We often hear about two "Greeces," one inside the nation's geographical borders-a population of ten million- and another outside: eight million Greeks living in various other countries around the world. Many of these expatriates and their offspring have drawn the attention of the Greek nation for their intellectual, artistic, or scientific achievements. The large Greek population in the United States and the legendary "little Greece" neighborhood of Astoria, in New York City's Queens Country, have produced some of these individuals, and they have made the Greek community proud.
For nearly all immigrants, making the transition from a familiar place to an unfamiliar one usually involves overcoming economic and cultural hurdles and often emotional and psychological issues as well. Foremost among these is the question of identity. Greek people around the world have tended to retain their own ways and customs and to maintain their links with the old country --even in the United States, a nation whose more open, multinational society made the acceptance and assimilation of foreigners far easier than in Europe. Whether for those who emigrated from Greece to the United States around the time of World War Ι or World War II or for second- and third-generation Americans, or for the voluntary immigrants of recent years who maintain a sense of home in both countries, identity remains a particularly complex issue.
Many artists with Greek roots have made significant contributions to American art since the 1920s. Modern Odysseys: Greek American Artists of the 20th Century is the first exhibition to offer a broad look at the historical record of their role, though an inevitably selective one. It presents the odyssey (in the sense of a voyage and an adventure, not as a feat) of thirty-four artists, with more than eighty works providing an important "picture album" of a period in the history of art shared by Greece and the United States. What all these artists-with their varying styles and approaches to making art-have in common is their involvement with the visual reality of America while retaining elements that serve as direct and indirect links with Greek culture, old and new.
The artists in Modern Odysseys represent a microcosm of the variety inherent in American society and culture, which is the largest "melting pot" of world cultures in history, second only to the biblical Babel. The exhibition focuses on a part of Greek contemporary culture that combines domestic and international elements, and, Greek culture aside, sheds light on the work of many exceptional artists and on American intellectual life in general. For those of us in Greece, Modern Odysseys will be an eye-opening experience. We may be familiar with the names of such established artists as Stephen Antonakos, Chryssa, Nassos Daphnis, Michael Lekakis, Lucas Samaras, and Theodoros Stamos, and some of the younger artists who live and work in the United States but often exhibit in Greece, including Electrus, Mark Hadjipateras, Zoe Keramea, and Eleni Mylonas. We are also aware of the work of artists such as Steve Gianakos, Jenny Marketou, and Philip Tsiaras, who take a critical, ironic stance toward contemporary life. However, we know almost nothing or very little about the work of artists Morfy Gikas, MICA-TV, Theodora Skipitares, Andrea Spiros, Jim Morphesis, or Costa Vavagiakis; few of us know the important role of William Baziotes, George Constant, or Jean Xceron, and still fewer remember or know in depth the oeuvre of Dimitri Hadzi, Theo Hios, Aristodimos Kaldis, Polygnotos Vagis, or John Vassos; and too few have realised the strength of personality of John Vardas and Nicolas Calas (a poet and art historian who has no direct association with the exhibition, but who played a significant role in twentieth century art theory and culture). Moreover, in Greece, we may not know that at some crucial moments in the evolution of American art, many Greek American artists have been teachers at leading schools and universities, and have made their mark as both creators and as mentors. Peter Voulkos, for example, brought the verve of Abstract Expressionism to the medium of ceramics and founded the Pottery Studio at the University of California at Berkeley. Many artists working in America today must have arrived at their place in life because of Hadzi at Harvard University, Baziotes at Hunter College, Hios at the New School for Social Research, or Athena Tacha at Oberlin College. The achievement of Modern Odysseys will be to show that Greek American artists have, as they say in America, "made a difference."
The incorporation of a Greek consciousness into American art, which might be regarded as a chief focus of Modern Odysseys, raises provocative questions. One would not dispute that Chyssa's Cycladic Books (1957-62) establish a dialogue with Cycladic art. But then, are the minimal forms of Daphnis's paintings or Cristos Gianakos's sculptures related to the same paradigm of simplicity and elegance that is the hallmark of ancient Cycladic art? The references to ancient Greek art and architecture throughout this exhibition even when filtered by technology and contemporary visual theories are matched by an equally important allusion to Byzantine art. The emphasis here is on spirituality, internal light, the "non-handmade," and sometimes on a love for figuration, color, materials, and decoration. These traits are evident in Samaras's boxes (which resemble small decorated reliquaries) and Polaroid self-portraits, and in Antonakos's installations inspired by Greek country churches. Stamos's Byzantium paintings, abstract works with radiant color that seems to shine outward from the center of each painting, make direct reference to the shimmering surfaces of Byzantine art. Is there a similar "Byzantine" force at work in the monumental abstract paintings of George Negroponte, a leading artist today who carries on the experimentation in abstraction established by Stamos's generation of American artists? Then again, Byzantinism is evoked by the pattern paintings of Mary Grigoriadis and by the flamboyant works in gold and other metals by Lynda Benglis, two Greek American women with close links to the intellectual fabric of American feminism.
There are distinct cases such as the work of Lekakis, whose sculptures in wood, apart from their occasional titles, do not seem to be looking toward Greece. In the context of this exhibition, however, one realizes that his work is based on the principle of tension/release that the ancient Greek sculptors used when carving marble. It would be equally difficult to associate exclusively with Greece the work of the Magnum photographer Constantine Manos, but Ι eagerly await seeing how his work is positioned within the constructs of the exhibition.
It is obvious that the participants in Modern Odysseys were not selected by the curators on the basis of an overt or continuous "Greekness" (a much misused term). Each artist falls into moments of nostalgia, memory, and dependence, on the one hand, and a need to actively participate in the contemporaneity of American life, on the other. Ultimately, the exhibition is concerned with an osmosis between two cultures and recognition of the complex role played by cultural identity in subjectivity and individual expression-healthy forces alive in contemporary art today. Several older or younger artists, whose work does not fall within the conceptual scope of this exhibition as defined by its curators, but who are worth being mentioned, are Yiannes Iordanides, Constantine Kakanias, Anna Laskari, Despo Magoni, Miltos Manetas, Vassilios Marros, and John Vardas among others.
The J.F. Costopoulos Foundation has gladly accepted the opportunity to sponsor Modern Odysseys: Greek American Artists of the 20th Century as a tribute to the Greek immigrants and expatriates who have been active participants in the formation of modern and contemporary American art. First and foremost, the Costopoulos Foundation wishes to support the process through which artists draw strength and inspiration from two great cultures, an older and a contemporary one, and thereby address the challenges of the ever expanding global community.
Curator of the J.F. Costopoulos Foundation
© ART TOPOS, 1998
WIth the kind permission and support of
The J.F. Costopoulos Foundation