself. Knox Martin lives in the apartment house next door. He sees him and Joseph Stapleton and Julius Hatofsky and Peter Golfinopoulos…