Now viewable on ARTstor from the Joseph Stapleton Drawings Collection


Joseph Stapleton (1921-1994) was one of an estimated 400 artists who poured into New York City’s Tenth Street area following the close of World War II. According to historian Irving Sandler, they were attracted to this specific location by the presence of, among others, Willem de Kooning’s studio. Sandler referred to this group of artists born between 1920 and 1930 as Abstract Expressionism’s second generation. Over the next twenty years this second generation would be impacted by a variety of economic and social influences. These conditions would produce only a handful of names we recognize today.
After earning his summa cum laude double degree in Romance Languages and Sociology at St. John’s University, Joe Stapleton then served as an intelligence officer and interpreter for General MacArthur in Tokyo. Upon his return to New York he joined many of his peers in enrolling at the Art Students League. From 1947 to 1953 Stapleton studied at the League with Will Barnet, Carl Holty, Morris Kantor, Vaclav Vytlacil, Ivan Olinsky, and F.V. Dumond. During this period, he also endeavored to broaden his scope of influencers by attending meetings at Philip Pavia’s Eighth Street Club, and imbibing at the infamous Cedar Tavern. Over the next few years, he developed relationships with Pavia, Hans Hofmann, Elias Goldberg, James Brooks, Steve Wheeler, George McNeil, Friedel Dzubas, Theodoros Stamos, and many others of the first generation.
Stapleton had undergone rigorous training in life drawing during his grammar school and high school years, attending a special program at Pratt. He earned multiple awards over this period for portraiture and figure drawing. This early work caught the attention of the WPA’s Abram Lerner (later to become the Hirshhorn Museum’s first director) who enrolled Stapleton in evening anatomy classes, which he attended weekly from the mid- to late 1930s.
Despite his early proficiency, Stapleton, still a high school student, sought to further enhance his mark making by immersing himself in Zen and Japanese calligraphy. In addition to studying the work of Hiroshige, Sesshu, and Sung, Stapleton would spend his afternoons after school at the New York Public Library’s 5th Avenue branch, deeply entrenched in kaisho, gyosho, and sosho practice books. This self-directed research, combined with his growing reverence of Arshile Gorky, would have a major impact on Stapleton’s extraordinary line work.
This collection consists of 293 self-portraits, each exhibiting Stapleton’s highly intelligent mark-making process reflective of those long afternoons studying Japanese calligraphy. As a comparison, Rembrandt is known to have created 80 self-portraits.
Characterized by incisive, economical contour, Stapleton’s impressive drawings deserve to be more widely known. Within the narrow confines of a repeated self-portrait format, Stapleton was able to demonstrate a surprising variety of touch… Jonathan Ribner, Director, Graduate Admissions, History of Art and Architecture, Boston University; Associate Professor, Nineteenth Century and Modern Art
When you log on to ARTstor from your educational community, see especially the over 100 calligraphic self-portraits. No other New York School artist worked in this manner. These powerful drawings were created during a difficult ten-year period of Stapleton’s life, following the tragic 1971 Memorial Day Weekend suicide of his close friend, German Expressionist Jochen Seidel. Friedel Dzubas had introduced the two in 1966 at a time when Seidel was beginning to experiment with text. It’s important to note that over the course of their six-year friendship, Seidel had enlightened Stapleton to concrete poetry. Seidel’s tragic death drove Stapleton to deeper alcohol dependency, and the resulting depression caused him to search for inward meaning. Two years later, the calligraphic self-portraits began to appear.
Five of these calligraphic self-portraits are represented in the permanent collections of the RISD Museum, the McMullen Museum at Boston College, and the Fairfield University Art Museum. Four of these drawings are included here.

More History

In December 1950, Vaclav Vytlacil selected one of Stapleton’s paintings for a major Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition, American Painting Today 1950. In 1951, his work was chosen by Associated American Artists member Karl Fortess for their New Talent exhibition Proteges, and in 1953, Stapleton’s lithographs were included in a group exhibition at Gallery East. Stapleton had his first solo exhibition of paintings and drawings in May, 1955 at Carlen Gallery in Philadelphia, and his work was included in a 5-person exhibition at Perdalma Gallery on 23rd Street in December of that year.
In May 1957, Stapleton, along with his ASL classmate Knox Martin, and sculptor Shirley West, were all chosen to be co-directors of Avant Garde Gallery at 166 Lexington Avenue at 30th Street (this was during the height of the so-called artist-owned gallery era in and around Tenth Street). Included in their May 1957 opening exhibition, in addition to their work, were Julius Hatofsky, Reuben Nakian, and Elias Goldberg. Stapleton had a solo exhibition at the gallery in December 1957 following Knox Martin’s solo exhibition a month before, reviewed by Dore Ashton for the New York Times.
It was about this time Knox Martin introduced Stapleton to his friend gallery-owner Charlie Egan. Egan was instrumental in launching the careers of several key New York School painters, including Willem de Kooning, Philip Guston, Louise Bourgeois, Robert De Niro Sr., Julius Hatofsky, Franz Kline, Reuben Nakian, Elias Goldberg, Robert Rauschenberg, etc. Martin had a solo exhibition there in 1954. Stapleton’s solo exhibition followed at the Egan Gallery in September 1963. In his September 14, 1963 New York Times review of that show, Brian O’Doherty said of Stapleton’s drawings:
Stapleton is showing concentrated drawings of definite interest. The drawings, nameless and preserving a similar reticence about their subject matter, send pointed, thorny forms windmilling around with the help of feathery strokes. These forms, densely psychological, are jointed in ways that suggest human and animal life, and at times look like tattered up-to-date Dürer.
John Gruen (New York Times, September 15, 1963) said of Stapleton’s Egan Gallery exhibition:
Of the very few one-man shows that opened last week, the paintings and drawings by Joe Stapleton at the Egan Gallery showed both quality and distinction…steeped in the vocabulary of Gorky and Matta, an emotional force and a deep sense of dedication (felt particularly in the drawings) give his abstractions true solidity.
In 1966, Charlie Egan selected several Stapleton drawings and paintings for a group exhibition in a Washington D.C. gallery that included Knox Martin, Reuben Nakian, and Elias Goldberg.
Research shows there were many missed opportunities in Stapleton's professional lifetime, including his ignoring a late-1960s offer from the owner/director of the now defunct Miami Museum of Art for a solo exhibition there. From research it has been determined Stapleton sold less than $30,000 in work in his lifetime, and most of that was through his European agent who was moonlighting in his position with Radio Free Europe. Stapleton supplemented his art income with concurrent teaching positions at Pratt Institute and Art Students League.
In February 1994, following Joe Stapleton’s death a month before, renowned printmaker Will Barnet had this to say about his ASL student of 6 years while speaking at a memorial event for Stapleton at Art Students League:
Joe was perfect for the period in which he lived. Some of Joe’s work had a little bit of a mixture of the French school of expressionism like [Pierre] Soulages and others, and some of it had a little bit of American. And combined together, it was Joe Stapleton. And that was the interesting part about his work. When you looked at his work you could see the images were a reflection of his own vision and they were very strong in their structural arrangements, which gave them a certain power…There was also a certain poignant quality about his work. There was also a certain poignancy about Joe. You would have to call him one of the younger generation of abstract expressionists.
More recently, after viewing the Stapleton self-portraits, Jonathan Ribner, Associate Professor of Art History and Director of Graduate Admissions, Department of History of Art & Architecture, Boston University, had this to say of the work:
Characterized by incisive, economical contour, Stapleton’s impressive drawings deserve to be more widely known. Within the narrow confines of a repeated self-portrait format, Stapleton was able to demonstrate a surprising variety of touch. Thanks to the initiative of Robert Solomon, this unique figure has been brought closer to receiving long overdue attention.

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