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Leonard Contino

Curated by Mark di Suvero

Leonard Contino February 2 - March 9, 2013



Gregory Amenoff Theodore S. Berger Sanford Biggers Thomas G. Devine Thomas K.Y. Hsu Vivian Kuan Corina Larkin Joyce E. Robinson Jan Rothschild Brian D. Starer

Polly Apfelbaum Theodore S. Berger, Chair Ian Cooper William Corbett Michelle Grabner Eleanor Heartney Deborah Kass Corina Larkin Rossana Martinez Juan Sรกnchez Irving Sandler, Senior Fellow Carolyn Somers

CURATORIAL ADVISORY COUNCIL Gregory Amenoff William Corbett Lynn Crawford Trenton Doyle Hancock Sharon Lockhart Thomas Roma Marjorie Welish Andrea Zittel

Lilly Wei

STAFF Jeremy Adams, Executive Director Beatrice Wolert-Weese, Programs Director Jessica Gildea, Programs Coordinator Sara Lotty, Development & Office Assistant


OUR Mission

CUE Art Foundation is a dynamic visual arts center dedicated to creating essential career and educational opportunities for emerging artists of all ages. Through exhibitions, studio residencies, arts education, and public programs, CUE provides artists and audiences with sustaining and meaningful experiences and resources.



Leonard Contino

A self-taught artist who always sketched and drew as a child, Leonard Contino first used paint to pin-stripe cars and hot rods in his Brooklyn neighborhood. In 1962, at the age of 19, he suffered a severe spinal cord injury in a diving accident, which left him a quadriplegic and confined to a wheelchair. While receiving treatment at the Rusk Institute, he met another patient, artist Mark di Suvero. Encouraged by di Suvero, Contino, using a brace for his hand, started to make drawings and eventually to paint. Contino’s first show was at the seminal Soho gallery, Park Place. A hard-edged geometric abstract painter for over 40 years, Contino’s works include sculpture, wall reliefs and collages. His paintings are in a number of museums and private collections including the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Dallas Museum of Art, and the Foundation of Contemporary Art, Geneva. Contino’s work, which has been described as precisionist and visionary, represents a relentless exploration of pictorial space using dynamic geometric forms.


Leonard Contino: Abstract Visions By Joseph Di Mattia In his paintings, Contino uses three motifs: biomorphic shapes, tessellated patterns of interlocking squares and rectangles, as well as transparent and solid color triangles, which Contino calls “floaters.” In these paintings, Contino builds up thin layers of acrylic paint to create subtly shimmering surfaces. The paintings appear to glow and emanate light. At the center of the canvas, he places hard-edged, densely colored, solid triangular shapes. These geometric shapes and forms, encased in soft aureoles of light, appear to be weightless and suspended in space, creating a complex pictorial illusionism. However, for Contino, it’s not so much to fool the eye as in trompe l’oeil or Op art but to engage the viewer by creating a painting that he says “is like a field of energy.” Within this flexible geometry, the spatial ambiguities occur over time creating a continually shifting pictorial plane. For Contino, these paintings are “made up of simple elements that are constantly changing.” This constantly changing pictorial space is a hallmark of Contino’s art, something that he has persistently pursued for over 40 years. And over that time, Contino has created a body of work that is lively, rigorous and represents a compelling artistic vision. Joseph Di Mattia is a writer and documentary filmmaker living in NYC.

1. Contino, Leonard. Personal interview. 1.15.2010




Mark di Suvero

Internationally renowned sculptor Mark di Suvero was born in Shanghai, China, in 1933. He immigrated to the United States in 1941 and received a BA in Philosophy from the University of California, Berkeley. Di Suvero began showing his sculpture in the late 1950’s and is one of the most important American artists to emerge from the Abstract Expressionist era. A pioneer in the use of steel, di Suvero is without peer in the exhibition of public sculpture worldwide. Mark di Suvero’s architectural-scale sculptures—many with moving elements that invite viewer participation—have been exhibited in the United States, France, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Germany, Australia, Japan and the United Kingdom. Di Suvero is the first living artist to exhibit in Le Jardin de Tuileries and Les Esplanades des Invalides in Paris and at Millennium Park-Chicago. His work is in over 100 museums and public collections including the J.P. Getty Museum, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, the Museum of Modern Art, National Gallery of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Walker Art Center, and Storm King Art Center where he has had three major exhibitions. Mark di Suvero is a lifelong activist for peace and social justice, and has demonstrated a generous commitment to helping artists. In 1962 he co-founded Park Place Gallery, the first artists’ cooperative in New York City. In 1977, he established the Athena Foundation to assist artists to realize their ambitions. In 1986, he established Socrates Sculpture Park at the site of a landfill on the East River in Queens, New York. Through his leadership, a 4.5 acre parcel was transformed by a coalition of artists and community members into an open studio and exhibition space. To date, the park has hosted the work of over 900 artists. Di Suvero received the Lifetime Achievement Award in Contemporary Sculpture from the International Sculpture Center in 2000, the Heinz Award for Arts and Humanities in 2005 and the Smithsonian Archives of American Art in 2010. He also was a recipient of the National Medal of the Arts in 2010.



Leonard Contino is a brilliant dedicated brother-artist who I have known and worked with for fifty years. We have done figure drawing with John Chamberlain, studies from the nude, participated in the commune gallery Park Place, the radical initiating Soho gallery, and have lived the extreme life and death of New York artists. His experimental works of the 1960s that ranged from sand-paintings to optical, dazzling zig-zagged pin-stripe paintings have a true artist’s inspiration and dedication. The scope and consistency of his major work is breathtaking; the geometrical central core of his work demands the focused attention that all major life-changing art works give to us. Beyond the paintings, the collage-watercolors have an idiosyncratic exploration of sexually bizarre and quirky incandescence. His sculptural maquettes have a constructivist orientation, and are much closer to the studied geometrical paintings that are the core of his work. His art is the reason of his life. It is not surprising that his sculpture, rarely seen in the art gallery world, is so related to the geometrical art of Park Place (1960s); his friendship with Chris Wilmarth was intense and the passion for art as a means of reconciling despair with hope and joy is something that he has shared with me for half a century. His mother was a dedicated partner in his works, a beautiful person who lived with tragedy and dedicated her life to his art in the highest level of the human spirit. Because of his weird or twisted personality he has resisted the opportunities that the commercial art galleries have offered: as Camille Xin asked “at what stage did you decide you wanted to be an art-world failure?” Hermit-like, he has built his fortress. It is his art that is important, the concentrations and perfectionism in sprung-free rational works places him in the forefront of the American Precisionist movement. He has been an inspiration to me and a friend in need, and I am thrilled that CUE Art Foundation has brightened the world with his works.

Leonard Contino

Moon Year Majic, 1972 Acrylic on canvas, 30" x 30"



RE, 1977 Acrylic on canvas, 28" x 30"


Sunlight Shaft, 1983 Acrylic on canvas, 28" x 32"


SHU, 1977 Acrylic on canvas, 28" x 30"


Ocean Rains, 1986 Acrylic on canvas, 28" x 32"


Light Wave, 2006 Acrylic on canvas, 20" x 26"


Magic Stand, 1976 Acrylic on canvas. 32" x 34"


Tombee Templar, 2011 Acrylic on canvas, 30" x 40"


Untitled, 2012 Relief: acrylic on wood 10 1/2" x 16 1/2"


Untitled, 2010 Relief: acrylic on wood 11 1/2" x 11 7/8"


Untitled, 1986 Relief: acrylic on wood 12" x 12"


Splintered Lines, 2006 Acrylic on canvas, 7 3/8" x 20"


Empty Shadows, 2007 Acrylic on canvas 12" 1/2 x 25 1/2"


Untitled, 2010 Collage: paper (magazine) and acrylic on paper, 24" x 18"


Untitled, 2004 Collage: paper (magazine) and acrylic on paper, 24" x 18"


A Single-minded Migratory Bird By Camille Xin

Untitled, 2009 Collage: paper (magazine) and acrylic on paper, 24 x 18"


Leonard Contino is the kind of visionary artist described by Rilke as a single-minded migratory bird. Although formally untrained, Contino’s mode of geometric and optical art is highly sophisticated, his work a unique blend of spiritual and metaphysical curiosity. He effortlessly switches between different mediums but other than his creativity, nothing is effortless for Contino. In 1962, at the age of 19, he injured his spinal cord in a diving accident and became a quadriplegic confined to a wheelchair. He couldn’t hold a pencil or a brush without the support of a brace. As a child, Contino drew and sketched, and before his accident, he pin-striped cars and hot rods in his Brooklyn neighborhood. But it was while at the Rusk Institute that he was encouraged to make serious art by a young fellow patient and sculptor, Mark di Suvero, with whom he formed a close, life-long friendship. At first, Contino made drawings and imitated old masters. Through di Suvero’s introductions, he met many artists. Some of them were affiliated with Park Place Gallery, an artist-run cooperative gallery in Soho that emphasized avant-garde art by emerging artists. Contino was immediately attracted to the experimental edge of Geometric Abstraction and Op Art. Yet it was one of Clyfford Still’s large abstract paintings that triggered his sense of composition and color palette. Contino showed his geometric paintings in group exhibitions at Park Place and Green Gallery which featured works by Mark di Suvero, John Chamberlain, Forrest Meyers, Robert Grosvenor, Donald Judd, and Dan Flavin, among others. However, while most of his fellow artists went on to become successful, Contino, who believed in the reclusive mythos of van Gogh, shied away from the art world. For the next 40-some years, in


A Single-minded Migratory Bird

a house near South Ozone Park, New York, he pursued his solitary, relentless investigation of paintings, reliefs, collages and sculptures. Contino’s early works are hard-edged geometric paintings (including shaped canvases) composed of thick lines and contrasting solid colors that divide the canvas and form intricate shapes. They employ optical tension not so much to fool the eye but to engage the viewer in a moving energy field. Compared to similar works of the 60s, Contino’s “Geometric Series” is executed with exceptional control and a rare sense of spirituality. Some of the shapes are inspired by the pottery patterns and blanket designs of North American Indians; some were architectural as seen in his Chinese Garden and Israeli Tents, or animals, as in Birds Head with Beak and Crossed Eyed Cat’s Eyes. “[Contino’s] early works tend to be monofocal,” a reviewer wrote about one of his solo shows. “Depth is suggested within the form which remains anchored to the unmodulated picture plane.” 1 In 1968, Contino’s father was given a bag of mat boards at a trade show. They inspired his geometric, spatially multifaceted “Wall Reliefs Series.” At the same time, his mother fashioned a new brace for him, which made it easier for him to control his movements. Contino cut and painted the mat boards in acrylic, then glued a “geometric puzzle” (without space in between) in the center of solid colored wood panels that he treated like canvas supports. These low reliefs project outward from the surface of the work, serving as a methodical reexamination of the relationship between painting and sculpture. This makes them essentially different from Frank Stella’s wall-mounted high reliefs that are constructed like three-dimensional sculptures (with space in between) projecting directly from the wall. Instead of trying to organize the space as Stella did, Contino investigated the dynamic relationship between perspective and images, images and planes, as well as planes and material. Nevertheless, both of their works articulated a new formulation of painting as image and object. Contino, however, didn’t abandon flat abstract paintings. In fact, his new spatial understanding served as a catalyst for the development of his “Floater Series.” Instead of filling the surface like he did in his early paintings, Contino let air in by centering the image on a shimmering acrylic background. The “Floaters,” like his “Reliefs,” are allowed to breath and emanate light. Material is the element separating these two series. Contino and geometric abstractionist Ron Davis share similar concerns about perspectival illusion and optical tension, but these are not Contino’s main preoccupation. His focus always goes back to the constant shifting of pictorial space. While Davis was trying to create three26

dimensional illusion, Contino mixed it with two-dimensional geometric shapes. Bright color juxtapositions on interlocking squares, rectangles and triangles create an effect of shifting light and shadow, in turn producing spatial ambiguity. Spirituality continued to infuse Contino’s works via Hopi, Navajo and Mayan symbols. In the early 80s, Contino added new motifs to his “Floaters,” such as long thin lines that resembled a bridge structure influenced by di Suvero’s sculptures. A few years later, biomorphic shapes began dancing with three-dimensional forms in Secret Gardens to create the “Morphic Series,” suggesting Joan Miró’s playfulness. At this point, Contino’s paintings pulled away from the norm by breaking down the barrier between geometric and surrealism. The spiritual aspect of Contino’s geometric art distinguishes him from Frank Stella, Victor Vasarely and Ron Davis. Contino believes in one god with many names and a universal flow of energy connecting all religions. Over the years, Contino made many cross paintings that resemble mandalas, but for him the shape is ecumenical. Because of his mother, Contino became interested in Aten, the Egyptian Sun God worshipped by Akhenaten. Together, they visited the King Tut exhibition at the Met in the late 70s. Contino was especially fascinated with the throne chair and its bursting sun surrounded by rays, topped with little human hands. Not long after that came his “Checkerboard Series.” The color palette and checker patterns resemble that of the seat of the throne chair and King Tut’s miniature golden coffin. However, Contino kept his paintings far simpler. A symbol of the sun, presented in layered half circles, is often placed slightly off center on a checkerboard ground. Sending rays and waves down, it creates quadrilaterals from the interlocking triangles, circles and ovals. The series shares the characteristic that defines his artistic focus, that of, as he said, “simple elements that are constantly changing according to various perspectives.”2 Lines and planes are also fundamental to Contino’s work, as seen in his “Black and White Series.” A quick glance shows straight black lines intersecting on a white canvas that generate optical agitation, resembling a mystical design. Yet when the viewers look longer, from a certain vantage point, they can make out transparent triangles and squares that are suspended and overlap as in Fast Track and Hair Spring. The transparency indicates that both positive and negative should be seen as a whole, yet viewers might end up wondering: is what you see what you see? While remaining minimal, Contino’s “Black and White Series” defies Frank Stella famous mantra. Contino himself wants to see what’s behind his “Floaters,” hence he placed himself either above or below to investigate their spatial relationships. The paintings seem to subtly move when seen from different angles and perspectives. The hard27

A Single-minded Migratory Bird

edged lines without his usual contrasting colors and shimmering surfaces “undermine any attempt to place them firmly in the tradition of the 1960’s optical art.”3 In recent years, this series has become horizontal in works like Gale, and his perspective turned frontal as in Light Wires. In addition, his straight lines have become even more minimal but not less emphatic. They don’t represent or reflect, but facilitate his overall vision. In the sense of line drawing, they bear a kinship to Sol Lewitt’s wall paintings, though Contino’s works are much smaller in size. Nonetheless, his lines expand beyond the single plane and beyond the canvas. The finished images fall between the measurable and immeasurable. Its minimal structure and complex visual effect doesn’t allow our eyes to rest on any static pictorial plane, “thus,” as critic Barbara Rose put it, “the painting remains continuously alive.”4 In addition to stringent geometric art, in the late 60s, Contino created a series of freespirited “Collages” inspired by a copy of Penthouse magazine his mother found in the subway. Contino’s early geometric works used precisely measured grids, and his later paintings and reliefs were done with systematically developed variations, all of which avoided narration and facile interpretations. Collages freed Contino creatively and emotionally, allowing him to combine magazine cut-outs, checkerboards, drawings and paintings. His magazine cutouts often involved sexy women, animals, machine parts and everyday objects, which generate not only stories, but also humor, spontaneity and sensual energy. Collages are Contino’s expressionism. As di Suvero commented, “collage expresses Contino’s erotic energy. They are sometimes obscene, sometimes bizarre, but in them he let himself go.” As close friends, di Suvero and Contino have inevitably inspired each other and have collaborated on a few metal sculptural pieces—Contino drew and di Suvero made them. In the early 90s, Contino made many wooden sculptures himself. Again, restricted by physical limitations and meager funds, his sculptures are all exquisite maquettes waiting to be enlarged. Contino does not produce his work in a linear progression. He circles back and forth between different mediums. As a result, each of his series evolves slowly but adamantly. It might take Contino a few months to finish a checkerboard painting, but he does it himself, handling a saw and making his own frames. A proud artist who is indifferent to money and fame, Contino refuses to be categorized as a quadriplegic. He wants viewers to concentrate on his work. Yet his story illuminates his work and helps viewers to understand the process of his creativity. Contino approaches art with extreme dedication and tenacity, the same 28

attributes that enabled him to outlive all the doctors who, in 1962, predicted that he only had ten years to live. After 50 years as an artist, Leonard Contino has generated a compelling body of work that, according to Rose, places him as “a visionary artist, in the tradition of Kupka, Klee, Kandinsky and such Americans as Dove and Hartley who “saw art as a kind of spiritual meditation on cosmic phenomena.”5

1. Exhibition catalogue, Contino’s solo show, Muhlenberg College, PA, 1979. 2. Quote from Contino in interview. 3. Exhibition catalogue, Contino’s solo show, Muhlenberg College, PA, 1979. 4. Barbara Rose, Exhibition catalogue, Contino’s solo show, Janie C. Lee Gallery, TX, 1978. 5. Ibid.


Camille Hong Xin was born in China. She wrote poetry and prose while

This essay was written as part of the Young Art

helping to organize art shows and produce a TV talk show in Beijing. Her

Critics Mentoring Program, a partnership

works were published in many public and underground literary magazines

between AICA USA (US section of International

in mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore. She is the author of

Association of Art Critics) and CUE Art

a poetry collection as well as a book about Chinese female drug addicts. In

Foundation, which pairs emerging writers with

1997, Xin moved to the United States and her writing has appeared in Art

AICA mentors to produce original essays on a

in America, Aperture, M Magazine and Asian Cha as well as many online

specific exhibiting artist.

journals. She works as an art consultant in New York while writing art reviews and interviews.

Please visit for further information on AICA USA, or to

Eleanor Heartney is a Contributing Editor to Art in America and Artpress

learn how to participate in this program.

and has written extensively on contemporary art issues for many publications. Her books include “Critical Condition: American Culture at the Crossroads”;

Any quotes are from interviews with the author

“Postmodernism”; “Defending Complexity: Art Politics and the New World

unless otherwise specified. No part of this essay

Order”; “Postmodern Heretics: The Catholic Imagination in Contemporary

may be reproduced without prior consent from

Art”; and “Art and Today”. She is a co-author of “After the Revolution: Women

the author. Lilly Wei is AICA’s Coordinator for the

who Transformed Contemporary Art”, 2007. She received the College Art

program this season. For additional arts-related

Association’s Frank Jewett Mather Award for distinction in art criticism in 1992

writing, please visit

and was honored by the French government as a Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2008. Heartney is a past President of AICA-USA, the American section of the International Art Critics Association.



CUE Art Foundation’s operations and programs are made possible with the generous support of foundations, corporations, government agencies, individuals, and its members. CUE Art Foundation 137­West 25th Street (between 6th and 7th avenues) New York, NY Catalog: elizabeth ellis design Printing: GM Printing, LIC All photographs courtesy of JSP Photography All artwork © Leonard Contino

Major Programmatic Support

Accademia Charitable Foundation, Ltd., CAF American Donor Fund, The Viking Foundation, AG Foundation, Milton and Sally Avery Arts Foundation, Compass Equity, Foundation for Contemporary Arts, The Greenwich Collection, Ltd., Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation, William Talbot Hillman Foundation, The Hyde and Watson Foundation, the Joan Mitchell Foundation, The Pollock-Krasner Foundation, Inc., The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, National Endowment for the Arts, New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, New York State Council on the Arts (a state agency). media sponsor:

33 CUE Art Foundation 137足West 25th Street New York, NY

Leonard Contino: Curated by Mark di Suvero  

Catalogue accompanying February 2 - March 9, 2013 exhibition

Leonard Contino: Curated by Mark di Suvero  

Catalogue accompanying February 2 - March 9, 2013 exhibition