Featured Acquisition: John Stephan, “Disc #18”

John Stephan (1906-1995)

Disc #18, 1970

Acrylic on canvas

80 x 76 inches

Signed, titled, dated, and estate stamped verso 


Estate of the Artist

Born in Maywood, Illinois, John Walter Stephan (1906-1995) studied art at the University of Illinois and the  School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). He then worked as an art instructor at Jane Addams Hull House in Chicago and later was a draftsman at Western Electric.

 Having painted urban landscapes and created mosaics for a number of buildings in the Chicago area under the auspices of the Work Projects Administration through the 1930s, Stephan truly came of age as an artist after World War II.  With his first wife (and poet) Ruth Walgreen Stephan, he moved to New York City, where he developed his work and had solo exhibitions at the Betty Parsons Gallery, the Dayton Art Institute in Ohio and the Newport Art Museum in Rhode Island.

With Ruth, he published “The Tiger’s Eye,” an influential “little magazine” that chronicled the creative ferment of the period. Inspired by William Blake’s “Tyger,” the title symbolized the editors’ faith in the power of creative vision, as did John Stephan’s design for the cover which prominently features an abstracted eye.

“The Tiger’s Eye”was published in nine quarterly issues from 1947 to 1949 and featured European and American Surrealists, members of the Latin American avant garde, and young American painters soon to become known as Abstract Expressionists. The artists, among them Max Ernst, Alberto Giacometti, Adolph Gottlieb, Stanley William Hayter, André Masson, Pablo Picasso, Mark Rothko, Anne Ryan, Kay Sage, Kurt Seligmann, Rufino Tamayo, and Mark Tobey, as well as art editor and co-publisher John Stephan himself, range across the cultural forefront of the post-war period. 

Stephan devoted himself exclusively to disc paintings for the last three decades of his artistic career. These nearly square compositions, always just inches taller than they are wide, each comprise a central monochrome circle delineated from its ground by multiple bands of contrasting colors. Depending how the particular colors come alive in relation to one another, the central orb floats or recedes, emanating pulsing energy or enveloping the gaze. Painting after painting, Stephan found within the fixed parameters of this geometric distribution an infinite potential for visual poetry in the juxtaposition of his subtly mixed colors. 

One of the artist’s favorite books, Metamorphoses of the Circle by George Poulet, traces a cultural history of meanings associated with this most elemental form. As Poulet explains, “changes of meaning coincide with corresponding changes in the manner by which human beings represent to themselves that which is deepest in themselves, that is to say, the awareness of their relationship with inner and outer worlds; their consciousness of space and duration.”

As Stephan wrote in 1970:

“During these last five or six years, I have been involved in the painting of colored discs that singly occupy the major central area of almost squared, vertical, and other wise colored canvases and which, more often than not, have one or more colored rings separating the one from the other. I draw these discs and their rings with a compass as I am particularly interested in the phenomenon of apparent perfect circularity, whether as seen in nature or through metaphysical contemplation, and in this sense, I see the circle-disc as being the simplest yet most subtle, inherently perfect form (as compared to other forms that an artist or nature might create), and accept its inviolate constancy with the same faith with which artists have accepted the figure, subjects in nature, or any other imaginable image for its formal validity. For my purposes, I have avoided the use of further devices, either geometric, asymmetric, or expressionistic, as being irrelevant to the basic contentions implied between these two spatial forms, rectangular and circular.

I am, moreover, intrigued by the primacy that this austere image demonstrates within the space of the canvas; it appears to float and hover naturally with sublime disregard for the necessary rationale supporting the straight sides and right angles of the rectangular form with its presumed base. However, within this adopted duality of space forms, I seek to create, through the use of color, a kind of pictorial metastasis, more contemplative than symbolic and more related to nature than to the formalities of mysticism. I choose subtle colors above those that are purely chromatic so as to convey the impression of fused color substances, somewhat like the translucency of jade, the colored rings to act as an apposition between these two shapes.” 

John Stephan’s disc paintings are contemplative works, portals to insight, offering us moments with our deeper selves. They mark the culmination of an unwavering, lifelong commitment to art and make an indisputably significant contribution to American painting of the twentieth century. 

His work is in the collections of the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Cincinnati Art Museum, Yale University Art Gallery, Loyola University in Chicago and numerous other institutions.