Stellan Holm Gallery in collaboration with Lisa Jacobs Fine Art is pleased to announce its first solo exhibition with the preeminent New York-based artist William Anastasi.  The exhibition will premiere six new paintings from the Bababad Series. This series is inspired by the longest word in James Joyce’s novel, Finnegans Wake, as Anastasi explains, Joyce’s “frightening beast” of an experimental novel. Like many admirers of the book, it has held an enduring fascination for Anastasi and has found its way into the soul of Anastasi’s work and literally onto his canvas. He began the series in the mid-eighties and is continuously working on it to this day. At the end of the series, which is one-third completed, fifty paintings (at roughly two letters each painting) will spell the sound of the fall of man, or the thunderclap expelling Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. The word in question is:


Try and say that aloud three times quickly. But wait, is it not more enjoyable to look at each and every letter of the word as Anastasi has magically transformed them into arabesques of pulsating line and color that quiver and float through the visual space of his canvases. “The attraction was to literary genius,” says Anastasi.  His attraction to Joyce started with The Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist and ultimately to Finnegan’s Wake. During his formative years, Anastasi remembers that he got into the habit of reading aloud, and that act of reading something aloud made it much more meaningful, much more powerful for him, Anastasi says, “I was reading Finnegans Wake aloud at the time and I loved this word which represents, among other things, God’s voice.”  Anastasi goes on to explain, “There’s an Irish folkloric tradition that when a man plunges to death the sound which accompanies his fall is the voice of God. This word heralds Finnegan’s fall from his scaffold and symbolically propels Lucifer and his followers into hell. It’s a sound object, and I guess connects with my sound objects. It’s a word about a sound, a word of a sound. I started with sound objects and ended up here doing a painting of a sound.” Perhaps to memorialize his 50 year preoccupation with the novel as well as a double homage to his heroes in literature and art, James Joyce and John Cage respectively, Anastasi has turned out a series of paintings as electrifying as a flash of lightning with a simultaneous crash of thunder. 

The bold, colorful, larger than life size canvases are created in part by chance, what Anastasi calls “unsighted painting” – painting without consciously looking at the canvas. Anastasi’s process involves oil sticks, which make it possible to put color on a surface without choosing the color. In contrast to the abstraction, he creates structure in the form of letters. Anastasi employs the old fashioned transparency method where immense blow-ups of each letter of the word are traced onto the canvas. In the novel, the word is first introduced to the reader on page one. It’s the first of ten thunderclaps scattered throughout the novel; each of which has 100 letters. Each painting includes roughly two letters. Sometimes the letters unintentionally form a word, for example “on”,  “tu” French for “you” and other times the letters visually transmit a sound, like “o” or “er”. 

The word as image has long fascinated artists and art lovers. If we think back to the history of 20th century art, cubist paintings of Picasso and Braque, with their inclusions of bits of words, instantly come to mind, as do the witty word paintings of Ed Ruscha and the cool joke paintings of Richard Prince. Paintings with text are attractive to the viewer not only because they are enjoyable to look at but they are also engaging to read. Words add an intellectual component to the act of looking at a painting.  

Anastasi is recognized as a pioneer of conceptual art. Throughout his career he has worked in every kind of media including sound, and sculpture.  His influence on contemporary art to date is significant, but is often overlooked. For example, his curved sculptures predate Richard Serra’s Torqued Ellipses and his 1965 piece Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony arguably had a profound influence on Eva Hesse’s work. Although a recent exhibition of his sound objects at The Leubsdorf Gallery at Hunter College garnered high acclaimed, in New York, he says, “I’m still relatively invisible.” As the artist and critic William Powhida predicted, in a Brooklyn Rail review in 2006, “There is no question that Anastasi is a pioneer of conceptualism and that he is deserving of recognition, however belatedly.”

William Anastasi was born in Philadelphia in 1933. He studied philosophy and business at the University of Pennsylvania. He has lived and worked in New York since 1962. He had four groundbreaking exhibitions at Dwan Gallery, New York between 1966-1970, one of which will be included in the Dwan gift to the National Gallery opening in 2016. His works are in numerous collections including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, The Jewish Museum, New York, the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Anastasi’s work has since been shown at Yvon Lambert, Paris (2013); Galerie Jocelyn Wolff, Paris (solo, 2012); Gering & Lopez, New York (2010);  the Esbjerg Art Museum, Denmark (retrospective, 2009); Galleria d’arte Emilio Mazzoli (2009) and many other museums and galleries in the U.S. and Europe. In 2013 a retrospective of Anastasi’s sound works was on view at the Leubsdorf Gallery at Hunter College, New York. Anastasi’s work is currently included in the concurrent exhibitions “Horror vacui” at Gagosian Gallery, Geneva and Gagosian Gallery, Athens.

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