Process in Focus: Jeffrey Wasserman’s Use of Stencils
The history of stenciling—the creation of a positive image out of a negative structure—runs hand in hand with the history of manmade imagery. Over the centuries, stencil-based art and design went through many different iterations and purposes. More than 35,000 years ago, Neanderthals placed their hands against cave walls and, with straw-like implements, blew fine pigment around them, leaving their mark. By the first century AD, the Chinese had developed the paper stencil, using the device to advance early printing techniques. Trade brought the craft to Europe where it was further developed and utilized for everything from manuscript production, to fabric design to home decor.
Throughout the twentieth century, stenciling proved to be a tool for artists in pursuit of pushing the boundaries of Modernism. It offered an immediacy and simplicity that met the desires of artists as varied as Henri Matisse, Roy Lichtenstein, Jean-Michael Basquait, and Jeffrey Wasserman.
Studio Floor, Photograph courtesy of Jeffrey Wasserman Estate
In the 1970s, Jeffrey Wasserman lived and worked in SoHo, the heart of New York’s creative resurgence. He took up residence in the studio of his previous employer, the abstract artist Edward Avedisian. The artists around him were using commercial paints and products to apply neon colors with alternative devices—from spray cans to palette knifes—not only onto canvas, but onto the walls of the city. Street Art and Graffiti Art had taken hold of metropoles across the United States and Europe. Here, stencils were used as a means of efficiency to allow artists to make their mark quickly, as this form of creative expression was viewed as an act of vandalism. The stencil also allowed for easy reproduction, producing recognizable impressions, easily identifiable to passersby.
Most often, this art was made in response to political and social events, acting as a form of cultural commentary. However, Wasserman took the graffiti-like gesture and ubiquitous, saturated colors, and discarded the popular narrative.
Wasserman’s interest in color—instilled in him by his teacher, Color Field painter Friedel Dzubas, who introduced the young artist to the gestural techniques of Willem de Kooning and the color theory of Hans Hoffman—moved to the streets. Fellow artist, Frank Galuszka noted, “He [Wasserman] got crushes on colors: a particular orange, or the way black looks against blue. There were contrasts between veils of partly dripped color and crisp stenciled devices, like romantic icons or heroic emblems, figures against the ground.”
Jeffrey Wasserman, Untitled, c. 1985, oil on paper, 24.5 x 19.5 in.
Embracing his surroundings, Wasserman developed a “repertory of forms—upright loops like giant violin f-holes and dragged shard-like shapes” produced by stencils he made from wax paper (see photo). The flimsy, swiftly made cutouts were often discarded after one use, due to their fragile nature. This produced consistently similar but always-unique shapes. These forms, inspired partially by the Street Art around him, “hover in the space near the surface of the picture” and “gently collide and merge with excited brushwork and ghostly overlays of translucent color.” As critic Richard Huntington notes, “there is action, it’s just limited to small lateral jabs or slow up-and-down sweeps.” All of this is “set in dynamic opposition with thick, gestural areas of impasto,” where added sand and grit produce texture and extend the interior dimensions to the canvas’s flat plane. His was a “grungy, whatever-hits-the-drop-cloth technique,” that remained impressively balanced.
In the 1990s, Wasserman left behind the buzz of the city and moved upstate. He took with him an amassed aesthetic—the precision and balance of Dzubas's teachings, and the creative immediacy that ran through the streets of downtown New York—and synthesized his style into a wash of electric colors and muted motifs. With this departure, his work, indebted to, yet removed from, the trends of the twentieth century, began to “read as image[s] dissolving into a turbulent, painterly ether."
One of the most rudimentary yet resilient image-making techniques, the art of stenciling is embedded in the developments of Wasserman’s oeuvre. With the passing decades the actual intended shape of the stencil became less significant. The process, the application of the stencil and paint and grit to canvas, “the improvisation and accident of untried color combinations [left to] bleed” into each other, would become the artist’s interest and source of inspiration.
Jeffrey Wasserman, Untitled, c. 1988, tempera on paper, 15 x 20 in.