JOSEPH STELLA (1877-1946) is remembered mainly as a futurist painter who was one of the trailblazers in the pivotal 1913 New York Armory Show. But an absorbing exhibition at the National Museum of American Art demonstrates that Stella not only marched to the beat of a different drummer, he was a one-man band.
Sixty drawings, selected by curator Joann Moser after six years of research, show Stella to be a master draftsman and a consummate craftsman. Largely self-taught, he became a virtuoso of such mediums as charcoal, collage, gouache, pastel, pencil, silverpoint and watercolor.
Stella's range of styles was so great that some of the works would slide easily into exhibitions as various as abstract art or the Ashcan School. Some of his flower drawings are wildly impressionistic, while others are as cool and precise as botanical illustrations. Some of his classical studies of the heads of old men wouldn't look out of place in a gallery of Renaissance drawings.
Son of a fairly well-to-do southern Italian family, Stella was classically educated before immigrating to America in 1896. He studied medicine in New York for a couple of years before yielding to his love of art, and in a relatively few years became a commercial and then a critical success. For over a decade Stella stood in the first rank of the American modern art movement. "Battle of Lights, Coney Island" (1913) and "Brooklyn Bridge" (1919) were immediately recognized as landmark works.
He began to take increasingly lengthy sojourns in Europe, culminating in a six-year absence from which he returned in 1935 to discover that out of sight had become out of mind. Stella was out of money also, and found himself standing on line for Works Progress Administration paychecks.
He also was out of sympathy with the militant regional schools and nationalistic stylistic movements into which futurism had splintered. And for that matter, Stella never had been all that enthusiastic a futurist. A true artist, he had said early on, "must paint sincerely without trying to please the Futurists or the Post-Impressionists or to displease the Academicians."
That he followed his own precept is proved by the astonishingly diverse body of work Stella produced. The drawings don't seem to be experiments in technique, they seem to be techniques Stella learned in order to execute scenes already composed in his mind's eye. His style suits his subject rather than the other way round, and visitors who are "familiar" with Stella through his futurist works are in for a shock. The exhibit looks like a miscellaneous collection of drawings by a whole bunch of very fine artists; you'd never guess that they're all by one person, and if asked to name that person, Stella is probably just about the last guy you'd pick.
Curator Moser calls the drawings "visual poetry," pointing out that Stella was an aspiring poet and an intense admirer of Walt Whitman and Edgar Allen Poe. We and he are lucky that Stella stayed with the visual arts, because language was not his medium: "Meanwhile the verse of Walt Whitman . . . soaring above as a white aeroplane of Help . . . was leading the sails of my Art through the blue vastity of Phantasy . . . " His artworks make a lot more sense if you ignore his explanations of them.
And they make endless delight. His "Sleeping Cat" (undated) is a heavily outlined, softly filled-in pencil sketch that purrs; his "Old Man Sleeping in a Field" (1908) is a finished work in gouache and chalk in which you can almost smell the parched, close-cropped grass and the vagrant's sour reek.
"Goldfish" (c. 1919-22) is a pastel masterpiece that's virtually unknown. Moser found it stored away in the Watkins Collection at American University, bright, fresh and fantastic as the day it left Stella's studio.
The kaleidoscopic variety of Stella's work tends to obscure the continuity of his artistic conviction, but a pair of portraits done 30 years apart powerfully demonstrate both Stella's solid center and his endless stylistic changes. The starkly realistic and highly finished charcoal portrait "Miners" (c. 1908) and the powerful pastel sketch "Three Miners" (c. 1938) have nothing and everything in common. While they could hardly be more different in composition and execution, both are absolutely faithful to their subjects.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the exhibit is the collages. Stella was thought to have only dabbled in collage, but Moser found scores of them, most of which were found in his studio after his death and remain, unsold, in the inventory of his last dealer. Stella apparently got out his collages from time to time to go over them. Ones that he particularly liked he would sign for a second time. At least one bears three signatures.
VISUAL POETRY: The Drawings of Joseph Stella. Through Nov. 12 at the National Museum of American Art. Open 10 to 5:30 daily. Metro: Gallery Place, Ninth Street exit.