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Q. & A.

Artist Snapshots: Stephen Lack

Exploring the mind and habits of an artist in twenty-five questions


OCTOBER 2, 2019

At what age did you decide to become an artist?
I think I was about three years old. When I was six or seven, I threw a tantrum and did not draw for about half a year. When I started again, I felt I had lost my edge and felt that way for about twenty years until I forgot or just evolved back into the magic place I began.


Stephen Lack and his young family in a 1984 photo intended for Life Magazine that never ran. Photo: Joe McNally

Legendary East Village gallery owner Gracie Mansion, whose real name is Joanne Mayhew Young, has a wonderful knack for gauging the current zeitgeist through art. The early 80s were characterised by a radical shift within the art world, which allowed subcultures to rise to the surface at an increasing rate. They could no longer be kept underground, and the polished facades of elegant society were about to crumble in the face of the gay movement, feminism, and the backlash that followed the radicalism of the 70s. One artist she discovered at that time was Stephen Lack, whose works she first exhibited in 1983. Stephen Lack’s large painting Mil (Mil Mascaras/The Wrestler), which is dated 1984, is one of the most eye-catching pieces in the East Village Revisited exhibition, which features the collection Anders Wall built at the time when this era peaked in New York, and he was working as chairman of the board for Volvo. Channelling the general mood of the times, this powerfully built man is depicted in a confident, defiant pose, which has been captured with large, rapid, yet precise brush strokes. 34 years later, CFHILL arranged an exclusive interview with the artist.


   “Stephen Lack: The Crime of Your Life” (Gracie Mansion Gallery, 337 East 10th Street, at Avenue B): Stephen Lack’s recent paintings are based on media images of sex and violence. Paint and color are used in a raw and splashy manner to suggest the impact of scenes with pulp titles such as “Get in the Car, Old Man” and “Your Parents Get the News That You Are Dead.”

    What distinguishes these paintings from many other works that pretend to confront the effects and implications of popular and mass-media culture is that they are honest. Mr. Lack’s work is neither moralizing or ambivalent. Violence is not a prime-time soap opera for him. No one seeing these paintings will wait eagerly for the next installment.

     In “Party Girl," a naked woman is painted across the canvas. Over her head, the artist has taped a piece of brown paper. Near the top of her legs, the canvass has been cut off so that all we see is her torso and arms. Her left arm is pulled upward, flattened just enough to abstract the entire figure. The painting unleashes the kinds of voyeuristic, sensational responses pop and media culture feeds on, then stops them. (Through Dec. 31.)



by Charlie Finch

Sixty-three-year-old painter Stephen Lack, legendary polysexual sybarite of the East Village scene, swooped down for a visit after opening a solo show at the Joyce Goldstein Gallery in Chatham, N.Y., last week, his van still full of paintings from his recent exhibition at Illinois State University. Lack, who had his brain scanned by Patrick McGoohan in David Cronenberg's Scanners, remembered the late thespian as a Royal Shakespeare-trained tippler who jealously questioned Stephen, the lead in Cronenberg's film, "Stephen, where did you learn how to act?" The answer, of course, was with other lowlifes on the streets of Montreal, Lack's hometown, good enough to have McGoohan, star of The Prisoner and Secret Agent, haul Stephen off to a pub for a few rounds.


Lack is a nonstop blabber, full of philosophical insights, so I took him over to the bridge of the Croton Reservoir to watch the rising of the harvest moon. As the sunset fell, Lack and I joined a family of traditionally dressed Orthodox Jews celebrating Succoth, as a humongous, bright orange orb rose above the eastern horizon. We were surrounded by the kind of sultry colors that Stephen has luxuriated in for four decades, since he was a star in the Gracie Mansion Gallery, when Jean Michel-Basquiat was his best friend and Hollywood big shots handed him rolls of cash for his paintings.

"I got out of that hedonistic scene just in time," Lack opined, although he grinned that he would "still like to lather David Bowie up and have my way with him." Happily married with two grown sons, the youngest of whom is the rock musician Asher Lack, Lack now seeks Nirvana by continuing the nonstop production of small paintings which he channels through his New York representative, Fred Dorfman Projects.

"I don't do penises," Lack observed, as he unwrapped a couple of dozen new paintings of dreamy boys lounging in trees for my inspection. I remarked that these works seemed like a lax commentary on Duncan Hannah's paintings, to which Stephen vigorously assented, "I love Duncan's work." Then Stephen spread a number of candy-colored paintings of luxury cars all around my den, as we talked of Robert Bechtle and Peter Cain.

There is a magpie element to Lack's efforts, the sense that he lazily grabs subjects from out of the sky and floats them in the colored mess of his palette. Particularly in his landscapes, my personal preference, in which Lack often drops a solitary figure or boat, Stephen's work combines a sense of 1950s American nostalgia with a leaven of anxiety. "I have a lot of anger in me, Charlie" Lack asserts, and his boy-fighting paintings confirm it. But, with a tea and veggie diet and a determined, to the point of obsession, existential mindset fixed on the atoms and the stars, Lack is making the best of his golden years.

He has been a movie star, a libertine, a devoted family man and a prickly cat in a cool alley, but Stephen Lack remains a painter of particular genius and depth.

"Stephen Lack: Paintings, Pastels and Drawings," Oct. 3-Nov. 14, 2009, at Joyce Goldstein Gallery, 16 Main Street, Chatham, N.Y.

"Autonation: Stephen Lack," Sept. 22-Nov. 8, 2009, at Illinois State University Art Galleries, 110 Center for the Visual Arts, Normal, Ill. 61790  

CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).


Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)

Untitled (Portrait of Steven Lack)

Oilstick on paper 
75.5 by 56.5 cm. 29 3/4 by 22 1/4 inches

Signed and dated 1981 

Bursting with frenetic energy, Untitled (Portrait of Steven Lack) spectacularly showcases Jean-Michel Basquiat’s masterful draughtsmanship, fearless mark-making and free-floating psyche. In an explosion of visual dynamism, the present work translates the language of cinema and movies into gesture and image, endowing the medium of drawing with an electric, pulsating voice. As king of cool in the early eighties, Basquiat was deeply engrained in circles of American cinematic royalty, and the present drawing offers an intense portrait of actor and artist Steven Lack, a great friend of Basquiat, and star of the cult classic horror film Scanners, which was released in cinemas across the United States in 1981.

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