Historical Journal

Journal Archives,Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Archives

Joe Stefanelli: The Fifties to the Present

October 27, 1989
Judith Stein

A writer and curator, studied at Barnard College, and has a Ph.D. in art history from the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of Eye of the Sixties, Richard Bellamy and the Transformation of Modern Art, (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2016). Her curatorial projects include Red Grooms, A Retrospective, for the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and The Figurative Fifties, New York School Figurative Expressionism, co-curated with Paul Schimmel. Her exhibition, I Tell My Heart: The Art of Horace Pippin, traveled to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1995, and earned a best catalogue award from AICA/USA. Her articles, interviews and reviews have appeared in Art in America, Art News, and The New York Times Book Review, as well as on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air and Morning Edition. Among her honors is a Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant; a Pew Fellowship for literary non-fiction; and a Lannan Foundation writing residency in Marfa, Texas.

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"In the eighties he returned to a diversity of colors and a multiplicity of marks, reconnecting with his expressionist roots."

October 27, 1988, through January 1, 1989
Joe Stefanelli paints with an authority gained from more than fifty years of working as an artist. When New York Times art critic John Russell recently described him as “a true painter, a lifelong painter and a painter whose work is built to last,” he was acknowledging the enduring nature of Stefanelli’s art and of his spirit. Stefanelli has weathered periods of vigorous support by collectors, critics, and curators as well as the apathy and neglect of indifferent times.
As a young art student in Philadelphia he was the envy of his peers for his formidable drawing skills. He had the good fortune to settle in New York during the late forties when Abstract Expressionism was just being established as the preeminent style of painting. In the following decade Stefanelli gained recognition as a second-generation abstract expressionist. He was an integral part of the vital art life of New York, which had become the international center of world art. But in the sixties and in the seventies, periods largely unsympathetic to the gestural urgencies of an expressionist aesthetic, the characteristic styles of Stefanelli and many of his contemporaries were out of fashion. For a time he experimented with more geometric compositions and a restricted palette. In the eighties he returned to a diversity of colors and a multiplicity of marks, reconnecting with his expressionist roots.
In his recent work Stefanelli has expanded his predominantly abstract compositions to include representational elements. Playful evocations of priapic men and sumptuously endowed women share the field with still-life forms derived from Egyptian tomb paintings. The formal structure of his canvases is often based on his long-established fondness for circles, triangles, and rectangles. Linear rhythms are frequently present in such partially abstracted details of classical architecture as the horizontal sprint of a molding or the vertical flow of a column. It is now in the neo-expressionist eighties that fashion has caught up with Joe Stefanelli.

Judith Stein
Associate Curator
All works courtesy of the artist and the Cyrus Gallery, New York, New York.
Wednesday, 1958
Oil on canvas 50″ x 60″
The Black Voyage, 1963
Oil on canvas 52″ x 611/2″
Verde Flush, 1965
Oil on canvas 66 1/2″ x 50″
Grey’s Wild, 1965
Oil on canvas 60 1/2″ x 53 1/4″
Karnak Sentinel, 1974
Oil on canvas 61 3/4″ x 49″
Saggara Sentinel, 1974
Oil on canvas 61 1/4″x 49″
E. M. Presentation, 1982
Acrylic on canvas 77″ x 58″
Senmut’s Color Plan, 1982
Acrylic on canvas 70 1/4″ x 49″
Recycled Seti, 1985
Acrylic on canvas 73 1/4″ x 49″
Recycled Nomentana, 1985
Acrylic on canvas 61″ x 46″
Giza Fragment, 1986
Acrylic on canvas 66″ x 51″
March Number, 1986
Acrylic on canvas 58″ x 78″
Code One, 1986
Acrylic on canvas 24″ x 28″
Purple Dominate, 1986
Acrylic on canvas 24″ x 28″
Recycled Bahri, 1987
Acrylic on canvas 62″ x 54″
The Untitled One, 1987
Acrylic on canvas 78″ x 58 1/2″
Code Yellow, 1987
Acrylic on canvas 24″ x 28″
Senmut’s World, 1987
Acrylic on canvas 24″ x 28″
Born in 1921, Joe Stefanelli was reared in the Italian section of South Philadelphia. He started his art training in 1934 at the age of fifteen at the Graphic Sketch Club, and was awarded a four-year scholarship to PMSIA (now The University of the Arts). From 1940 to 1941 he attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
Stefanelli enlisted in the U. S. Army and became combat artist for YANK, the Army weekly. As a journalist-artist during the war in the Pacific, he reported from China, Japan, Borneo, and the Philippines. His sketches done during that time are in the permanent collection of the War Archives Building in Washington, D.C.
Upon discharge he moved to New York City. He studied at the Art Students League under Morris Kantor, Will Barnett, and Vaclav Vytlacil, and later with Hans Hofmann. Painting in the abstract idiom, he soon attracted the attention of the Poindexter Gallery, which at that time was showing Richard Diebenkorn, Al Held, Mike Goldberg, George McNeil, and Milton Resnick, among others. In 1950 Stefanelli was selected by Meyer Schapiro and Clement Greenberg to be in the Kootz Gallery New Talent Show. Notable in the exhibition were Larry Rivers, Franz Kline, Esteban Vincente, Conrad Marca-Relli, Elaine de Kooning, and Leatrice Rose.
As a second -generation abstract expressionist, Stefanelli frequented the legendary Cedar Bar, as did his older artist friends Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Philip Guston, and Jackson Pollock. He was a member of the prestigious Eighth Street Club of New York School artists. He supported himself during this period by doing freelance illustration for the New York Times, signing his work “Leone.” He received a Fulbright Award for Rome, Italy, in 1958-59. From 1963 to 1966, he served as artist in residence at Princeton University. In 1967 he traveled to Egypt on a research grant studying and documenting Pharaonic tomb paintings.
Stefanelli has exhibited widely in New York and abroad and has had more than twenty-five one-man shows. His work has been included in annual exhibitions at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Whitney Museum, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and the Carnegie International. His work is represented in many public collections, including the Baltimore Museum, the Walker Art Center, and the Whitney Museum.
The Morris Gallery displays the work of outstanding contemporary artists with a connection to Philadelphia, determined by birth, schooling, or residence. The exhibitions are chosen by a committee composed of area artists, museum personnel, and collectors, and the curatorial staff of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Currently serving on the Morris Gallery Exhibition Committee are: Moe Brooker, Diane Burko, Paolo Colombo, Faith Ginsburg, Dr. Perry Ottenberg, Carrie Rickey, Judith Tannenbaum; Academy staff Judith Stein, Morris Gallery Coordinator, Frank H. Goodyear, Jr., Linda Bantel, and Susan Danly.
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