The sky was luminous, hazy, and I was standing outside my hotel in Vermillion, South Dakota, looking out onto a landscape so flat that it might have been unrolled for inspection, when J. Steven Manolis joined me. He was born in Vermillion, and we were off to the opening of the ambitious survey of his paintings at the University of South Dakota, which is located there, and which he had attended. So, this cannot have been an unfamiliar view. But he remained there alongside me for a while, gazing.
“The light is different here,” he said.
That’s what you observe in the Mediterranean. But the Midwest? How so?
“In the Heartland, you are thousands of miles away from any large body of water,” he said. “The water droplets that are in the air on the coast are non-existent. That’s just an opinion. But the midday light on the prairie is totally intense.”
An artist’s exact eye, so this was an appropriate beginning for a significant day in the art career of J. Steven Manolis. It has been a remarkable career, and one which has occurred in a period when the art world’s venerable guild system, if it has not quite gone into melt, certainly is more fluid, more receptive, when talent arrives by an untraditional route. A long route, too. As a boy, Manolis was set on becoming an artist, but he had respected the prohibition of his grandfather, a Greek immigrant, to whom all artists were Communists, so he went into business instead. He joined Salomon Brothers in 1972 when he was twenty-four, and in due course created and pioneered multiple instruments for monetizing mortgages, an act of business creativity so radical that he likens it to the invention of the atom bomb. How so? Today the global securitized residential and commercial mortgage markets are trillions in size and the largest fixed income sector in the world.
At thirty-three, Manolis became a General Partner, the youngest ever at Salomon. His art hunger had sprung back to life and was fed by two entities he calls his Guardians. Has he seen them? “Dimly.” Skeptics should be aware that there is a robust art world tradition of fruitful interaction with such forces; that Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian were Theosophists; and that William Blake regularly channeled Voltaire and John Milton.
Manolis was heading up a division at Salomon, but the artist’s call had become too strong to ignore. A meeting with Wolf Kahn, the landscape painter, was instrumental, and Manolis resigned at the age of forty-two, to make a new beginning. Several, in fact. Now wealthy, he resolved both to look for business situations and to explore the art world, a project that came to involve collecting and a philanthropic position on the advisory board, ultimately Chairman, of the National Academy of Arts on Fifth Avenue, New York. Most urgently, though, he needed to make art. A decade of regular sketching trips with Kahn followed; his mentor working in pastel, he in watercolor. Producing both in the field and in his studio, and making artworks of considerable size, he came to handle this medium, so under-used in the contemporary art world, with the controlled urgency it requires. So, he resolved to tackle another medium—acrylics—with the ultra-focus that he had brought to Salomon. “I learned to mix acrylics anywhere from twenty parts water to one part paint, to one part water to one part paint, to pure acrylics right out of the tube,” he said. “Oh my God, it flows. Its transparency, its energy, it’s just like watercolor. Energy is conveyed with movement and action. Not every drop. There’s a contrast between the stuff that moves and doesn’t move that gives diversity and energy to a painting.” Arguably he has developed a multi-faceted approach that once you become familiar with it—and all its variants—you realize that incredibly it has become his own unique signature style in three short years.
Manolis didn’t take his work public until 2010. And it wasn’t that public, just putting a piece into a group show in Easthampton, Long Island, and not even telling close friends. His was the only work to sell and it went for just $6,000, small change at Salomon, but at such a show, a triumph. “I felt like an astronaut must have when he first stepped on the moon. Real, indescribable joy and exhilaration. Because at that moment, I absolutely knew it was going to happen. And happen big time!” he said. He was sixty-five, and his goal was to spend the rest of his life painting, seven days a week, and that he intended to become one of the leading abstract painters of the time.
The world Manolis had abandoned, the business world, has its protocols, its rituals, its codes, but so does the art world, and, as he soon discovered, the bohemian code is one of the strictest. “How can a businessman make art? I keep on being asked that,” he said. Most successful artists conduct their careers in a businesslike fashion, of course. Indeed, an analysis of the practice of those pragmatic visionaries, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, was published by the Harvard Business School. But the business side of the art life usually is the great unspoken. That great artist, the late Dennis Oppenheim, told me, “If you give an artist sodium pentothal, you know, truth serum, before you talk to him, and you ask why do you make your art? Most would say for the money.” It’s a subject J. Steven Manolis addresses openly and gladly. Is that the whole truth? Of course not. That truth is in the work that currently hangs in the Warren M. Lee Center for the Fine Arts at USD.
Four large red paintings confront you from the far wall as you enter the large gallery: the giant REDWORLD (Self-Portrait) Quadriptych (12 x 16 ft.); four paintings hung as one. Manolis much admired Hans Hofmann, a formidable teacher in the Ab Ex period, who insisted it was time for artists to paint what they felt, not what they saw. “People would ask him how that could be done?” Manolis said. “He would say, how nature does it. Through color.”
Manolis has focused on pure abstraction from the beginning of his mature career. This has been relatively short, a few years, so many will be fresh to his work. Which, of course, makes it question time. Just about any figurative painting offers clues, both as to the artist’s skills—can this person actually draw—and to the singularity of his or her project. You have way less to go on when you look at a competently executed abstraction and are making up your mind whether it (A) belongs in a hotel lobby, (B) is plausible, modish, but unfelt, or, (C), is headed for an exemplary wall. The case for (C) is made by the energy that the work both communicates and generates. And not just slap-happy energy, either. Mark Rothko said, “There’s no such thing as good painting about nothing.”
Artists do not necessarily zip their lips when discussing that inner something. Rothko also wrote “I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on.” Ad Reinhardt claimed that he was making “the last paintings.” Barnett Newman told Harold Rosenberg that if his work was “read properly, it would mean the end of all state capitalism and totalitarianism.”
J. Steven Manolis does not indulge in such scenery-chewing, but his Tolerance, a black and white triptych in the show, was an appalled reaction after the American journalist James Foley was beheaded on YouTube by ISIS in 2014. It is one in a series of seventeen black-and-whites painted over three months to give form to his response to the ugly horror. “It was renamed Tolerance…BWG by my stepdaughter,” he says. “Its original title was Black, White and Gray. Because I think we all have to live in black, white and gray. You can’t live in pure black and white.” Indeed, the addition of ‘Tolerance’ to the title gave the series a fabulous, direct meaning honoring the Black, White and Gray concept.
The thinking and feeling that enter the works of Manolis are as varied as they are intense. Splash (Pink Sands), a double canvas in the show, distills his experience of the most beautiful beach he has encountered: Pink Sands, North Bermuda. It’s part of his Splash series of 2016, a very successful series for him in every way, which he painted at a time when he was contemplating the difference between human energy and energy elsewhere in the natural world. It’s only humans, not animals, that have mastered the optimization of that energy, and that’s why they are so special and rule the earth. And, he saw in each building and breaking wave a positive metaphor. “In my Splash series, that’s what I think about: that moment in time when a wave breaks and potential energy gets transformed to real energy.”
That same year, Manolis spent nine months painting in Key West. “I was analyzing two different things,” he said. “The water and the sunset. Both of those change daily. There’s no fauna and no flora on the seabed there. It’s just white sand, so it reflects the atmosphere. And if the atmosphere changes, the color of the water changes. So, every five or ten minutes the water is completely different. I’ve never seen a place that capricious.”
Manolis also visited the museum in Key West dedicated to the bird painter, John James Audubon, because the difference between male and female coloration in the natural world is a source material of his. He was enchanted by a painting of a flamingo. It was pink. “Today, it’s a kind of salmon orange,” he said. “We know the water changed. We know that. So, I did a whole series of paintings in which over the surface of the work I went from pink to orange as the predominant color. They sold very well. Because the two colors together were really beautiful.
Manolis has several ways of constructing a picture. They include splashes and pours that reference the first-generation Ab Exes; all-over pigmentation, his glazes and the small set of highly personal symbols, that he first used in the Tolerance series. The piece in the REDWORLD series included in the show is a highly personal work, as its subtitle, Self Portrait Quadriptych, indicates, and it combines several of the symbols, including concentrics and five parallel strokes. He describes the making of this REDWORLD with fastidious relish. “Think of an Oreo cookie,” he said. “I put five layers of glaze on. Then I put the symbols on. Then I put five more layers of glaze on. So, it’s ten layers. And the symbols are squeezed beneath. The total layer of glaze is probably only a fifteenth of an inch, but no matter how close you get to the painting, the symbols are inside.”
For J. Steven Manolis, REDWORLD is about going for it; being fearless.
Will that come across? No. Or not exactly. Any more than the viewer will know that the five parallel strokes on many of his canvases reference his five grandchildren. Or that his waves splash with human energy. “There’s no explicit messaging at all,” Manolis said. “There is implicit messaging. Supposedly, Hans Hofmann said that it’s not really important that the recipient feels exactly about the work as you do. But if your feelings can result in the recipient having feelings, if you are imparting emotions that result in emotions, they don’t have to be yours. And this is the ultimate test of really strong art.”
— Anthony Haden-Guest is a British-American writer, reporter, cartoonist and art critic based in New York and London. Financial Times, The Art Newspaper, Vanity Fair and The Daily Beast are but a few of the notable publications that have carried his byline, and he is the author of True Colors-The Real Life of the Art World. He also is the news editor of Saatchi Online.