GREEK ARTISTS IN NEW YORK
Essay by Dr. Irving Sandler
The sixteen artists in Ithaca Regained: Greek Artists in New York at the Kouros Gallery and the Greek Consulate are the heirs of a generation of illustrious painters and sculptors, among them William Baziotes, Theodoros Stamos, Michael Lekakis, George Constant, Theo Hios, Aristodimos Kaldis, Polygnotos Vagis and Jean Xceron, artists who for more than a half-century made vital contributions to American and international modernist art.
All sixteen artists are Greek-Americans and/or Greeks who have lived in New York for significant periods of time. They are familiar with this multi-cultural immigrants city without equal, and have assimilated Americas modernist artistic culture. This is clearly revealed in Ithaca Regained, but the show also calls attention to the Greek cultural consciousness of the participants their direct and indirect experiences and memories of Greece. Consequently the show underscores the interplay between the artists American experience and their Greek heritage.
What is immediately striking is the variety of the art works on view at the Kouros Gallery and the Greek Consulate. Given the diversity of styles, as Peter Pappas has suggested, the only connection between Greek artists is their Greek surnames. But Pappas recognized that this quip was too facile, and he concluded: What is important is that [Greek and Greek-American artists generally] reveal in their work pluralities of meaning [and] a universe of sentiment, aesthetic impulse, knowledge (or, to use the more precise Greek term, gnosis) and culture that is somehow linked with, or, more accurately, deeply embedded in (various notions of) Greece.1
The artists in Ithaca Regained acknowledge the influence of their heritage, but Greek culture and history, not to mention its landscape, have been so rich and multifaceted over the millennia, that the participants have been inspired, knowingly or inadvertently, and to a greater or lesser degree, by different aspects of their Hellenic legacy. What makes their work even more varied is that they are all unique individuals with different psychological makeups, personal experiences, and above all, individual artistic visions.
A number of the artists refer to the figure in classical sculpture, among them Lucas Samaras, who has used his own body as a contemporary stand-in for classical subjects. Samaras has also made boxes, many of which are filled with knives, razors, and the like which call to mind the tragic Greek Civil War and other twentieth century disasters, but at the same time they refer to Byzantine reliquaries.
In contrast, Steve Gianakoss naked cartoon characters and Philip Tsiarass glass and bronze heads with a revolver embedded in them are ironic send-ups of both classical figures and popular culture. In another vein, Morfy Gikass plaster with bronze patina throne is an homage to a contemporary Greek diva. At various periods in their careers, Lynda Benglis and Chryssa have been inspired by Greek myths; Stephen Antonakos and Thomas Chimes, by Greek-Orthodox icons; and Alexandra Athanassiades by archaic and medieval Greek artifacts and sculpture. The geometric abstractions of Nassos Daphnis, Christos Gianakos, and Sophia Vari are distinctly individual but all embody the formal clarity of Classical art. In a number of her public works, Athena Tacha has combined architectural motifs and natural elements to evoke temple complexes such as Olympia. In their sculptures, Antonakos and Chryssa both have used neon light as the modern counterpart of brilliant Aegean light. Mark Hadjipaterass images, culled from diverse civilizations, distill the cross-cultural experience of Greek immigrants throughout history. Both George Negroponte and Nicholas Vlavianos have acknowledged the importance of their Hellenic background but there are no direct references to it in their work in this exhibition.
The artists in Ithaca Regained have all been influenced by American art, which they have interpreted in their own unique ways. In an American context, Antonakos and Chryssa, for example, have created an innovative sculpture from neon tubing, a relatively modern material, which is visible everywhere in our city streets. Bengliss stainless steel and aluminum reliefs evoke costume jewelry and take on a Feminist significance. Negropontes painting continues the tradition of Abstract Expressionism; Daphnis and Christos Gianakos, Hard-Edge Abstraction; Steve Gianakos, Pop Art; Vlavianos, Duchampian Readymades; and Tacha, Public Art.
I have observed elsewhere that the situation in contemporary art is one of total pluralism. Unlike past decades, when one or two artistic isms commanded relatively more art-world attention than others, today every tendency receives more or less equal attention, although certain artists stand out individually. The pluralist condition is also international, or rather transnational. As never before, artists have been moving from country to country, often creating their works where they happen to be at the moment. Consequently, in its heterogeneity, the ensemble of the work in Ithaca Regained is peculiarly contemporary. Pluralism is a kind of artistic egalitarianism, which may be congenial to artists whose ancestors invented democracy. Even though Ithaca Regained does not present any hard and fast conclusions about the interaction of the American experience and Greek heritage of the sixteen artists exhibited, it demonstrates that this cross pollination has yielded work of rich variety and high quality.
1. Peter Pappas, Another Way of Being Art as Emigration, Modern Odysses: Greek American Artists of the 20th Century (New York: Queens Museum of Art, 1999), p. 11. Pappas was writing about the artists in Modern Odysseys but his comments apply to Ithaca Regained, as well.