a brief history of an
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harold stevenson

The art and career of Harold Stevenson – not unlike his own life – has defied convention in virtually every way imaginable. Born in southeastern Oklahoma shortly after The Depression, Stevenson was essentially a self-taught artist who briefly attended The University of Oklahoma before moving to New York in 1949, where he immediately became associated with Hugo Gallery and its owner, the visionary Greek art connoiseur and dealer Alexander Iolas.

Stevenson’s personality, ambition and art was a perfect fit for the aesthetic eclecticism and social electricity present at Hugo Gallery, and the cavalcade of personalities and celebrities who frequented the gallery (and all the attendant parties, events and social gatherings associated with this level of society) were a virtual who’s who of the burgeoning New York social and art scene of the early 50s. Igor Stravinsky, Jackson Pollock, Alexander Calder, Cole Porter, Elizabeth Arden, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Lord Snowdon (husband of Princess Margaret), Max Ernst, Truman Capote, Jean and Dominique de Menil, Christian Dior, and various other icons of New York and international society not only became personal associates of Stevenson, but many of them lifelong friends.

Stevenson’s arrival in New York also coincided with that of a young, ambitious Pittsburgh artist named Andy Warhol. Stevenson met Warhol at the Serendipity club on East 58th Street and the two immediately became fast friends and confidantes. Stevenson later introduced Warhol to David Mann of the Bodley Gallery, an introduction that resulted in Warhol’s first show – a series of drawings of shoes – which ultimately became Warhol’s entrance into the New York art world.

As Warhol had begun experimenting with filmmaking, his first feature-length movie was titled Harold, a conceptual black & white production based, of course, on Harold Stevenson, who also appeared in several other Warhol films with Sylvia MIles, Edie Sedgewick, Salvador Dali and other denizens of the New York avant garde. The two remained close friends and colleagues right up until Warhol’s untimely death in 1987. Only two days prior to that tragic day, they had drinks together in the Nat KIng Cole Bar at The St. Regis Hotel, engaging in a long discussion about Warhol’s newest business venture, Interview magazine.

In 1952, Stevenson moved to Paris and quickly found his way into the artistic and social elite of Europe’s raging avant garde. Discovered and represented by noted Parisian dealer Iris Clert (who at the time was representing and showing artists such as Pablo Picasso, Yves Klein, Jean Tinguely, Max Ernst, et.al), Stevenson burst into the limelight of the European art scene with masterful, daring work and a charming, captivating personality to match.

Typical of his ability to create and show works that generated controversy and scandal was the exhibition of his 48-foot high painting of Spanish matador El Cordobes, the world’s most famous bullfighter of the time. After receiving permission from the DeGaulle government, the massive painting was hung from one of the platforms of the Eiffel Tower, making it visible from virtually anywhere in Paris. The result was one of the worst citywide traffic jams in Paris history, prompting officials to cancel the exhibition and remove the painting, not only creating front-page headlines in all the Parisian newspapers and tabloids, but firmly embedding his name and reputation squarely in the center of Parisian and European art culture.

While his shows were attended by icons of European art such as Salvador Dali and Pavel Tchelitchew, his elan enchanted all of European society, from Dukes and Duchesses to demimondes and debutantes. His paintings were erotic, provocative, powerful and monumental, coveted by many noted collectors and held in the most exclusive collections across Europe.

By the beginning of the 60s, Stevenson was living a life of unique celebrity few in any profession could scarcely imagine, and both the spoken and literary accounts of his exploits and escapades are legendary. A perfect illustration was an incident that occurred during one of the ultra-elite Nine O’Clock Balls at The St. Regis Hotel in New York, featuring a moment frozen in time that would be a crowning memory for almost anyone’s lifetime.

At a certain point during the evening, Earl Blackwell (the reigning PR king of the period) escorted Stevenson to the table of a private party and introduced him to non other than Gloria Swanson, the queen of early Hollywood MGM stars. The only appropriately gracious response Stevenson could summon was to ask of Ms. Swanson, “Shall we dance?" As they strolled onto the floor, Ms. Swanson placed a red rose she had been carrying into the lapel of Stevenson’s dinner jacket.

As the crowd noticed what was happening, they began retreating to the perimeter of the dance floor, leaving the two embracing and gliding around the floor doing the erotic, emotional Tango. Here was New York’s social nobility (Ruth Ford, Drue Heinz, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Kitty Carlisle Hart, et al.) standing suspended in amazement and staring in complete reverance and amusement in a giant semi-circle as the orchestra played and the couple danced magnificently and stylishly. The drama concluded with a respectful bow by Stevenson, a theatrical curtsy from Swanson, and rousing applause from the throng of celebrities.

Harold Stevenson’s ouvre entails countless projects of vast scale and unparalleled innovation, such as the aforementioned El Cordobes exhibition, and The Great Society, a series of 100 portraits of individuals from his hometown, shown in Paris in 1968 and recently acquired by The University of Oklahoma’s Fred Jones Art Center.

Yet virtually from the outset of his career in art, and even apart from the more scandalous and tabloidesque aspects of his life, his rapier wit, expansive intellect and boundless talent has primarily focused on exposing the hypocrisy and politics of religion, morality and puritanical sexual attitudes. And he has expressed his thoughts and observations on these volatile subjects with incredibly beautiful, heroic imagery and the painting technique of a master.

Clearly, the most enduring and compelling object of Stevenson’s affection and respect is the male nude, often presented in the context of historical religious and political periods. Writer Stephen Robeson Miller of Cambridge, Massachusetts observes, Stevenson’s work is “... the result of feeling swept up and away by sheer beauty, a beauty that is aesthetic, spiritual and erotic at the same time.”

 

THE NEW REALISTS

In the late 50’s and early 60’s, as the American Abstract Expressionist movement (led by artists such as Willem De Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Philip Guston, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell, et al.) had reached its zenith and begun to wane slightly, a new artistic energy and vitality was germinating in New York, with names like Warhol, Oldenburg and Lichtenstein beginning to creep into conversation in Greenwich Village studios, galleries and cocktail parties.

Just as the Ab-Ex artists of the post-World War II era had burst into the international art conciousness during the mid to late 40’s, a new group of artists were poised to similarly explode into the spotlight of the art world. And few artists were more strategically positioned near the eye of this gathering storm than was Harold Stevenson.

In 1960, upon returning to New York a celebrity of European art and society, Stevenson quickly established himself among the elite of the new American avant garde. Not only had his reputation as one of the world’s important artists been solidfied, but he had positioned himself for inclusion in possibly the most significant and pivotal event in the history of American art.

On October 31, 1962, the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York opened a landmark show of the newly-christened Pop Art movement – The New Realists. If the sheer scale and implications of this seminal exhibition were not enough, the staging strategy and ensuing controversy it created ensured its lofty position in the annals of art.

The show featured twelve American artists, seven French, five Italians, three English and two Swedes. The U.S. artists were Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Moskowitz, Robert Indiana, George Segal, Jim Dine, Peter Agostini, James Rosenquist, Wayne Thiebaud, Tom Wesselmann and Harold Stevenson.

From Sweden were Oyvind Fahlstrom and Per Olof Ultvedt; from England, Peter Blake, John Latham and Peter Phillips; from Italy, Enrico Baj, Gianfranco Baruchello, Tano Festa, Minino Rotella and Mario Schifano; from France, Arman, Christo, Raymond Heins, Yves Klein, Martial Raysse, Daniel Spoerri and Jean Tinguely.

So extensive was the body of work exhibited that it filled not only the main Janis gallery, but also an additional exhibition space on 57th Street. At the second, street-level location, passersby on the sidewalk could not only stop and view Claes Oldenburg’s Lingerie Counter in the window, but also see Andy Warhol’s much-publicized 200 Campbell’s Soup Cans clearly in view along a side wall. On an adjoining wall hung Harold Stevenson’s Eye of Lightning Billy, a massive 10 ft. x 15 ft. oil-on-canvas.

This dual-location strategy of the Janis exhibition greatly enhanced the ‘media event’ aspect of the show, with large crowds constantly assembled on the 57th Street sidewalk, sometimes accompanied by local press providing media coverage. It also served another, quite unique purpose; it ignited the curiosity of the general public, pulling thousands of new visitors into the Janis gallery during the duration of the show and introducing to the world this new art and the artists who created it.

The art itself, at once scandalous and brilliant, was obviously revolutionary but somewhat difficult to characterize (by both the critical press and the public). Among the various names given collectively to the artists were New Realists, Neo-Dadaists, Commonists, Vulgarists, Factualists and Kitsch-niks. Most of the labels, however, missed the point for different reasons, particularly the Neo–Dadaist tag; the Dadaists were nihilists and iconoclastic, rebelling against their prevailing social and political systems. The art displayed in The New Realists, however, carried no such insurgent overtones, but in fact seemed to draw much of its strength and essence from the artists’ respective social environments.

Thus the stage was set for an inevitable clash of artistic cultures; the legendary Abstract Expressionists on one hand, and the brash renegades of The New Realists exhibition on the other. The Ab-Ex artists themselves were abjectly disdainful of popular culture and fiercely attached to the philosophies of psychic self-expression. The imminent threat they percieved and their resulting sense of paranoia was palpable, and they protested the The New Realists exhibition vehemently and vented their dismay both in public and private forums.

The Sidney Janis Gallery in fact represented many of the movement’s most visible artists, and as profoundly succcessful and visionary as The New Realists exhibition proved to be, it caused Janis’ own artists – the venerable Abstract Expresssionists – to view him as a traitor.

Furthering their disdain was the fact that prestigious dealers such as Leo Castelli (who would become a good friend to Stevenson), Richard Bellamy, Allan Stone and Eleanor Ward had themselves begun showing this ‘outrageous’ new art. Finally, within a matter of days, all the Abstract Expressionists represented by Sidney Janis tore up their contracts with him, collected their paintings and stormed out of the gallery (Willem DeKooning being the lone exception).

Harold Rosenberg, one of America’s most influential and respected critics of the period, wrote a memorable article for The New Yorker magazine, declaring that The New Realists exhibition “...hit the New York art world with the force of an earthquake. Within a week, tremors had spread to art centers throughout the country...Art politics sensed the buildup of a crisis. Was this the long-heralded dethronement of Abstract Expressionism?”

 

HAROLD STEVENSON TODAY

The breathtaking path to fame Harold Stevenson followed was the product of a prodigious aesthete and master painter coming of age in both European and American society at a unique period of art (and indeed, world) history. Few significant artists, particularly in the modern period, could approach Stevenson’s level of lifetime celebrity and critical acclaim, and there are precious few of his pedigree alive today who can provide first-person accounts of that momentous, intoxicating and catalytic age in art.

Apart from his stature as a celebrated painter, Stevenson is also an expressive, accomplished writer, and his soon-to-be-published novel, The Bridegroom Cometh, allegorically chronicles aspects of the artist’s life. He also writes an occasional feature column for NIGHT Magazine, an internationally-distributed publication advertised as “The world’s most avant garde, sophisticated, provocative periodical; the supreme oracle of current and future trends in art, fashion, literature and nightlife.”

In September of 2005, The New York Times announced a milestone of Stevenson’s professional achievements when his landmark painting, The New Adam, was acquired by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. The 8 ft. x 40 ft. oil-on-canvas painting is described by Robert Rosenblum, then Director of Acquisitions at the Guggenheim, as “...a seminal work... It marks a crucial development not only in the full frontal exposure of the male nude, but also in the billboard-scale wraparound installation, like Rosenquist’s ‘F-111’ in the Museum of Modern Art collection.”

At the age of 80, Stevenson’s career in art, and in many respects his life, has now come full circle. In 2008, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York acquired the Eye of Lightning Billy, the painting Stevenson exhibited in The New Realists show alongside the works of Warhol, Lichtenstein, Oldenburg, et al. After 48 years, this 10 ft. x 15 ft. masterwork was finally reunited in MoMA’s Pop Art collection with the historic works by that visionary group of artists who captured the imagination of the country and introduced a new movement to the art world.

Over the years, Harold Stevenson has held residences and studios in the most desirable locations imaginable for an artist: A classic studio loft in The Left Bank in the heart of Paris; an oceanfront villa in Key West, Florida; a four-story Brownstone in Long Island, just across the East River from Manhattan; a restored antebellum mansion in his hometown of Idabel, Oklahoma; and a beautiful two-story estate in The Hamptons.

Having recently sold his beloved Hamptons property, Stevenson moved his residence and studio back to his hometown in southeastern Oklahoma where he was born and spent his childhood. Yet despite this return to his roots, he remains a charismatic and fascinating personality, an indefatigable storyteller and, of course, a prolific painter. Though he has given up the glitz, glamour and bohemianism of a lifetime in the spotlight, he has not lost the power of his charm, the spark of his wit, the depth of his intellect, and certainly not his mastery and skill with a paintbrush.

In 2007, as Director of The Main Contemporary gallery in Dallas, I had the honor and privilege of curating and staging a retrospective exhibition of selected works by Harold Stevenson, titled From Now to Antiquity. True to both his dedication to history and sense of posterity, he submitted a poignant and emotional artist’s statement for the show which ended with the following excerpt:

“I once traveled to Florence to personally view the David; it appeared virtually invisible to me. I left it standing there, alone in its isolation, until finally I realized the David was not alone at all. Michaelangelo was standing beside him trying to protect him. After seeing the David with his inventor, it took me years to truly understand this guardian protection, but by then I was a million miles away. And I never returned.

“More than fifty years ago in Paris, the renowned art dealer Iris Clert compared me to Michaelangelo. Iris was Greek, and she similarly saw me standing beside my paintings, protecting them. This may actually be the reason why I now say to Ron Clark that I wish to stand beside my paintings at least one last time. Eventually, of course, my paintings will each slide off into their own history, and though I will be long gone by then, for the viewer with sufficient curiosity and perception, there exists the possibility that I may yet be seen, standing vigil next to my creations in eternal guardianship.”

 

Copyright © 2009, Ron Clark

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