Stephen Pace, 91; painter of abstracts, figures

Stephen Pace liked working from nature. “At the Lilly Pond’’ is an example from this approach. Stephen Pace liked working from nature. “At the Lilly Pond’’ is an example from this approach. (Katharina Rich Perlow Gallery)
By Roberta Smith
New York Times / October 8, 2010

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NEW YORK — Stephen Pace, whose exuberant style applied abstract expressionist scale and directness to figurative painting, died Sept. 23 in an assisted-living center in New Harmony, Ind. He was 91 and until two years ago had divided his time between homes in New York and Stonington, Maine.

The cause was pneumonia, said Katharina Rich Perlow, his New York dealer since 1985.

Mr. Pace was born in Charleston, Mo., the second of four brothers who grew up helping their parents run a farm and grocery store. He drew at an early age, improvising art materials until the fourth grade, when a teacher gave him a sketchbook and he first saw unlined paper.

In the 1930s, the family, still farming, moved to New Harmony. Mr. Pace was entranced by the austere buildings of the town, which had been built as a utopian community. At 17, he began to study with Robert Lahr, a WPA artist in Evansville, Ind., who emphasized anatomical studies and watercolor. Mr. Pace also worked as an architectural draftsman.

He served in the Army during World War II and studied art in Mexico on the GI Bill. He ended up attending a school in San Miguel de Allende, where he met the painter Milton Avery, who was on vacation. Avery encouraged him to move to New York and became a lifelong mentor.

After living in New Orleans, Mr. Pace moved to New York in 1947 and studied at the Art Students League and with Hans Hofmann. In 1949 he married Palmina Natalini, who worked as an art buyer for the McCann Erickson advertising agency and was often their main means of support. She is his only survivor.

Mr. Pace taught at several schools, including Pratt Institute and American University.

By the early 1950s, Mr. Pace was meeting with considerable success as a second-generation abstract expressionist, known for dark, energetically worked abstractions achieved through a distinctive blend of brushwork, drawing, and staining. He exhibited in several Whitney Annuals, had his first New York show at the Artists Gallery in 1954, and was subsequently represented by the Poindexter Gallery and then the A.M. Sachs Gallery.

In 1960 Mr. Pace began spending time outside New York, first in Pennsylvania and then in Maine, which reignited his interest in working from nature. By 1963, he had developed a broad-brushed representational style and a range of subjects that celebrated everyday life and labor. Some, like horse-drawn farm wagons and harvesting scenes, drew on childhood memories. Others were more current: Maine lobstermen tending their traps, his wife gardening, homey interiors, and nudes in the studio or the landscape.

The force of these images resides in their deft command of bodies in space balanced by saturated colors painted patchily on bare canvas.

The result is a magnified Fauvism or post-impressionism that takes inspiration from Avery, Matisse, and Bonnard, as well as Chinese painting. These works seem executed at high speed, with a once-over-lightly panache that leaves little margin for error.

Mr. Pace was adept at discreet reworking. “You might call me a fake Zen painter,’’ he once said.