Joseph Stapleton: Self-Portraits
Art historian Robert Solomon has contributed nearly 300 images of self-portrait drawings by Joseph Stapleton (1921-1994) to the Artstor Digital Library. Below, Solomon characterizes the collection:
Stapleton was one of about 400 artists who poured into New York City’s Tenth Street area after World War II. According to historian Irving Sandler, the main attraction was Willem de Kooning’s studio. Sandler referred to this group of artists born between 1920 and 1930 as Abstract Expressionism’s second generation.
After graduating summa cum laude at St. John’s University, Stapleton served as an intelligence officer and interpreter for General MacArthur in Tokyo. Upon his return to New York he joined his peers at the Art Students League, including Will Barnet, Carl Holty, Morris Kantor, Vaclav Vytlacil, Ivan Olinsky, and F.V. Dumond. He also attended meetings at Philip Pavia’s Eighth Street Club, imbibed at the infamous Cedar Tavern, and associated with Hans Hofmann, Elias Goldberg, James Brooks, Steve Wheeler, George McNeil, Friedel Dzubas, Theodoros Stamos, and many others of the first generation.
Stapleton had undergone rigorous training in life drawing during his grammar and high school years, notably at Pratt, earning multiple awards for portraiture and figure drawing. This early work caught the attention of the WPA’s Abram Lerner (later, the Hirshhorn Museum’s first director) who enrolled Stapleton in anatomy classes.
Despite his early proficiency, Stapleton, still in high school, sought to enhance his mark by immersing himself in Zen and Japanese calligraphy. In addition to studying Hiroshige, Sesshu, and Sung, Stapleton would spend his afternoons at the New York Public Library, entrenched in kaisho, gyosho, and sosho practice books. This self-directed research, combined with a growing reverence for Arshile Gorky, had a major impact on Stapleton’s extraordinary line work. Each of the self-portraits in the collection exhibits Stapleton’s highly intelligent mark-making process reflective of those long hours studying Japanese calligraphy.
Note the more than 100 calligraphic self-portraits in the collection. No other New York School artist worked in this manner. These powerful drawings were created during a difficult decade for Stapleton, following the tragic suicide of his close friend, German Expressionist Jochen Seidel in 1971. Friedel Dzubas had introduced the two in 1966 when Seidel was beginning to experiment with text; over the course of their friendship, Seidel had enlightened Stapleton to concrete poetry. Seidel’s death drove Stapleton to deeper alcohol dependency, and the resulting depression caused him to search for inward meaning. Two years later, the calligraphic self-portraits began to appear. They are represented in the permanent collections of the RISD Museum, the McMullen Museum at Boston College, and the Fairfield University Art Museum.
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