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Gary Lee Shaffer (1936-2001)

  • Gary Lee Shaffer was a forward looking and self-sufficient artist who avoided social and political movements, working independently in a non-objective, expressionist manner. He set out to New York in 1957, joining many other artists like Agnes Martin and Hans Hoffman who converged on a new and exciting emerging urban art scene. Born in Lansing, Michigan, Shaffer left a broken home, mother and 2 sisters, pursuing his education and a broader, more adventurous creative life in a larger urban setting. He was searching for an identity, a medium and an aesthetic means to convey subjective states through Abstract Expressionist painting. There is nothing subtle about any of Shaffer's work. His prints reflect post war and modern trends in printmaking that originated on the East Coast. Expressionism is the thread woven through his work starting with pure fluid abstractions to his large moody deconstructed landscapes. His forms and colors are bold, imagery laden with symbols and organic, biomorphic shapes. A reclining stylized figure appears in his earlier work along with tactile stone forms, targets, spheres, the sun and circles.

    After two full summer residency scholarships for study at the Hans Hoffman School of Painting in Provincetown, MA, he felt that he was not painting well and joined the Printmakers’ Workshop. This membership studio was established by master printer Robert Blackburn, professor at NYU and Columbia University, to revive fine printmaking after WWII. In a 1979 letter, he recounts that he paid $15 per month for full-time use of Blackburn's lithography and etching studio. There he found his medium in printmaking and quickly began entering his prints in competitions and selling them to individuals. Profoundly inspired by his mentor Hans Hoffman (1880-1966), his interest in German culture, opera, art and literature, and travels to Europe is seen in his titles. As a skilled self-publishing printmaker, he experimented with mixing processes and achieving his goal of breaking the boundaries of traditional picture plane. His creative work spanned over 42 years reflecting late 20th century painting and printmaking trends. Over the years at the workshop, he made acquaintance with Jay Milder, Red Grooms, Philip Guston, and Franz Kline, and he became friends with Eldzier Cortor and others who came and went to explore printmaking. Shaffer stayed in contact with his one time teacher, Hans Hoffman, until his death in 1966, and attended most of his New York shows. Shaffer seemed to avoid the art market itself, but organized many exhibits and showed his work in up to 10 shows yearly.

    Shaffer started drawing directly on lithographic limestones in 1958 in the spirit of New York abstract expressionists (collection at Lost Art Salon) and in 1967, experimented with combining metal plate lithography with collagraphs (collection available at His expressive, energetic linear imagery reveal a conflicted private personal world, translating gesture through a difficult tool for direct expression. His early prints show influence of Jasper Johns, Robert Motherwell, Joan Miro, Kandinsky, Mark Rothko and Richard Diebenkorn. In 1968, he published his first multi-plate collagraphs that he referred to as gesso relief prints, using interlocking shaped masonite plates that he fabricated with metal, materials and cement paste. This transition to a different medium marked a stylistic change, exploring and deconstructing the landscape as an icon. He gained recognition through printmaking competitions and international traveling exhibits, winning awards and purchase prizes starting in 1960 with his expressionist stone lithograph “Homage to O.” 

    After moving to San Francisco, his editions gave way to monotypes in series and color etchings as monoprints in varied editions. From 1986 - 2000, he published his prints at Kala Art Institute in Berkeley, CA, experimenting with combining processes and composition. The results were numerous unique expressionist monoprints identified with an undecipherable numbering system. He published etchings in portfolios and bound litho woodcut collage prints into unique hand-made books. Symbols, grids and dot patterns recur throughout. His palette of mostly pure color was similar to mid-century modern. Shaffer's compositions depict a disquieted chaotic landscape with many in the Tetralogy format, divided into four or more parts, similar in concept to Andy Warhol's division of the picture plane. He described his Tetralogies as the dramatic and comedic acts of a Greek play with each section telling a story of it’s own as a unique painting. Shaffer's paintings are a link between his expressionist roots and the urban minimalist movement of the 1960’s. His early oil portraits and figures quickly gave way to non – objective gestures of abstract expressionism and then the deconstructed landscape. For over 20 years, his paintings were punctuated by liquid drip methods invented by Hoffman and made famous by Jackson Pollock. Like Belgian painter Nicolas de Stael, he applied pure, highly saturated oil colors with large brushes, trowels, palette knives. He painted in his San Francisco garden shed studio to 1993 when his health began to decline from emphysema. He lived with his dog Blanche in a spacious flat that served as a private museum of his work. Shaffer died at home surrounded by his monumental, moody paintings.


The actual number of works that he produced over his lifetime is unknown. His editions were very small with only 2 to 18 impressions. He did not appear to be concerned with documentation, sales and marketing after his New York period. Shaffer was somewhat shy, frugal and reclusive, but with good fortune and the support of partner William, he was able to devote himself to creative work and volunteer service to art education organizations. He was an active board member of two respected printmaking organizations, California Society of Printmakers and Society of American Graphic Artists. For decades, he wrote articles for their publications and assisted with local, national and international exchange exhibitions.

Lost Art Salon recently acquired a new body of works by Shaffer, in addition to the stone lithographs done between 1959 and 1969. This recent collection represents a selection of his work done between 1970 and 2001, including: collagraphs, etchings, collages, ink, gouache, pastel and mixed media.

    Featured in these Permanent Collections:
    • Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
    • Portland Art Museum
    • The Brooklyn Museum
    • Detroit Institute of Arts Print Collection
    • Art Institute of Chicago Print Collection
    • The Print Collection of the New York Public Library
    • Montclair Museum of Art
    • Anchorage Historical and Fine Arts Museum
and many others
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