Steven McCallum


Steven McCallum at Allan Stone

McCallum makes big, neon colored geometric paintings that seem to vibrate with color and agitated graphic activity. McCallum brings a frantic mix of approaches to abstract painting that leave nothing to perceptual chance. The works are the opposite of minimal, they are big (some are over 17 feet long), full of high octane visual incident and clotted with bold geometric flourishes.

His flat, hardedge color surfaces are produced by an intricate process of layered tape and peeling that leaves the painting’s surface criss crossed with the shallow topological traces of layered acrylic pigment. His compositions are often structured around large rectangular or oval forms built of intense planes of electric color, cross-hatched again by darting linear vectors and broad arching planes and forms that produce a sense of a pitched, abstract perspectival space. The effect is much like an abstract window whose view spills outward towards a yawning, infinite psychedelic void.

However, McCallum is not after sublime relationships between pure forms. This is a pop abstraction that leans toward retinal overload, full of antic movement and color games that border on Op art. In fact his signature effect is a vividly chromatic grid sequence that modulates in steps from say, a hot red through red-orange to a keening brilliant yellow gold. The work “Digital Delay” is divided into three parts by horizontal bands of violet-blue and another composed of a dense cluster of linear elements. At each end of the painting, bulging pastel oval forms anchor the composition while another of McCallum’s chromatic sequences modulates across rows of circles, moving in steps from pastel green to blue/green to golden yellow. The effect, from a short viewing distance, suggests a vast pictorial area of almost metallic sheen.

In works like “Zydeco Zs” he adds big circular transparencies, which are a series of pictorial balloons in which the color combinations of the underlying graphic patterns are transformed, once they enter these circles, from muted hues to their brilliant counterpart at the other end of the spectrum.

These works are meant to seduce, indeed to ravish the viewer with a kinetic color wheel of lavish, frantically indicated color combinations. Muscular and playful, the works present a thicket of jagged visual data often framed with bold black flat planes or diagonals that provide a tactical restraint to all this furious activity. And while McCallum’s approach to color can sometimes seem a bit manipulative, more like a memorized technical trick rather than an organically generated visual phrase; he nevertheless evokes a hyperactively genial Pop sensibility purely through pigment and abstract visual effect. In fact, encountering these hyperkinetic abstractions is like walking into a big, churning, gregarious party. Once you’ve been hit with that first rush of high pressure conviviality, it’s difficult to just walk away.

Calvin Reid, Art in America

McCallum makes what are perhaps the fullest abstract paintings I’ve ever seen. He obsessively overworks the tape-and-peel- process of hard-edge painting (he’s a former assistant to both James Rosenquist and Al Held) so that the canvas is covered with layers of geometrically crisp bands of color arranged in fans, grids and clusters of different widths and hues (different layers are revealed underneath depending on when the tape is pulled away). McCallum doesn’t fuss with the edges of paint where the tape has been pulled up; as a result, the innumerable ridges in his paintings posses a slight, sloppy embossment corresponding to the pictures’ illusionary depths.

For the most part, McCallum’s colors are hotly synthetic, and there are dozens of them in each painting. The viewer is apt to feel overwhelmed by his initial take, assaulted by the complexities of space, line, color, and contrast. McCallum underscores these turbulent first impressions with jokey titles such as Solar Cyanide, Gulf Gumbo, Hot Beach Vinyl and Turgid Prominence, but he’s out to achieve something other than a furious spectacle.

The complexity of McCallum’s paintings prevents them from being too quickly assimilated. Despite the seeming myriad of high-chroma hues in each picture, the image holds a strangely consistent light. Some paintings will lean toward dominant hue, but the light is less a chromatic “event” than an atmospheric evocation. Intrigues by all the activity and persuaded by the light, a viewer can look at these paintings a long time without exhausting them. As abstract paintings go, they are entertainments rather than meditations on self-identity or the nature of perception. They are consequently modest paintings, for all their large scale and visual richness. It is a modesty that serves them well, that lets the viewer surprise himself at the fun he’s having contemplating them. They make complexity charming.

Stephen Westfall, Art in America

The Butler Institute of American Art

Steven McCallum’s paintings represent for me American contemporary painting at its very best. They challenge us both conceptually and perceptually. The work redefines formal and technical excellence while presenting a complex visual world – narrative possibilities which hold and enthrall the viewer. What more can we ask from a work of art?

The Butler Institute is indeed proud to present the work of Steven McCallum. Joseph Green Butler in establishing the Butler Institute some seventy years ago did so with the hope that he would be able to present the “new” American art to a country which at the time looked to Europe for inspiration. McCallum’s work personifies the vigor, invention and accomplishment of American Art today. The founder would be pleased, not only of America’s current leadership role in the visual arts, but also that a new generation of artists – as gifted as Steven McCallum, hold the promise of even greater achievement.

This exhibition could not have been possible without the generous support of Mr. Allan Stone. His belief in the project meant a great deal to its success. Too, I would like to thank Don Thompson of Commercial Printing for his kind assistance with the catalogue and Kathy Earnhart and the Butler Staff for going above and beyond the call in this effort. Mostly I would like to thank Steven McCallum. His paintings entertain, inspire and challenge us and represent the level of artistic excellence which inspired the creation of this institution decades ago.

Louis A. Zona, Director

Polk Museum of Art – Lakeland, Florida

A New Context for Craft and Beauty

To look at painting for the sheer joy of color and shape and space – over and over because it is rich and complex and gives up its secrets slowly – is an experience of painting that has
returned in the current work of Steven McCallum. McCallum rewards us for looking, for investing our attention and time, with objects of complexity and richness rendered with attention to craft.

Context and Concept

In the Post-Modern, post-Pop period of Minimalism and Conceptualism, the high profile magazines and galleries pushed the question of craft aside in favor of the convincing idea. The ideas expressed in a work of art became more important than the visual reality of it. Painting was of its elevated status- ignored and even vilified critically for a period.

Conceptual art and the values it promoted transformed visual art – with all its physicality – into an intellectual game. Taken to its logical extreme this new paradigm of art criticism meant that a well-crafted art object would be “insubstantial” as art. Together with that idea and the Abstract-Expressionist concept that form was content in abstract art, one can see that art values were backed into a corner.

In the past three decades, magazines and museum shows have shown a multiplicity of styles that have included many styles of art that draw on various historic sources, often delivered with irony. It has also included the “anti-beauty” positions an antidote to the simple sterility of Minimalism. Room also has been made for painting to again present color and beauty through masterful technique.

The audiences longing for the craft of painting and for beautiful illusionist realities to lose ourselves in has never died. A handful of painters remained driven enough, and gifted enough, and they continued to work through these fallow periods in terms of criticism and are now emerging as mature artists.

Steven McCallum is one such painter who believed that those who refused to master the craft of their chosen medium were rendering themselves mute as artists. He believed that if he paid attention to the work and kept creating and facing the aesthetic problems he felt driven to work out with paint on canvas, that he would one day be given time and attention.

Mary Agnes Beach, Curator

Akron Art Museum

STEVEN MCCALLUM (b. 1951, Alliance, Ohio) attended Kent State University where he received both his bachelor (1973) and his Master of Fine Arts (1976) degrees. After teaching at Youngstown State University, the University of Akron and Kent State University, he moved to New York in 1980, where he served as a studio assistant to James Rosenquist, Helen Frankenthaler and Al Held.

Represented by the Allan Stone Gallery, New York, McCallum has had exhibitions there as well as showing his work at the New York Institute of Technology; the Futura Gallery, Stockholm; A.I.R. Gallery, New York; the Cleveland Museum of Art; and other galleries and museums. His work is included in private collections in New York, Sweden, London, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Tampa, Miami and Richmond, Virginia.

“McCallum’s enormous canvases are totally abstract; the issues with which they deal are formal ones. Layers of curving and bending grids of absolutely precise lines wildly intersect and veer away. The artist simultaneously creates and destroys the illusion of three-dimensional space through the use of contrasting colors, distortions of perspective, overlapping and other formal devices. The riotous visual rhythms and cacophony of colors go beyond issues of form to produce beautiful, imposing images of contradictory states – space and flatness, order and chaos.”

Barbara Tannenbaum, Curator