Stephen Mueller: The Painter’s Accord Feature Image


Stephen Mueller: The Painter’s Accord

When I first saw Stephen Mueller’s paintings at Bill Maynes’ gallery in New York’s Chelsea district in 2001, I had one of those profoundly disorienting experiences of beauty. The paintings were from Mueller’s “plaid” period in which he depicted symbols reminiscent of prayer beads, lotus flowers, and other Buddhist iconography in rich, ceremonial patterns over luminous grids. I found myself repeatedly circling the gallery, trying to figure out what I was looking at. One picture in particular kept drawing me back: In Forbidden Colors, named for Yukio Mishima’s 1951 novel of closeted homosexuality, the silhouettes of clamp- and tube-like forms felt erotically charged atop a preppy Madras background. Tenderly painted, meditative, and brimming with seemingly incongruous combinations of palettes and decorative traditions, Mueller’s pictures were a welcome anomaly—very queer, very strange, and very witty. 

In retrospect, the intensity of my first encounter with Mueller’s paintings indicated how ravenous I was for different modes of abstraction. Painting as “inside baseball,” a hermetic game that deployed formal and conceptual strategies, held no appeal for me. On the other hand, as an American painter, my own patrimony of “gutsy” expressionism came with its own tired problems. Mueller’s refreshing brand of abstraction doesn’t rely on gestural clichés to generate feeling. Instead, his paintings evince a meticulous and evanescent relationship to touch, craft, and labor. The cheeky tone, at times bordering on camp, becomes evident in the knowing play between folkloric or decorative traditions and highly sophisticated “colorways,” a term used by designers to describe the pre-set color schemes of textiles or wallpaper. Similarly, Mueller’s off-kilter deployment of graphic design conventions is also part of what makes his work so compelling.

I became acquainted with Stephen gradually in the decade before his death in 2011. Mostly we communicated through writing, reviewing each other’s exhibitions in Gay City News and later in Art in America. His voice on the page was erudite and convincing, an impression made all the more vivid by the random oddball comment or reference. In 2005 I invited him to give a lecture on his work at the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia. Stephen’s presentation was startling, even riveting, and it made me feel over-exposed in front of my grad students. Upon entering the classroom, he placed a lit stick of incense on the dirty windowsill. Then, seemingly unaware of the audience slouched before him, he sonorously intoned a list of his one hundred favorite things while slowly advancing his slides. Frankincense. Violet. The Simpsons. Hilma Af Klimt. Blue. César Pedroso. Sage. Neroli. Puvis de Chavannes. Albert Bierstadt. This hour-long recitation was periodically interrupted by the title, date, and dimensions of each new painting as it appeared on the screen. No interpretation or theoretical framework was offered, and no biographical background was given.

Mueller’s open-ended lecture felt like a purposeful jab at the overdetermined self-interpretation one so often hears from contemporary artists. Instead of filling in all the blanks, Mueller leaves the viewer with a porous rubric of associations with which to make her own connections. He also changes the terms with which we engage his paintings, embedding them in an aesthetic constellation that encompasses all five senses. Rather than privilege sight, as might be expected of a painter, Mueller situates the visual amongst other sensorial pleasures. Nearly all of the interviews conducted for this project add colorful detail to the image of the artist as consummate aesthete. The painter Joe Fyfe remarks, “We don’t have a lot of artists like that now, that sort of existed in this kind of literary territory. It’s something that just seemed to have passed through the New York art world around his generation.” Indeed, Stephen’s arcane expertise in luxury has more in common with iconic fictional sensualists Jean des Esseintes and Dorian Gray than with today’s hyper-knowledgeable online consumer. Stephen’s quest for the next aesthetic experience was expressed in all aspects of his life—from his wide-ranging music playlists to his rarified perfume collection to his penchant for “yellow corduroy pants, beautiful green sweaters, and great shoes” as his friend, the painter Melissa Meyer, described his cosmopolitan style.

Perhaps it is only fitting that the origin story behind Mueller’s particular vision of bliss has thus far been left to the imagination. Born in 1947 and raised in Dallas, Texas, Stephen studied art at the University of Texas at Austin. While still an undergraduate, he had a walk-on role in Andy Warhol’s 1968 film Lonesome Cowboys. This connection, assisted by his blue eyes and boyish good looks, quickly served as the kind of social entrée that most ambitious young artists only dream of. Stephen went east, stopping at Max’s Kansas City in New York before heading to Bennington College and graduate school. Previously an exclusive women’s college celebrated for its experimental approach to educating artists, Bennington had gone “co-ed” a year before Stephen enrolled. As classmate and painter Robin Bruch tells it, “When we were at Bennington, Stephen already had a gallery. He was already showing. So, it was kind of cool, because some of the professors had their noses a little bit out of joint that this gorgeous, handsome, mind-bending, Andy Warhol-knowing gay man already had a gallery.” His first two solo exhibitions in the early seventies—at Richard Feigen and Tibor de Nagy—bifurcated his existence between Vermont (where he was a student) and New York (where he was an exhibiting artist in the midst of the burgeoning gay liberation movement).

Throughout the next fifteen years, Mueller was a painter very much of his time and place, exhibiting regularly with Annina Nosei, Mary Boone, and others closely associated with the accelerated art market of the 1980s. His works from this period seem to wrestle with the meaning of gesture, perhaps in response to the thrilling rush that German neo-expressionism seemed to bring back to painting. What his friend, the painter Carl Palazzolo, calls Mueller’s “bratty” titles—from Your Hands Are Tied and Take That Back to I Saw That and Howdy Duty—suggest a young artist talking back to the art world in a way his work itself can’t quite manage. Yet, despite the aggressive titles and impetuous brushwork, Mueller’s innate color sense became increasingly refined and specific, with inorganic purples and pinks creeping into his palette. To achieve these unusual effects, Mueller worked on top of stained canvases, selectively displacing signature processes of Greenbergian modernism, such as pouring and staining, and loosening them from strictly formalist meanings. Instruction and critique from Clement Greenberg, Phillip Wofford, Kenneth Noland, and Sidney Tillim, as well as the lingering influences of Paul Feeley and Helen Frankenthaler, were very much part of Mueller’s education at Bennington. So, while many of his colleagues were reacting to Greenbergian modernism and its reductive ideologies on the basis of principle, Mueller’s rejection came from first-hand experience.

Mueller and his peers in New York City, including Mary Heilmann, Elizabeth Murray, Thomas Nozkowski, Gary Stephan, and others, seemed to bob and duck their way through the existential attack on painting that began with the transition from high modernism to post-modernism. To choose painting as a medium—and to counteract its self-serious legacy of mid-century abstraction—required a sense of humor. As first-generation baby boomers, these artists scrambled everything from biomorphic surrealism and Abstract Expressionism to post-painterly abstraction and minimalism, adding a dollop of Walt Disney for good measure. Individual painters somehow felt liberated (or invisible) enough to pursue their own idiosyncratic approaches, which ranged from riffing on “minor” strains of twentieth-century American abstraction to adopting a “provisional” relationship to craft. In Mueller’s case, his long-standing interest in Chinese art began to manifest itself spatially in his paintings, with unmoored shapes and calligraphic marks floating against atmospheric washes of translucent paint. 

In tandem with the growing influence of Asian art on his work, references to spirituality also come to the fore. Like many artists who came of age in the 1960s, Mueller was very knowledgeable about Indian art, in particular the amorphous category of “tantric” art. Indian scholar, curator, and collector Ajit Mookerjee played a key role in bringing these ideas and images to the West, encouraging the late-twentieth-century version of Orientalism that came into full flower during the hippie era. His books Tantra Art: Its Philosophy and Physics (1967) and Tantric Asana (1973) influenced everyone from Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg to the Rolling Stones to Stephen Mueller, who shared his copies with friends in graduate school. Images and iconography pulled straight from Mookerjee’s books became fundamental elements of Mueller’s visual language and would appear throughout all of his oeuvre.

As his practice matured, Mueller’s paintings also began a dialogue with a vast (pre-digital) heterogeneous collection of images, sensations, and ideas, fed by travel to Italy, Greece, India, and Mexico in particular. If the effect of post-modernism on contemporary painting was to open the floodgates to granulated concerns based on context and quotation, Mueller was more than ready for this. He drew as much from the feminist art movement and other rule-breaking “decorativists,” as he did from the seventeenth-century Pahari miniatures of Northern India or from perfume shopping on Christopher Street. The “de-centering” of the Western canon during the end of the twentieth century, as well as the seemingly limitless access provided by the internet, made for a slippery relationship to cultural appropriation. Such a voracious appetite for the “other,” in the form of gendered, non-Western, and/or non-Christian traditions, would no doubt raise hackles today.

This breakdown of entrenched hierarchies also made space for voices and ideas previously banished from mainstream modernist discourse. Radicalized by the civil rights and feminist movements, artists such as Faith Ringgold and May Stevens paved the way in the late 1960s with overtly political painting, something not seen since between the world wars. Later on, Mueller’s peers David Diao, Deborah Kass, and Mira Schor took aim at the socio-political foundations of canonical Western painting through the cool frameworks of Conceptual Art and appropriation. Still others rode the collapse of this epic intellectual construct to the shores of the personal, defying the “progression” of history. Gay and lesbian painters—from Martin Wong and Frank Moore to Louise Fishman and Harmony Hammond—were especially fearless in claiming the “master’s tools” in order to break from the master identity. While Wong and Moore were re-engaging parable and storytelling through lavishly decorated tableaux, Fishman and Hammond were producing monumental works that gave birth to a new orthodoxy of female-made big abstract paintings.

Within this fertile context, the accomplishments of Mueller’s last twenty years might seem to lay the groundwork for “queer abstraction.” However, given his interest in broad, humanistic cultural pleasures, the term unnecessarily limits the scope of ambition apparent in his paintings. As the artist articulated in his 2007 Guggenheim application: “Though abstract, my work is more oriented towards space and illusion than the modernist canon allowed—and deliberately so. This is significant because I’ve spent most of my career trying to make quality paintings that debunk the modernist canon.” Mueller understood that his subject position defined the creation of his work but not its reception. In other words, his identity as a gay man (one whose mother worked for the milliner Lilly Daché) was generative but not categorical. Making a place within abstraction by using both obdurate and open-ended tools meant losing a singular identity or single storyline—truly a “queer” act in the pre-Stonewall meaning of the word. As his artist lecture at Tyler exemplified, Mueller gifts viewers the pleasure of discovering their own meanings, stories, and omissions through sensuality and through cognition as a conclusion of the creative process.

Mueller’s paintings underwent a complete transformation starting in the early 1990s, a time of enormous focus and growth attributable in large part to his new dedication to sobriety. The distillation of his formal vocabulary (including the elimination of extemporaneous mark-making) and the further refinement of his considerable technical expertise made way for a period of exuberant innovation. Drawing on the procedures of Color Field painting as well as Warhol’s 1978 “Shadow Paintings” (which Mueller worked on), the confident, experimental nature of Mueller’s late work derives from an innate fluency with how acrylic paint renders color and light. Often considered the ugly, plastic-y stepchild of oil paint, the uninflected opacity of acrylic paint was perfect for the hard-edged geometric painting of the 1960s. Early formulations of solution acrylic paint, such as Magna, developed by Sam Golden and Leonard Bocour in the late 1940s, were intended to aid Frankenthaler, Noland, Morris Louis, and their cohort with the direct staining of canvas. Mueller also treated the paint as a tinting agent, controlling the luminosity of color through methodical gradient washes over bright white gesso to create a palpable sense of ambient light.

While the relationships between color, light, and pattern were becoming dazzlingly complex in Mueller’s paintings, the iconography was literally streamlined. Ambiguous forms with rough or indistinct borders gave way to shapes that, despite their very definite edges, were still hard to place. The graphic, often symmetrical, aspect of these forms made them feel like logos or badges for a heraldic pageant. In combination with the recognizable panoply of fans, clouds, tantric eggs, and diagrammatic rays of light, Mueller’s shape- making began to slyly correlate with the signs and objects of everyday life, stand-ins for the world beyond the studio. Operating within a standardized dialectic of flat opaque shapes over atmospheric light, undisguised Buddhist symbols such as all-seeing eyes are treated the same as silhouettes of cartoon characters (the shape of Marge Simpson’s extra tall, cobalt blue hairdo is especially beloved), the pulsating target of the Loony Tunes trademark, and electric sunrises that might have come straight off a box of Celestial Seasonings tea. 

It’s not hard to see the visual double entendres and the high and pop culture references that run throughout Mueller’s later work as a form of wry, self-conscious narration. In some paintings, motifs that harmonize with Buddhist religious traditions really do symbolize a desire for detachment and freedom from suffering. In others, the exotic veneer of serenity is so high-keyed it shifts into caustic commentary. The tongue-in-cheek, metaphysical punning becomes especially poignant in Mueller’s final works. In one of his most unusual compositions, Mr. Meltemi, round black clouds/fans span the entire width of the canvas, obliterating the center and the cirrus blue sky. Below ominous flat shapes, at the bottom of the canvas, a sun sets in a fiery hot pink haze. Meltemi winds are strong, sometimes dangerous winds that come up without warning in the Aegean Sea. Suffering from the final stages of cancer, Mueller would not see the end of 2011, yet his wit persisted. 

From his decorative use of “orchidaceous” color and his meticulous mastery of craft, to his satisfying use of illusionistic tropes (drop shadows and sunspots are definite no-no’s of modernist abstraction), there are so many aspects of Mueller’s oeuvre that anticipate the interests of contemporary painters. His knowing hybridity, which pulls willfully from disparate art historical and pop culture sources, is tempered by an unwavering compositional precision and modesty of scale. It’s almost as if Mueller is showing us how to take our constant state of visual TMI and use it to make something meaningful and coherent. More than anything else, the effortlessness, sprezzatura, and visceral joy that pervade Mueller’s paintings remind us of the exquisite pleasures of existence. Let his ravishing colors soak your brain and flow freely through all your somatic systems.