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California Dreaming, 2023, Acrylic on Arche Paper, 30 x 22.5 inches

California Dreaming, 2023, Acrylic on Arche Paper, 30 x 22.5 inches

In the realm of contemporary art, where creativity converges with determination, J. Steven Manolis stands as a testament to the enduring power of artistic passion. With a career spanning over four decades, Manolis has donned the hats of artist, art dealer, and journalist, each role contributing to the rich tapestry of his artistic legacy. Renowned art critic Bruce Helander delves into the intricate narrative of Manolis' life and career, chronicling the artist's journey from the bustling streets of New York's art world to the vibrant studios of Miami, in an exploration that unveils the profound influence of Constructivism on Manolis' distinctive style.

Bruce Helander, an award-winning artist and keen observer of the art world, lends his discerning perspective to unravel the remarkable story of J. Steven Manolis. Helander illuminates Manolis' trajectory, from the early stirrings of artistic inclination in the Midwest to his immersion in the dynamic art scene of New York City. As Manolis enters his second decade as a full-time artist, Helander examines the intricate blend of experiences, influences, and a tireless work ethic that has propelled Manolis into the ranks of historically significant artists, drawing parallels with the pioneering spirit of Wassily Kandinsky and the Constructivist movement.

Miami: Flamingo, 2023, Acrylic on Canvas,14 x 84 inches

Miami: Flamingo, 2023, Acrylic on Canvas,14 x 84 inches

"Steven Manolis, armed with his work ethic and natural talent influenced by superior instruction, is now part of a recognizable noteworthy fraternity of artists that is historically significant." 

Bruce Helander

Flamingo, 2023, Acrylic on canvas, 60 x 144 inches

Flamingo, 2023, Acrylic on canvas, 60 x 144 inches

Having lived and worked in the professional art world as an artist, art dealer and journalist for the past forty years I have had the privilege of observing talented emerging artists in action and their extraordinary commitment connected to a natural creative aptitude that develops the magical chemistry of ultimate success. The common denominator thriving artists possess is not much different from that in other professions as it requires an overabundance of innate ingenuity, an intense desire to achieve, an extraordinary work ethic and an uncanny ability to cultivate a handsome idiosyncratic recognizable style with inventive painted applications. 


The life story of most successful and well-known artists is usually a curious background mix of opportunities and academic practices integrated with real life experiences and an absolute determination to succeed. Manolis can claim legitimately that he holds historically significant experiences that have strengthened his painting legacy and provenance. Manolis’ initial influence and respect for innovative artists began with the revolutionary experiments of Wassily Kandinsky. These Constructivist exercises that were handed down to Hans Hofmann and those principles were assimilated by the young arts students who attended the famous Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Steven Manolis, armed with his work ethic and natural talent influenced by superior instruction, is now part of a recognizable noteworthy fraternity of artists that is historically significant. 


As painter J. Steven Manolis enters his second decade as a full-time artist, his personal formula for professional accomplishment has been a tremendous energetic commitment to a studio schedule that begins early each morning and is nearly always seven days a week. As a young boy in the Midwest, he realized a penchant for engaging in artistic endeavors and demonstrated unusual visual skills in grade school. As he reached his teens in rural South Dakota his love of making art continued to occupy his subconscious but the practicality of making his living as an artist in the Midwest was not what his parents had in mind, so eventually he decided to attend the University of South Dakota, where he earned his Bachelor of Science degree in business (1966-1970). After graduation, he joined Eastman-Kodak where he received a six-month training in photography. This training would become important in learning how to compose pictures and later, paintings. After a stint in the Army (1971-72), Manolis attended the University of Chicago, graduating in 1975 with his master’s degree in business administration. He then headed for New York, the capital of American financial institutions where he eventually landed a job at Salomon Brothers investment firm in Manhattan. 


During his tenure in New York City as a partner in Salomon Brothers (the youngest to be named thus at the time), he was impressed and encouraged by the surrounding urban setting as the undisputed center of the art world, featuring hundreds of first-rate art galleries, which he visited regularly, and some of the world’s greatest contemporary museums such as The Metropolitan, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. He also was exhilarated by the general atmosphere of imagination there, not only in the art world but in its fashion, culture, television and film making, and the remarkable homogeneous collection of extraordinarily creative people who inhabited the city that never sleeps. While in New York Manolis never lost sight of his affinity for art and served as Chairman of the Advisory Board of the National Academy of Design (and was their youngest advisor in the organization’s history) and Trustee and Development Director of the Vermont Studio Center. After attaining a satisfying level of business success in New York, which included valuable private lessons from renowned painter Wolf Kahn, a former Fulbright Scholar and Guggenheim Fellow, he decided to devote the rest of his career to where he always wanted to live and work as an artist. After relocating to Miami, he followed the nesting habits of artists in his former home of New York who were attracted to the industrial lofts of SoHo (South of Houston Street) and the energy they provided. After an exhaustive search, he discovered a 5,000 square foot industrial space to function as a studio and gallery in Little Haiti, which borders Wynwood and the Design District and soon became recognized as one of the leading movers and shakers in the alternative spaces that Greater Miami provided. The rest is history.


J. Steven Manolis follows a respected studio tradition in contemporary art by enhancing the evolution of mark-making into his own individually recognizable style. The artist assimilates the distinctive attributes of a Constructivist mind-set by fashioning a geometric theatre of inspired shapes including cubes and circles, triangular silhouettes, targets and horizontal bands of solid color into pleasing compositions. These carefully crafted floating objects deliver a harmonic balance within the picture plane that often is repeated by the artist in a rearranged constellation of orbiting spheres captured permanently on canvas. 


Founded in 1915 by Vladimir Tatlin and Aleksandr Rodchenko, Constructivism was the most influential modern art movement in twentieth century Russia. With its aesthetic roots fixed firmly in Suprematism, Constructivism came fully to the fore as the official art of a young Soviet Union after the revolution of 1917. This movement was conceived out of a need to discover and polish a new aesthetic language. Constructivism (like most art factions) also borrowed elements of other European avant-gardes, notably Cubism and Futurism, and at its heart was the idea that artmaking should be approached as a process of cerebral “construction.” Released from the old romantic notion of being tied to the studio and easel, Constructivist artists were reborn as technicians and/or engineers who, much like scientists, were seeking solutions to modern problems. The Constructivist artists’ work reflected this revolutionary style of painting, which was purely abstract and austere and often reflected modern industrial society and urban space. Manolis takes a cue from those modern masters whose decorative stylization of industrial-prompted assemblage laid the foundation for generations of painters. Constructivists used stripped down, geometric forms and utilized modest materials. Their visual language consisted of abstract outlines that they could draw with practical instruments like compasses and rulers. These are continuing mechanical components in the Manolis repertoire and method of building a striking composition from scratch and still retaining the same basic DNA that is infused in each separate arrangement. 


Manolis’ tremendous growth as an artist was based on his “all in” absorption of aesthetic principles that he had accumulated as a budding artist early in life as well as the guidelines provided by his master teacher, Wolf Kahn, who himself was highly influenced by Bauhaus ideologies. However, it does appear from a careful overview of J. Steven Manolis’ most recent dynamic decade of painting that his greatest influence seems to be the constructiveness configurations of the legendary abstract artist Wassily Kandinsky, particularly his “Circles in a Circle” series of 1923, which are stunning compositions of thick and thin black lines that seem to support a counter-balanced galaxy of stellar global profiles that complement each shape. In an essay for Manolis’ celebrated 2016 exhibition at the Coral Springs Museum of Art, Donald Kuspit, America’s preeminent art critic, proclaimed Steven Manolis to be the official heir to Kandinsky.


Manolis meticulously “builds” a basic structure from scratch directly upon the surface of an unstretched primed white canvas by initially laying down a selection of intuitive blueprint lines that begin to frame the ultimate support for the final composition. There is a variety of plain utilitarian geometry shapes out there in the environment, such as the arms on a starfish, perfect circles in tree trunks, hexagonal shapes in beehives and snowflakes, and perfect triangles in plant leaves and of course, a multitude of flowers, which have been influential to artists for generations. In this primary developmental stage, the artist’s skillful plan is like that of an ambitious garden spider who maps out a cohesive and workable web design from memory and genetic predilection. Incidentally, where a spider builds its web depends on the type of spider it is. Different families of spiders have unique abilities and needs. Manolis, like some species of spiders who are strategic engineers when it comes to finding an astute solution to a goal such as catching their prey, harnesses a geometric plan of action for a successful painting and perhaps, at the same time, “catch” your attention. The intricacy of a spider web is impressive, but the strength is almost unfathomable. Spider silk is five times stronger than steel of the same diameter so it’s clear that these small arachnids are experts when it comes to spinning their constructivist lines into intricate web designs and knowing instinctively, like the artist, precisely when the design is complete and operational in all directions. 


A vigorous investigation into the whirlwind acceleration of J. Steven Manolis’ professional reputation and commercial success as an artist reveals a thorough generational blueprint for ultimate achievement that has generated a variety of enthusiastic published evaluations by leading critics. If the distinguished and celebrated legendary art critic Donald Kuspit is correct in his recent observations (and all indications seem to point to his accuracy and genuine historical comparisons), Manolis’ lineage certainly is remarkable and worthy of notoriety and investment. For thirty years, Manolis took regular art lessons with the renowned colorist Wolf Kahn, who was influenced by Georges Braque and Pierre Bonnard and studied with Hans Hofmann at his eponymous School of Fine Arts in New York. Hofmann was taught by Wassily Kandinsky, the undisputed leader of the constructivist movement, and so there is now an undeniable chronologic comparison that admits Manolis into an exclusive club of inventive painters through a well-earned lifetime membership to which few others can compare.


The life story of J. Steven Manolis is one of self-determination and artistic discipline spiced with an inherent talent to create important and vibrant compositions. The script for his lifetime of achievements can be compared favorably with a host of other prominent artists who have made their mark on the history of art and the ongoing innovative process that keeps viewers and collectors involved and engaged.


—Bruce Helander is an award-winning artist who writes on art. He is a member of the Florida Artists Hall of Fame, a former White House Fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts and the former Provost of the Rhode Island School of Design. He has contributed numerous art reviews to The Huffington Post and ARTnews. His most recent books include “Chihuly: An Artist Collects” (Abrams, Inc.) and “Hunt Slonem – Bunnies.” He is the author of more than twenty books and catalogs on museum shows he has curated. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of The Art Economist. His work is in over fifty permanent museum collections including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.