In the United States, an eerie silence surrounds the work of Russian painter Nicolas de Staël. His name is rarely, if ever, recommended to or cited as an influence on an American painter. The first reason for his relative absence from the American consciousness is simply bad timing. As Eliza Rathbone explained in 1997: “The very fact that [de Staël] began to achieve fame and recognition during the same years as the New York School was establishing its reputation on native soil, made a challenging environment for the work of an artist steeped in artistic culture and traditions of France.” 1 The romantic image of the New York School remains powerful today. Struggling inwardly in a studio on 10th Street continues to capture the imagination of young American painters more than attempting to evoke the light and heat felt on a beach in Antibes.
Perhaps the main reason de Staël’s reputation has languished in recent decades though, is the inaccessibility of his work. The Phillips Collection in Washington D.C. has been the only reliable venue to see de Staël’s paintings in the last half century. After regular showings in the 1950s, only four other shows of de Staël’s paintings – in 1963, 1965, 1990, and 1997 – precede the small, but well-selected show of his works now on view at Mitchell-Innes & Nash’s Madison Avenue space.
The general neglect of de Staël is a missed opportunity for American painters because his work is so generous in its ambition. His paintings are expansive. “True painting,” he wrote, “always tends towards all aspects, that is to say, towards the impossible sum of the present moment, the past, and the future.” 2 De Staël refused to neuter painting by adopting prevailing modernist dogmatism. He would not allow his work be classified as either abstract or figurative. He sought what he described as “what lies between the two.” 3