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―One Can Invent Nothing without Painting‖—The Painted Work
Ursula Zeller


When Anton Stankoswki relocated from Zurich to Stuttgart in 1938, he was—after
studying in Essen and the first years of his career, spent with Max Dalang in Zurich—
already a fully accomplished artist. In Zurich he had already taken a leading position
within the school of Concrete Art, as a painter, photographer, and commercial
graphic artist. Stankowski therefore owed nothing to the Stuttgart skies. On the
contrary: he brought a great deal of creativity, technical knowledge, and professional
routine with him from Zurich. His relocation was also involuntary. Had his residence
permit in Switzerland been extended, he probably would have remained there for the
long-term. But what Stankowski would find in the new city was, as of the 1960s, an
open-minded climate in which he could develop his impulses as a commercial
graphic artist and painter to their best effect.
In Zurich, Stankowski had already actively engaged himself in free painting,
photography, typography, and commercial graphic art—indeed, these fields
encompass the entire spectrum of his professional activities. The question of what he
considered his main profession or secondary profession most likely never concerned
him. Would he have otherwise accepted a teaching position at the School of Design
in Ulm in 1964, which sought to achieve the closest connection between art and
industrial goods production, or founded the Stankowski Foundation in the 1980s,
whose particular concern is to distinguish personalities who are masters in both
applied and fine arts? In 1983, Stankowski‘s Gesamtwerk was also published with
the subtitle ―The unity of fine and applied art 1925–1982.‖ For him, the boundaries
were indistinct: ―Things flowed into one another for me. I‘ve always painted and
drawn, but it was never that I said, ‗I‘m an artist, I‘m a painter.‘‖1
So, in the case of Anton Stankowski, free and applied work cannot be separated.
From his earliest beginnings, he considered his continually cultivated work as a free
artist as an important instrument on the path to creative self-inspiration. It served to
sharpen his sense of perception and test new possibilities in his own further
development. While his works in the fine arts could be mere finger exercises, they
could also be training in form, often serving to bring him toward the systematic
development of a motif through all the potential of forms available to him. But, in
many cases, he would regard a free painting as an autonomous image, as an
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independent work of art. Stankowski never doubted that fine art—as a sort of
laboratory within the framework of his innovative activities—took on the function of a
pacesetter. An early example of this is his theory of design of 1928–30, in which he
develops motifs that he later returned to and varied. But this principle carried weight
for all his creations. The variable murals at Robert Bosch GmbH in Stuttgart in 1979,
or the functional graphics created for the firm Benzing in Villingen-Schwenningen in
1990, offer excellent late proof of this. In their draft phases, these projects were
created entirely from paintings: some of them paintings that were further developed
either directly or in variations. It was, of course, not the case that the internal
emphasis on the work of Stankowski the artist and his external assessment as a
commercial designer were equally important at all times. For a long period, one
overshadowed the other. This fundamentally changed only in the 1970s.
That free and applied work do not represent an antithesis is a maxim that Anton
Stankowksi had surely learned during his education in Essen. But it was only later
that he elevated this to a principle, for it was already the conviction of the Zurich
Concrete artists that there should be no boundaries between the fine and applied
arts. They demanded of themselves that the same consistent creative approach must
stand behind all products—whether functional objects, advertising or works of fine
art. In fact, their ideal was not to become specialists but to remain generalists in all
areas of work. One thing, however, was especially important to them—a stipulation
that Anton Stankowski permanently adopted: that the artistic means they used should
always be at the cutting edge of science and technology.
Stankowksi secured a unique position, even among the Zurich Concrete artists,
through one aspect of his work: namely, his consistent endeavors with perspective
and space, where he systematically ventured toward the introduction of the third
dimension, the spatial depth. This meant an expansion both of what he had learned
from Max Burchartz and of the standpoint of his contemporaries in Zurich. With the
diagonal, Stankowski introduced his own elemental form into the Constructivist
canon. It was for this reason that Verena Loewensberg noted Anton Stankowski‘s
special contribution to the Zurich guiding principles of design: ―He introduced the
oblique into the poster.‖2
The return to Germany, the war, and the immediate postwar period interrupted
Stankowski‘s graphic and free work. In the postwar period, he initially resumed work
as a photojournalist for the Stuttgarter Illustrierte and became its chief editor until
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1950. No painting was created during this time, but he returned to painting in the
early 1950s, when he reestablished his own studio. In these early works, he revisited
dilemmas that had concerned him as early as the 1920s and 1930s: problems of the
line in Egozenter from 1952 or Curves of 1954, of surface and grid in Rhombus and
Lines in 1954, with the process of surface division in Triangle, Divided into Three of
1954 (fig. 12.3), with progression in Progression of Dots of 1952 (fig. 12.1) or
Progression of 1955 (fig. 12.4), of movement of form on the surface as in Square
Columns from 1952 or Square Spiral of 1959 (fig. 12.6), and with consistency in paint
application in Equal Amounts of Color from 1958. The new paths that Stanskowski
consistently trod after the war primarily led back to the theory of design, the creation
of posters, and the experiments he had developed in his early paintings. In 1958, for
example, he returned to a template from his Zurich drawings with Height, Width,
Depth, which shows three rectangular forms in varying sizes as parallelograms. The
spatial coordinates are thereby not only assigned in the image, but are also
simultaneously and consistently introduced in perspective representation. Or, with
Balance of 1956, now located in the Museum in Lodz, he varies the motif Floating
from 1931, in which the black incised quadratic form falls out of the frame and
balances itself on a small red square over a blue bar.
The fact that in his paintings Stankowski repeatedly anticipated artistic styles that
appeared later can be only a side note in his variation-rich work. The lamella-like
relief structures in Oscillogram—Horizontal from 1953 refer, for example, to the
pictorial phenomena of Op Art. Or the odor images, like Scent II from 1954, anticipate
the monochromatic works of the Nouveaux Réalistes or later Concrete painters. For
the most part these painted images were not created as solitary individual works, but
arose in series as systematic experiments in the underlying form concepts. They
embody mathematical and chromatic rules as work maxims of their inventor. It was
sufficient for the appearance of form and color on the canvas to be nothing more than
itself.
However, as already stated, Stankoswki saw, in painting, not only a laboratory for
experimentation, but also the possibility of continual, systematic development of
form. Even in the early phases of his work, he ventured toward the problems inherent
in pictorial structures and developed serial principles. Here the development of the
pictorial ideas did not follow according to plan or even constantly, but rather
cyclically; always in new beginnings that referred back to his own pictorial inventions.
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One of the most important motifs from the early period on was the square, which was
initially subject to the most varied operations in a serial way. The painting
Development/Pythagoras from 1949 thus directly connects to the prewar period:
variations of squares in a right-angled triangle set over a square result in a structure
that gradually fills the painting‘s entire ground. A very loose variation on the
Pythagorean theorem later unfolds in the serial image 3 Squares over One Another
from 1976 (fig. 12.12), whereby here Stankowski was most concerned with the
mixture of colors and their development from dark to light tones.
Stankoswki worked through even more themes with quadratic forms or forms deriving
from the square: symmetry and asymmetry in the paintings Square behind Lines or
Square and Third from 1954 (fig. 12.2); grids and diffusion in Small Is Beautiful from
1956; or progression and permutation in Spatial Progression from the same year.
Squares also served to realize an additional important design motif; to explore design
operations in positive-negative forms, as in 3 x Positive-Negative from 1952. Squares
thereafter offered the opportunity to plumb the logical variations of a simple square,
like in the two works Nine x Four Squares, Light from 1952 and Nine Variations with
Squares from the following year.
Stankowski ultimately used squares to represent growth: Structure Yellow from 1958
lays increasingly more fragmented square grids over one another in various colors.
From this emerges the impression of a crystal structure that becomes ever denser,
emerging from divisions, or ―grown.‖ Pictorial symbols like division and growth
expand the visual language to include a visualization of abstract processes. The new
topic of visualization—first observed in the theory of design of 1928–30—is brought
into painting: Stankowski visualized abstract intellectual material like growth,
germination, division, rotation, and time. Through processes of abstraction, he
expanded the Constructivist visual language to include the sign or signet. The
painting Radio from 1955 represents the best example of this: Following elliptical
paths, white rows of rods, growing larger and smaller, rotate around a central point
on a black background. Stankowski herewith succeeded in creating not only an
astonishingly early example of Op Art, but also a visualization of transmitted
broadcast waves that centrifugally radiate from a central point via the ether.
The issue of visualization, which always simultaneously incorporated the factors of
time and movement, led further to serial images as a renewed expansion of the
painterly topic. The serial painting Vine Pruning Blue from 1967 shows, for example,
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a distancing movement that runs in five phases, each originating from a half-blue and
half-black rectangle and developing into a right-angled, blue-black net structure of
doubled forms (fig. 12.9). The observer gets the impression that his view is zooming
further and further away from the structure as if under a microscope, until, in the last
phase, he is looking only at complex, networked structures. In this way, Stankowski
suggests not only movement, but also the passage of time.
In 1960, with the diagonal element, a new constructive form material reappears as an
innovative moment in design. This element, which Stankowski had already mastered
in the Zurich years, is something he now attempted in numerous variations, whether
in Oblique Bar, Centrally Arranged from 1960 or in Fourfold from 1976 (fig. 12.13). In
the latter, he sets four stripes in the primary colors and green upon a quadratic
background, so that all three pictorial planes —horizontal, vertical, and diagonal—are
described. The two diagonals indicate the dimension of depth in two ways:
represented in distorted perspective, the green and the blue stripes seem to move
forward and backward from the planes to open to the image space, as it were. In
1980, Stankowski varied this motif on a black square ground in Measures on Black.
Immediately thereafter, he explored three additional variations with stripes on black
backgrounds: in Floating he sets the stripes in a counter-rotation in four regularly
structured rows next to each other. And in Genes he placed a row of short diagonals
on the upper and lower pictorial ground, connecting them to each other in an X-form
in the painting‘s central axis. In Slanting Rods—Numbers Representing Themselves
he set one, two, three, or four colorful stripes in horizontal rows in regular intervals
over each other, each with a different angle of inclination. From this emerges a
dynamic that is reminiscent of Op Art designs, but taken together brings movement
into the image in all three paintings.
As of 1970, with an emphasis on his work in fine art, Stankowski, in his paintings, ran
through the diagonal elements as a departure from the square in form and color
schemes in always new variations and expansions. The 1970s show an increasing
confrontation with numerically determined color concepts. Color is no longer left to
coincidence or intuition; the diagonal structures from the same diagonal cells are
bound by color grading. Ground colors are darkened or lightened; contrast colors are
confronted with each other in counter-rotating groupings. The slanting elements now
evolve directly into the stripe images, which likewise exist in numerous variations. To
this belongs the Flying Forms from 1976 as well as works like Diagonal in Diagonals
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from 1980 (fig. 12.17). In its regularly interlocking bands, this shows a color shift from
light to dark and to the contrasting color. Two color schemes penetrate each other.
The diagonal element also finally enters the painting through the lowermost band‘s
unfolding, which effects activity, liveliness in the surface. It represents a conscious
departure from convention—a movement observable in many of Stankowski‘s works.
Among the stripe images is also 1+1=3 (fig. 12.8), which later constituted the basic
motif for the signet for the Münchner Rückversicherung, or the two vertical and
horizontal visualizations on Time—Past, Now—Future from 1980. In this, the present
is introduced with a narrow, light-hued horizon on which there is a colored cross. It
marks the viewer‘s location at the moment of his absorption in the image. This
present lasts only a moment and hence covers the smallest area on the painting. An
area marked with light yellow diagonal stripes opens up over this—the future—which
covers the largest area by far. Under it is a zone designed in ochre and brown-toned
stripes—the past—upon which the present is based. The image shows an intellectual
approach that goes beyond form and color structures.
In his work in the 1970s, Stankowski also developed an initially strange series of
quadratic formats that feature almost photorealistic characteristics. These are the
Blue, Red, and Colored Sails, made in 1973 and 1974 (figs. 12.10–11). In these
paintings, Stankowski divided the painting into three parts: the lowermost zone
covers a third of the entire surface, the remaining area above is halved or
proportionally divided into one-third to two-thirds. The effect, however, is dominated
by a painterly idiosyncrasy: here, Stankowski did not apply the paint onto the surface
with a brush, but rather sprayed it in finely graduated, glazed color progressions. This
creates a spatial illusion in which the surfaces seem to fold out forward. It is probably
the most extreme spatial effect that Stankowski ever conceded himself. Perhaps for
him, the illusionist effect went a bit too far. At any rate, he did not follow this path
further or return to it.
Two years later, Stankowski returned to the 1950s again and readdressed the topic
of uniformity in color surface. He varied this topic in two large series of nine paintings
each. In Nine Phases, new forms continually emerge on the same grid through
variations of the inserted color elements, but here, some, but not all, of the utilized
colors must cover the same surface area. Here, Stankowski also played with the
confrontation of equal and unequal quantities. He had not previously addressed this
issue so consistently and with such a light hand. Here, it is actually the departure
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from a once-chosen design maxim that constitutes the piece‘s strength. He himself
once observed, ―Even in the most consistent system there is a free space in which
subjectivity has a part. The field of the irrational remains open. It can be combined
into an antisystem in a work. Breaking out of a system in a controlled way can
become part of the concept.‖3
In the 1980s, Stankowski found a new pair of opposites, with which he had previously
only concerned himself in the series Look from 1968: order and chaos. In Look, he
had assigned the topic to pairs of paintings, but now he addressed it in one work.
The painting Directions from 1982 could be seen as characteristic for the
representation of opposition, which appears in various images from now on. It
consists of adjacent colored stripes arranged like warp threads, of which some break
out in mid-image and lay over and under each other, resulting in a new, irregular
―weave.‖ Chaos and order could not be visualized in a simpler or more visual way.
Stankowski addressed this topic in several series of images, such as Increasing
Stripes from 1983. Here he combines branching bands with a zoom effect in six
phases and pulls the observer‘s view further and further into the painting.
In 1983, Stankowski was able to take a sabbatical through a Villa Massimo
fellowship. In this period, he worked on thirty-eight large paintings, each 30 x 30 cm,
in which he very fundamentally contemplated possible design topics. Something like
a theory of design emerges, but in painted form. Here he handled simple topics like
Four Semi-circles or Disrupted Cross, but he also often contrasts opposites like
Straight and Slanted, Positive-Negative Double Form. With these paintings,
Stankowski culled the quintessence from his creative production and summarized his
design insights.
The serial painting Geometric A–Q from 1986 also seems noteworthy. In this,
Stankowski superimposes a diagonal stripe onto various geometric surfaces—
triangle, circle, spiral, rhombus, etc. He paid very special attention to the colors by
strictly avoiding primary colors. Rather, all the colors are refracted into an unusually
rich palette. The series‘ effect makes Stankowski seem to want to obliterate the
geometric forms and make them invalid on the one hand, but emphasize them and
fully fasten them to their background with a diagonal band on the other. In this way,
he guides the viewer‘s attention in such a way that the geometric form‘s complex
structure is taken in. So here, once again, is the conscious full declension of the
vocabulary of geometric forms.
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The large format is characteristic for Anton Stankowski‘s work in the 1990s, which he
now continuously chose. If he previously only utilized oversize formats of more than
two meters as an exception—or for applied contracts—he now came to love the two-
by-two-meter dimension. It is interesting that he here often returned to motifs from his
early periods and transferred them either directly or in slight variation into the large
format. In his later works it is as if he wanted to reexamine some of his icons in the
very large format and—if they were deemed good—give them a lasting, respectable
place in his oeuvre.
Anton Stankowski was a man of action, who created the basis for his art via practice.
Whatever he touched he oriented toward the basic concept of economy and
designed it simply, usably, and properly. Ultimately, an idea of what is right emerges
from the recognition of what is proper and gives an ethical aspect to his
craftsmanship. He derived all of his aesthetic maxims from this formalist ethos, which
he laid down in his artworks. These artworks are, so to speak, the theoretical
accompaniment and the idealistic output of his work as a graphic designer. What
counted for him were dimensions and rules, and he indefatigably worked to get to the
bottom of these, advancing his knowledge via experiments with proportions, visual
laws, and colors. With this, Stankowski proved himself an artist before the cult of the
genius, when art was still science and rules. Beauty was therefore equivalent to order
—and what else did free painting mean for Stankowski other than creating order in
material? It shows a certain component of reality in a system of order and in this way
helps appropriate the world.
In Anton Stankowski‘s perception, order is also meant in the societal sense. This
humanist-based desire for order probably goes back to his training at the Folkwang
School. Then, the belief in the ―cleansing‖ power of the ―new design‖ referred to the
social environment as a whole. The artist should anchor his activity in society. And
thus, from this time on, there was within Stankowski a scarcely concealed Utopian,
full of the certainty that the aesthetic correction of the material environment would
ultimately also change people for the better.


 Stephan von Wiese (ed.), Anton Stankowski. Das Gesamtwerk (Stuttgart, 1982), p. 45.
2
  Ibid., p. 28.
3
  Anton Stankowski, ―Die Farbe als Medium in meinen visuellen Kompositionen. Vortrag auf der internationalen
Farb-Info ‘78, Köln,― quoted from ibid., p. 416.