Sunday, September 18th, 2011

Mandalas Amidst the Plaids: Stephen Mueller, 1947-2011

Still from Bill Maynes video interview with Stephen Mueller, 2006

Still from Bill Maynes video interview with Stephen Mueller, 2006

Stephen Mueller, abstract painter of exquisite poise and art critic of insightful, affirmative precision, died on Friday after a relatively short battle with lung cancer.  He was a week shy of turning 64.

Eight of his sumptuous, at once subtle and exuberant watercolors are currently included in the group exhibition, “Papertails” curated by Kiki Smith and Valerie Hammond, on view at NYU’s 80WSE Gallery on Washington Square.  Last year he was the subject of a well-received solo exhibition at Lennon, Weinberg, where he had shown his work since 2007.  Reviewing that exhibition in these pages, Stephanie Buhmann observed how, with solo shows by Thomas Nozkowski and Brice Marden as neighbors, Mueller’s show was “a wonderful intervention in a gallery-to-gallery symposium concerning the nature and experience of abstract painting.”

Born in Norfolk, Virginia in 1947, Mueller had studied at the University of Texas, Austin before taking his masters at Bennington College, Vermont.  Bennington was then a hotbed of a Greenbergian formalism “shoved down your throat” as he told Joe Fyfe in a 2002 Bomb magazine interview.  His subsequent career can almost be defined as a running battle between aesthetic purism and engagement with visual culture. But rather than resulting in tension, this collision course of values seemed to result in a harmony that was all the more sweet and intense for its complexity.

Stephen Mueller, Untitled (NYC, 2011), 2011. Watercolor and gouache on paper, 12 x 12 inches. Courtesy of Lennon, Weinberg.

Stephen Mueller, Untitled (NYC, 2011), 2011. Watercolor and gouache on paper, 12 x 12 inches. Courtesy of Lennon, Weinberg.

In his mature work – which was characterized by vibrant yet ingeniously modulated color choices and increment-free paint surfaces (or in the case of watercolor, ethereal yet sumptuous stain) – the imagery manages to be at once cosmic and decorative. Typical compositions would see mandalas floating amidst audacious plaids.  The sensibility, however, was not an abrasive one of postmodern incongruence.  Rather, he traded in a kind of tantric gaiety that could collapse the boundaries between kitsch and the sublime.

Mueller brought similar qualities to his art writing as to his painting, most notably a kind of sophisticated naïveté in which he could develop somewhat off-the-wall comparisons and formulations while paying close attention to the mood and intention of the work under review.  His writings were published with some regularity in Art in America magazine, Gay City News and, in seven cherished contributions between 2003 and 2007, here at artcritical.  His writerly tone managed to combine deadpan delivery and almost impish enthusiasm.  His conclusion to a joint review of shows by Deborah Kass and Dana Frankfort from four years ago around this time of year (the post Labor Day rush) is a timely reminder of the purpose of making and seeing art: “The implications and issues raised in both of these shows are far ranging and quickly become quite deep. They are both a lot of fun and offer several fertile fields for painting to grow in. Don’t miss them before the shows come too thick and fast to detect an issue or an implication.”

The resolution of opposites in both his art and his criticism was for some of a piece with Stephen’s deportment, in which a seemingly somber and taciturn manner actually proved a foil for a lust for life and an unfailing generosity of spirit.

Click Here for a complete list of Mueller’s writings at artcritical

  • Lisa Liebmann

    Brooks Adams and I have been friends of Stephen Mueller’s and admirers of his work for thirty years. We have been away from NYC for a decade now, and have been experiencing the distance painfully in these days since Stephen’s death. We very much appreciate your sensitive tribute to him. Lisa Liebmann

  • Bill Rabinovitch

    Still remember Steven Mueller’s earlier shows in SoHo in the 90’s at Annina Nosei & really admired his lush color & inventive, visionary spaces. Ran into his work last year at a Chelsea Galley which I filmed, & still looking great…

  • Brenda Goodman

    Thank you, David.
    His work glows. a loss to the art world.

  • Brian Rutenberg

    A thoughtful and poetic American painter. I never had the pleasure of meeting him but have admired his body of work and will continue to do so.