The Art of Tony Stubbing
In my idealistic youth, I lived in a church in lower Manhattan.
By youth I mean mid to late twenties. By idealistic I mean willing to act on what one believes, even if foolish or inept.
It was the Holy Communion Church at the corner of 20th Street and the Avenue of the Americas. A registered historical landmark, it essentially became abandoned by the Episcopal Church due to lack of parishioners.
So it was taken over by agreement by the countercultural group of which I was a staff member, The Lindisfarne Association. Lindisfarne was/is the brainchild of cultural historian William Irwin Thompson, and I have written briefly about it before. It was intended to be, and was for a while in certain circles, a crossroads, an intellectual town hall, for what Bill called planetary culture.
There’s something absurdly fitting that after Lindisfarne’s sojourn in the old church buildings, they later became the location of the well-known nightclub The Limelight.
But this post is not primarily about Lindisfarne or the church buildings, but about an artist who came to be associated with Lindisfarne for a time.
Newton Haydn Stubbing remains a relatively obscure English artist. Born in 1921, he was in his late fifties when he came to Lindisfarne. But he didn’t come to Lindisfarne in order to be there, but by the happenstance of other relationships.
He arrived in New York to share a home and studio out on Long Island with the art critic Yvonne Hagen. Hagen’s daughter Nina was an integral part of the staff community who lived and worked at Lindisfarne. Nina was the gardener for Lindisfarne in Southhampton while that rural conference center existed. She was a talented photographer in her own right. (The staff community and conference centre at Southhampton eventually shifted entirely to the new centre in Manhattan.)
So Yvonne and Tony (as everybody called Stubbing) came to be invited for the conferences, talks and seminars that were the mainstay of Lindisfarne. For instance, to give you an inkling of what Bill was about, he might give lectures on “From Civilization to Planetization: Four Talks on the Future.” The conferences were larger events with people like Wendell Berry, Jonas Salk, John and Nancy Todd, Paolo Soleri, E.F. Shumacher, Gregory Bateson and Robert Bly attending.
I never knew Tony other than to say hello to him once or twice, unlike say Gregory Bateson with whom I played chess a few times. Or, unlike being pushed around when I got in Stewart Brand’s way in a casual game of volleyball. But those are other stories.
There was a large hall at the church which was used for meetings and where all the staff and visitors took their meals. On the walls there came to be several of the immense canvases that Tony, who was a big man himself, was doing at the time. I can show you several images here, but their minuteness does not convey the impact of the huge oil paintings which seemed almost to cover entire walls.
(A couple of his paintings are in the halls of the Findhorn Foundation, another New Age group from those times, which are said to be among the largest canvases in Europe…)
The size drew you in, but more importantly, it was their intriguing ambiguity that always made me contemplate them. They seemed to be landscapes but you couldn’t make anything out about them. There was what may have been sky above and land or water below, but what were they really? In Stubbing’s hands, the ambiguity became a way to get at the inner essence of the landscape, and that interiority made exterior captivated me and many others.
Bill decided that since Tony enjoyed coming around and had his paintings on the wall anyway that he might as well be the official “Artist in Residence” of Lindisfarne, and so he was for a time.* I don’t recall that Tony actually lived at the church although he and Yvonne might have stayed there from time to time when in Manhattan.
In the last few years I started thinking about Lindisfarne, and Tony, and those paintings. I’ve done some research on the web about him, and there is more to his story.
In his earlier artistic life, he lived in Spain and France after the Second World War. In Spain, he became heavily influenced by the prehistoric cave paintings at Altamira. He forswore the use of brushes and for 20 years used nothing but his hands to apply paint to his canvases. Many of these “hand” paintings are quite interesting in themselves.
Unfortunately, he eventually became allergic to oil paint and began to suffer health problems presumably from their chemicals so he was forced to return to brushes. As the one major site about Stubbing notes:
From that time on his work was characterized by luminous, subtly toned and layered expanses of color that, while seemingly abstract at first glance, always evoke the feeling of a specific landscape.
These evocative works came to an end in 1983 when Tony died of lung cancer, a few years after Lindisfarne in Manhattan dwindled and I had long gone. I can only surmise that the lung cancer may also have had its roots in the close proximity to oil paints and all the other materials in which Stubbing immersed his artistic life. Strange to feel this sadness for someone I didn’t know really except through his work.
There’s an intriguing look at Tony’s life and work before and during the time he shared it with Yvonne Hagen as a chapter in the book Artists’ Estates: Reputations in Trust by Magda Salvesen and Diane Cousineau. This book explores the responsibilities towards the work of deceased artists by their surviving spouses or kin. One small point of interest in the interview with Yvonne: we learn there that the paintings (or murals as she calls them) for Findhorn were 12 foot by 36 foot in dimension.
Stubbing’s paintings are still occasionally shown in retrospectives in the New York area.
I was playing Joe Walsh’s song Meadows today, and somehow these lyrics jumped out at me about all this.
Some things are left unspoken
Some things are hand me down
The circle stands unbroken
Sendin’ it back around
Since it did touch me, this is my tiny way of sending the profundity and even perhaps the greatness of Stubbing’s work back around. That work’s subtle mystery greets me every day at my job when I turn on my computer and on my desktop a painting of his appears.
A footnote. Also information on images, from the top down.
*Bill has commented that how Tony became Lindisfarne’s Artist in Residence was considerably more thoughtful and deliberate than the way I describe it.
The first two images above are of Stubbing’s paintings A Long View at Wainscott and Swamp Maples and Grey, Sagaponack from the Nabi Gallery site which shows many examples of Tony’s work.
The third is also from Nabi Gallery and is called Untitled.
The fourth is from his earlier period, entitled Ceremonial. The England Gallery has quite a wide selection of his work on display.
The last is a photo of Stubbing from the Nabi Gallery, probably shot on Long Island.