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Jack Youngerman, distinctively Abstract artist, dies at 93
CONFLUX, 2003. Oil on Baltic birch plywood, 72 x 76 x 2 1/4 in. Collection Parrish Museum of Art, Water Mill, New York.

by William Grimes

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Jack Youngerman, a French-trained American artist whose profuse invention of abstract shapes in two and three dimensions opened up a new aesthetic vocabulary in the period immediately after Abstract Expressionism, died Wednesday in Stony Brook, New York. He was 93.

Janet Goleas, his studio manager and archivist, said the cause was complications of a fall.

Youngerman, like many American artists in the late 1940s, studied in Paris on the GI Bill. Unlike them, he remained there, developing a distinctive style of abstraction based on organic shapes, drawing inspiration from the woodblock prints of Jean Arp and Wassily Kandinsky and, perhaps most decisively, the ink drawings of Henri Matisse.

Youngerman’s fluid, emblem-like shapes embraced flatness and frontal views, leaping forward to meet the viewer with bold primary colors. The shapes, vaguely floral or leafy, flirted with representation but remained aloof, floating like mysterious essences in a timeless spirit world.

As he wrote in Art in America in 1968: “We are immersed in the powerful and autonomous effigies of the world before these forms are possessed and diminished by names and uses, the name preempting the form. Painting involves the restoring of the image to that original primacy.”

Encouraged by Betty Parsons, New York’s premier dealer in American avant-garde art at the time, Youngerman returned to the United States in 1956. He soon emerged as a leading exponent of post-painterly abstraction, a catchall term describing the impulse of the generation seeking to recast abstraction in cooler, more analytic terms after the Sturm und Drang of Abstract Expressionism.

In the 1970s he began working with circular and elliptical canvases and, at the same time, produced flowing shapes in metal or laminated fiberglass, like “Andromeda” (1975), whose undulant, billowing planes suggested the fluid movement of a manta ray. Other works, like “The Ohio” (1977) and “Black Leda” (1978-85), reflected his interest in tsutsumi, the Japanese art of packaging.

He later applied his exuberant palette to a series of fiberglass constructions, which he called relief paintings, their whirls and whorls and candy colors suggesting pinwheel lollipops or psychedelic seashells.

Visual associations of this sort left him cold. “I am not trying to capture anything,” Youngerman told the Archives of American Art Journal in an interview conducted in 1968 and published in 1972. “But I am interested in the forms that living things take — the forms that come out of movement, that come out of heat expansion, that come out of growing things.”

He added, “It is the invention of forms that I am involved with.”

Jack Albert Youngerman was born on March 25, 1926, in Webster Groves, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis, to Guy and Margaret (Everhart) Youngerman. His father was an insurance executive, his mother a homemaker. The family moved to Louisville, Kentucky, when he was 3.

In 1944, after a year at the University of Missouri, he was drafted and sent to the Navy officers’ training program at the University of North Carolina, where he took a drawing course as an elective. He returned to the University of Missouri, in Columbia, after being discharged from the Navy and earned a journalism degree in 1947. He then enrolled in the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

Nothing in his background had prepared him for a career in art. He saw his first paintings at 19, when he visited the National Gallery of Art in Washington on leave. Even after entering the École des Beaux-Arts, he maintained a kind of blissful innocence about the subject.

“I really didn’t know at that time what painting meant,” he told the Archives of American Art Journal. “I was just very drawn to it, but I really didn’t know. I would ask myself when I would go to the Louvre, What is the difference between these things and The Saturday Evening Post cover? I was impressed by that, too.”

In 1950 he married Delphine Seyrig, an actress who would appear in the lead role of Louis Resnais’ “Last Year in Marienbad” (1961). Her father, Henri Seyrig, the founding director of the French Institute of Near Eastern Archaeology in Beirut, opened Youngerman’s eyes to the art of the Middle East and beyond.

The marriage ended in divorce and Seyrig died in 1990. Youngerman is survived by his wife, Hilary Helfant; a son from his first marriage, Duncan; a son from his second marriage, Milo; and four grandchildren.

Youngerman gravitated toward a Constructivist style of abstraction, in the vein of Mondrian, with precisely ordered, sharp-edged geometric shapes. But he became restless and, as his time in Paris wore on, increasingly alienated from contemporary French art.

An exhibition of Matisse’s black ink drawings in Paris proved to be pivotal. Seduced by what he called “the clarity of it, the starkness of it and the voluptuousness of it,” he abandoned Constructivism and embraced natural forms.

“I am working for something organic and lyrical,” he told the critic Barbara Rose in an interview for Artforum in 1966. “I like the expressiveness of locked, meshed or tension-provoking shapes in opposition, a union in combat.”

After relocating to New York, he was included in the seminal “Sixteen Americans” exhibition in 1959 at the Museum of Modern Art, where he shared wall space with Frank Stella, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Ellsworth Kelly, a good friend since their days at the École des Beaux-Arts.

He then received a series of solo shows at the Betty Parsons Gallery. In 1986 he was the subject of a retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

In his later years Youngerman began painting on shaped wooden panels, executing a series of reliefs that returned, in a different guise, to the leaflike forms of his earlier paintings. At the same time, he began producing geometric works that he called triads and quadrants, whose dazzling, kaleidoscopic colors verged on Op Art.

He was represented by the Washburn Gallery in Manhattan for many years.

Youngerman moved to Bridgehampton, New York, in 1995 and maintained a house and studio there since the late 1960s. He was a fixture on the local art scene. In 2005, the Parrish Art Museum in nearby Southampton organized an exhibition of his large folding-screen paintings from the late 1970s and early ’80s.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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