Nassos Daphnis, Greek (1914 - 2010)

Nassos Daphnis

Nassos Daphnis, born in 1914 in the village of Krokeai near Sparta, arrived in the United States in January 1930. He had been drawing and carving since childhood, and getting beaten for it by the village schoolmaster. In Manhattan he went to work in his uncle's flower shop, and attended night school to learn English. He worked at his drawings during odd hours until a chance meeting in the New York City flower market with another florist's assistant, Michael Lekakis, turned his life around. When Lekakis saw some of Daphnis's drawings, he offered him the use of his studio and a model for a few days each week until Daphnis could find a space for himself. Eventually, Daphnis bought paints and rented a studio for ten dollars a month. His uncle exclaimed, "Whoever heard of an artist from Krokeai?"

His early paintings, based on memories of Greece, were naive in style and characterized by a strong feeling for color and form. They led to a sale to William Gratwick and to a job crossbreeding tree peonies on the Gratwick estate for many years. Daphnis liked to say that he had two real careers, painting and horticulture. He returned from World War II deeply affected by Europe's devastation. In a studio he shared with Theodoros Stamos, Daphnis began to paint surreal landscapes, laying on images of ruin with a palette knife.

In time, his shapes grew less tortured and more biomorphic-plants and sea creatures-his paint thinner, his colors brighter. And from painting camouflage in the Italian campaign, he "had learned to paint flat". Now he combined that lesson with the lesson he had learned from his horticultural experience: "nature works in order to create a form in an orderly fashion."

Those two lessons he combined with a third, learned on a 1950 visit to Greece, where he re-experienced the sunlight rejecting from landscape and from the white houses with such intensity that it appeared to dissolve everything but shape. Geometric shapes in primary colors and black and white took over Daphnis's work. He sold nothing for years, until in 1958 a powerful new dealer, Leo Castelli, was struck by the simplicity of these paintings and gave him a show the next year from which Daphnis sold several works, including one to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

In the mid-1960s, he began to work with spherical shapes; in the mid-1970s he created an environment with a series of modules linked together to form The Continuous Painting (1975), which is 10 feet high and 86 feet long. In the 1980s and 90s he applied jewellike enamels to canvas to produce the Minoan series, and at about the same time he lightened his palette for another series in which "curvilinear trellises" formed by parallel lines of black, red, blue and yellow appear to shift across a white field.


A though Nassos Daphnis associated with the most influential painters on the American scene during his developmental years, he was never identified with a school or trend. During the 1940s and early 1950s, Balcomb Greene's American Abstract Artists, Fritz Glarner, Ilya Bolotowski, John Ferren and others, were formulating their theories of geometric abstraction. In style and approach, Daphnis's work, characteristically similar, was substantively different. The artists of the New York School, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, and Willem de Kooning, although friends, were not professional allies. The emotionally fired Abstract Expressionism with its spontaneity and seemingly unbridled technique was as foreign to Daphnis as academic art, which he also rejected as shallow and commercial.

Born in Krokeia, Greece, near Sparta, at age sixteen Daphnis departed for America from Athens, where for the first time he experienced the art of classical Greece and fell under the spell of the perfection and pure geometry of the Parthenon, a unique moment that would remain as a source of inspiration throughout his life. Once in the United States, his early success as a Surrealist painter was interrupted by service in World War II. The Post-War era brought about a biomorphic phase which appeared as a natural outgrowth of his Surrealist period. These works, such as 3-F-51 (1951, The Butler institute of American Art), were purely abstract and predicted the hard-edged surfaces, orderly composition, and exploration of color that would become the essence of Daphnis's work Like the

Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, who found strength in the use of primary colors, Daphnis admires pure red, yellow, and blue for the energy which they seemed to intrinsically convey, and he focuses on color as a principal element. His color plane theory, though based upon exhaustive perceptual investigations, possessed strong spiritual implications as well.

In 1988, a trip to Crete inspired the Aegean Series, a return to the geometry of the square and rectangle. Clearly the architecture and setting of Crete provided the organizational framework as well as inspiring the character of line, shape, and color within this group of paintings. The series underscores the consistent technical facility of Daphnis, who pioneered a masking technique for which he has long been identified. Palace in Minos, a key painting from the series, employs his color plane theory in structuring a strong architectural space. The dominant black presses forward much like a great protective roof as vertical white lines visually separate color areas and support and balance the uppermost color masses. The painting's architectonic construction and organizational complexity recalls the Cretan Palace of Minos, a maze which is vast and intricate in design and constructed with no preconceived plan. The artist refers to the mythological thread, which can lead one out of the maze, seen in the small yellow area, and further suggests that the colors black and yellow possess dynamic visual qualities to similarly connect and assist other visual elements in the work.

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