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Cosmological Battle

Not on view

Cosmological Battle

Artist: Theodoros Stamos (American, 1922 - 1997)

Date: 1945
Medium: Oil on masonite
Dimensions:
Framed: 39 1/4 x 33 1/4 x 3 1/2in. (99.7 x 84.5 x 8.9cm)
Overall: 30 x 23 7/8in. (76.2 x 60.6cm)
Signed: Lower left: 'T Stamos '45 N.Y.C.'
Credit Line: Edward W. Root Bequest
Object number: 57.244
Text Entries

Stamos’s early work embodies his personal memories of nature, his admiration for American artists whose works express a pantheistic unity with their surroundings, and his knowledge of books and museums dealing with the natural sciences. He synthesized these interests and experiences into a personal abstract expression of his total communion with nature.

In his first one-man exhibition in 1943, he exhibited semi-figurative oils and pastels of seaforms, shells, and rocks from the Atlantic Ocean. Reflecting on these works in 1957, he stated that his objective was “to free the mystery of the stone’s inner life.”(1) In order to communicate the mysteries of nature, he had to first find and then participate in the inner life of natural phenomena. One place to study nature’s secrets was the Museum of Natural History in New York City. There Stamos saw scientific displays of the natural world and how earlier cultures related to their dramatic natural surroundings. He could also study early man’s propitiation of nature and discover how he himself fit in with all living things.

In his early work Stamos moved from a simple penetration into the geologic layers of the earth—similar to delving into the levels of human consciousness—to a contact with nature’s cycles of birth and death, analagous to the motions and emotions of man. His personal discoveries in Blue Fish of 1944. and Seedling of 1945 (both Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute Museum of Art) seem to culminate in Cosmological Battle of 1945. In Blue Fish Stamos focused on a strip of beach where a fish skeleton and conch shell lay side by side. Encircling these two forms is a heavy line as if drawn in the sand. In this painting Stamos has cropped the space so as to suggest that the shell and skeleton may also be embedded in the sandy floor of the ocean. His evocation of two levels of space, one above the horizon and one below sea level, corresponded to the outward and inward directions of the human mind. When he painted Seedling the following year, he indicated a concern for the natural powers of regeneration. Superimposed on a fish-like skeleton is a circular form, orb, or embryo, quivering with wavy lines and encompassing a nucleus, which suggests an animal or plant form spiraling from the deep toward the crust of the earth. By the time he painted Cosmological Battle in 1945, he allowed the land and marine creatures to share the same space-time relationships. Whether emerging from the eroded surfaces of a moonlit cave, adrift in the murky atmosphere, or floating along the muddied shoreline, the two central orbs (one with interlocking conch shell, hook-beaked bird, and embryo juxtaposed with a three-pronged insect or crayfish; and the other with a single imprint of a large four-toed creature) abut and overlap each other in a potential eruption. He used primordial forms suggesting both the birth and death cycles of nature. Stamos originally called this painting Formling. Between the time he painted this work, perhaps in the late spring of 1945, and its display in a group show at the Betty Parsons Gallery in September of 1946, someone, perhaps Stamos, changed the title to Cosmological Battle.(2) Betty Parsons had opened her new gallery, which featured the work of Stamos along with such artists as Pollock, Newman, Rothko, and Still. Two of these artists, Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb, had clearly stated in a 1943 WNYC radio interview that they felt they could express the violent conditions of their age, the world at war, in a universal language rather than through social realist-styled painting. “All primitive expression reveals the constant awareness of powerful forces, the immediate presence of terror and fear, a recognition and acceptance of the brutality of the natural world.”(3) In August 1945, the most potent source of power in the modern world was unleashed and labeled by the press as “the cosmic bomb.”(4) In renaming his painting, Stamos may have been influenced by the awesome power and brutal aspects of nature’s atomic forces.

 

Notes

1. Barbara Cavaliere, “Theodoros Stamos in Perspective,” Arts, vol. 52, no. 4 (December 1977), p. 105. Barbara Cavaliere has written extensively on Stamos.

2. From the gallery labeling on several related works described here, it is clear that the title was changed. First, written in crayon on the back of the painting (as are the titles on almost all of the seventeen paintings by Stamos in the collection of the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute Museum of Art’s collection) is the inscription “Formling /Theodoros Stamos / 146 5 Ave. / N.Y.C. / 1945.“ The Betty Parsons Gallery label has the title Hibernation crossed out (see below). Mr. Edward Root’s characteristic red and white label has “o-60 / Cosmological Battle. ” In 1945 Stamos was in a group exhibition at the Mortimer Brandt Gallery and again in a two-man show in April of 1946. Betty Parsons was in charge of the contemporary section of the Mortimer Brandt Gallery, but by September of 1946 she had opened her own gallery with a group exhibition that included the work of Stamos. In 1946 Mr. Edward Root, Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute’s benefactor and Stamos’s patron, purchased Blue Fish of 1944; Movement of Plants, dated September 1945; and Cosmological Battle of 1945 from Betty Parsons (all Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute Museum of Art). It is likely that Cosmological Battle was in the Mortimer Brandt Gallery before being transferred to the newly- founded Betty Parsons Gallery. It is clearly evident that some titles were changed at the Brandt Gallery. For example, the title Formling is similar to another work called Seedling of 1945 (Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute Museum of Art), which has a Mortimer Brandt Gallery label with the title Vortex and Spiral. Root purchased Seedling in 1949 from Betty Parsons, but his own label on the back of the painting lists the title of the work as The Embryo. The title Hibernation, which was crossed out on the Betty Parsons label on Cosmological Battle, was used on another work of 1947, which is now at the Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Mass. The label on the back of the Addison painting reads: “Hibernation / 1947 /Theodorus Stamos / 237 W. 26th /N.Y.C.” It has part of a Mortimer Brandt Gallery label with the title Cosmological Battle, as well as two Root labels: one with only “o-6o / Cosmo” and one with “o—84 / Hibernation.” It would appear that around 1945-46 the titles Cosmological Battle and Hibernation were both in use. In addition to Stamos, Parsons, and Root, another person who may have played a role in the proposed link of title changes was Mark Rothko. In April of 1946 Rothko exhibited watercolors at the Mortimer Brandt Gallery using titles that referred to myths and Jungian psychology.

3. Jeffrey Weiss, along with such other scholars as Stephen Polcari, has discussed the relationship of science and primitivism in Abstract Expressionism. For Rothko and Gottlieb’s statement, see Jeffrey Weiss, “Science and Primitivism: A Fearful Symmetry in the Early New York School,” Arts, vol. 57, no. 7 (March 1983), p. 85.

4. Ibid. Weiss discusses Cosmological Battle in relation to the atomic bomb.

 

Copyright
© Estate of Theodoros Stamos / Hollis Taggart Galleries, New York, NY.