by Mark Van Proyen
One can certainly argue that Frank Stella should be recognized as the last of the great late-modernist painters, although others might want to point to Brice Marden or Elizabeth Murray as being the ones to uphold that honor. But by 1966, that argument already started to become moot, as Stella was starting to move far ahead of substantiating that isolated claim. After that point, he became the first and only artist to transform the esthetics of modernist painting into something that approximated a global brand, and in so doing he became a kind of Pop modernist, albeit a less sardonic one than Peter Halley. And from that position he then became the leading exemplar of a neo-modernist counter-reformation directed at upholding and transforming the church of Modernism in response to the post-modernist reformation of signs and sign systems. During the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s it seemed that Stella was among the very few willing to undertake that mission; but during the past two decades, he has been joined by legions of “zombie formalists,” exemplified in the work presented in the Museum of Modern Art’s 2014 exhibition titled Forever Now. Still active at the age of 80, Stella’s most recent works have taken yet another turn, this time in the direction of sculpture that makes innovate sport with inventive CNC-cut aluminum forms set like clouds of frozen (albeit convoluted) smoke set in Calder-esque space.
One sees this evolving legacy on full display in the retrospective of Stella’s work now ensconced at the de Young Museum, that being a scaled-down version of the same exhibition hosted by the Whitney Museum a year ago (organized by Michael Auping). It is snugly installed and for the most part chronological in its organization, capturing all of the phases of Stella’s career as a maker of objects that in so many ways are hybrids of painting and sculpture, usually leaning in the direction of the former. One has to go to another floor to see a modest survey of Stella’s work as a printmaker, which does not figure in the exhibition under consideration here. The mind boggles at the amount of floor space that would be needed to stage a truly complete encapsulation of Stella’s entire artistic and literary career, not to mention the amount of words that would be needed to do critical justice to such an expansive undertaking.
The earliest works date from the fall of 1958, coinciding with Stella’s arrival in New York after taking a degree in art history from Princeton University the previous spring. They also coincide with his viewing of the work of Jasper Johns at the Leo Castelli Gallery in April of that year, which was an important catalyst for Stella’s desire to reach beyond the Abstract Expressionism that was still prominent at that time. Just as Johns had embraced the use of wax encaustic paint to distance himself from the preciousness of oil media, so too did Stella quickly abandon oils in favor of industrial enamels, although in some of these works, such as Great Jones or East Broadway (both 1958), it looks like is his still trying to make flat enamel look like luminous oil paint.
The works created during following two years are all executed in shiny black enamel separated with light grey pin stripes, creating symmetrical graphic configurations. These works form a very coherent series, all smart variations on ways that systematically recursive shapes can be deduced from the rectangularity of their large canvas supports, but the derivations of these works from those of other artists who were better known at the time, such as Ad Reinhardt, Joseph Albers and Richard Anuskiewicz, are also clear. Some of these works were included in Dorothy Miller’s Sixteen Americans exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art that same year, launching Stella’s career into the brightest of the art world’s lime lights.
The subsequent series of work replaced the shiny black enamel of the earlier rectangular works with a range of neutral mid-tones greys and ochers, sometimes applied as enamel, but more effaciously as metallic pigments similar to the aluminum roof paint that Jackson Pollock had
used a decade earlier. (An interesting aside to this point is that Robert Rosenblum once suggested that the use of such reflective materials indicated the influence of Byzantine gilding lurking in the deep background of Pollock’s work. One suspects that transposing this thesis to Stella’s early paintings might yield some worthwhile insights.) More importantly, we also see Stella making changes to the configurations of his canvas supports, either by clipping their corners, as is the case with Union Pacific (1960), or creating
L-shaped structures such as Creede II (1961). In all of these cases, the changes in the regularity of the support structures necessitated corresponding changes to the graphic configurations painted on their surfaces, as Stella was making a point that the latter must of necessity be deduced from the former — echoing an idea derived from the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl, pointing to how the possibilities of experience are always “bracketed” by prior conditions that delimit experiential outcomes. This was the point where we could see Stella practicing what was called “structural painting,” (i.e. creating systematically consistent shape-sequences that eschewed “hierarchical composition”), making him the only painter to be admitted to the core group of artists who came to be known as Minimalists.
Around this time, Stella became friendly with Donald Judd and Barbara Rose, who were both writing art criticism for Arts and Art International. Soon thereafter, Stella would marry Rose, but it was his association with Judd that would prove to be pivotal as far as the development of his work was concerned. At that time, Judd despised anything and everything that had to do with
European painting, and wanted to create strategies that could maximize the distance between his own work and the grand tradition that was his proclaimed nemesis. In 1965, he published a kind of manifesto titled Specific Objects (1), which postulated a state of advanced virtue for objects that could not be defined as being either paintings or sculpture. That essay pointed to Stella’s work from 1960-64 as exemplifying its point, but by that time, Stella was starting to move in another direction. Whatever influence that Judd’s attitudes about the European tradition might have had on Stella, we can also see that the works from that period were still looking back to the precedents of the Bauhaus and Russian Constructivism (as did Judd’s own work), just as we can also see how the earlier black paintings echoed Suprematist sources from before the first World War. But in both cases, Stella was able to renew those precedents with a distinctly American grasp of grand scale and a forcefully persuasive sense of design.
In 1965, Stella’s work suddenly shifted toward bright color, and the pivotal work that registered that shift is titled Jasper’s Dilemma. It presents a rectangle divided into two perfect squares, each of which is configured as a series of offset recursions moving at regular increments toward their respective center points, one in grey scale and one in a range of vivid polychrome hues. The dilemma indicated by the work’s title was not confined to Jasper Johns alone (although his work might have been among the first to signal it), but to a moment when contemporary art was at a vexing crossroads: a step one way toward institutional decoration or a step toward
schematically arid philosophical demonstration. Stella’s subsequent series of works answered in favor of the former, but his real accomplishment was to affirm both directions simultaneously. These were the so-called Protractor Paintings, (1966-1969) and the almost simultaneous series of Irregular Polygons (1966-1975). The former were ultra-large works executed on shaped canvas supports that rise six to eight inches off the wall, their supports and arcing configurations of intersecting graphic shapes resembling those that one might make with a protractor, their colors shrill and overbearing. When I first started visiting museums in my teens, it seemed that every institutional contemporary art collection had to feature one of these protractor paintings, and there was something about them that echoed the branded architecture of corporate fast food purveyors; think for example how the rainbow bands of Harran II (1967) echo the golden arches of the old McDonald’s hamburger restaurants. In my ignorance of contemporary art history and my fever of anti-Viet Nam war outrage, I read them as ostentatious proclamations of the forward-thinking rightness of American corporateocracy, not yet realizing that most of the art world itself would soon follow suit on that score. Now, I simply see them as being ahead of their time as expansive icons of an ascendant and over-confident righteousness of institutional authority, widely imitated by many other artists. Unfortunately, because of the large size of these works, it was impossible to install them together at the De Young, so they are interspersed with works from other periods, awkwardly interrupting an otherwise flawless installation.
The more modestly scaled Irregular Polygons are hung closer together, and, although related to the protractor works in terms of their brilliant graphic colors, they are also different. For starters, they are more art-historical in their savvy organizations of diagonal rectangles harking back to all kinds of high modernist models ranging from Cubism to the work of Kazimer Malevich and Lazlo Maholy-Nagy. But again, they also seem like multi-national corporate logos writ large and ebulliently bright. One remarkable thing about these works is that they show Stella’s initial moment of working on support structures featuring receding and overlapping planes, a tendency that would become an ever more prominent part of his evolving practice.
By 1976, Stella’s association with Minimalism was far behind him, as his work ventured into evermore “maximal” uses of forms and materials. The next step takes the form of his Indian Birds series (1976-79), where we see him swapping out his protractor for a French curve, and also making his initial use of layers of cut honeycomb aluminum as supports for works that were growing evermore complex and three-dimensional. At that point, his work became unabashedly baroque in character, making decisive use of light and shadow by way of forms that “self-consciously render the contradictions between surface and depth” to achieve a kind of “madness of vision” based on creating “palimpsests of the unseeable,” to borrow three-sentence fragments from Christine Buci-Glucksmann’s 1986 book La Folie Du Voir.
Stella’s thoughts about his own work and about painting in general were consolidated in a series of lectures that he gave at Yale University in 1983, later published in a 1986 book titled Working Spaces. In that book, he devotes many long passages to the work of Caravaggio, taking note of the way that the 17th century artist developed a host of “tricks” to create the illusion that his forms were literally reaching out to the viewer from their picture planes. To a certain extent, this also became Stella’s ambition, so much so that his works literally cantilevered off of the walls that supported them, eventually finding their way to becoming freestanding sculpture.
Clearly, Stella’s thinking at that point closely mirrored that of his friend Michael Fried, whose own 1980 book, Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot, also interrogated the idea of the picture plane as a proscenium. But what both writers downplay in
their respective commentaries are the core ideas of mannerist and baroque art, which was their status of being scripted servants to the upholding of the Church of Rome in a time of bloody theological dispute —although it also bears mentioning that Caravaggio himself was profoundly and even subversively ambivalent about his positions insofar as the Reformation and Counter-Reformation were concerned.
Around the mid-1980s, Stella became evermore fascinated by the ways that advanced technology could amplify the
growing complexity of his forms. At this point, he was working on complex spatializations of shape created out of torqued and buckled aluminum, sporting applications of paint that range from crisp illusionistic geometries to devil-may-care splashes, creating a maximalist effect of intersecting shapes and colors. It is tempting to see these works as willful obversions of 1960s minimalism, so much so that one could be forgiven in noting their similarity to the work of Bay Area artist Robert Hudson, who actually made maximalist sculpture during the 1960s. One of Stella’s works from this period titled Gobba, Zoppa e Coltralto (1985) seems worthy of remark in this context. Its jumble of conical and tubular shapes are positioned in front of a geodesic structure that is surrounded by an array of fluorescent paints — some enamel, some alkyd, some acrylic, all affixed to an etched magnesium chassis mounted on an aluminum frame. Another exceedingly large work titled The Earthquake in Chile (1999) presents itself as a vast panorama of profuse form and material, coming across like a vast map of fantastic territory that is reminiscent of some of the works made by William T. Wiley during the 1970s.
This exhibition provides many examples of Stella’s three-dimensional works, including a sizable array of smaller works explicitly devoted to Kazimer Malevich. These are delightfully playful, bespeaking the fact that, during the past decade, Stella has occasionally abandoned the bright color that has earmarked most of his earlier work, and coming full circle back to the metallic surfaces of his structural paintings from the early 1960s. Another kind of color is revealed in a freestanding work from 2009 titled K.81 Combo, made of knotted ribbons of fancy high-tech materials born of a rapid prototyping process, which amplifies the iridescent quality of the chromatic gradations applied to them in a way that resembles custom automobile lacquer.
As was previously mentioned, the de Young’s presentation of the Stella retrospective is a slightly paired-down version of the one that was earlier held at the Whitney and the Fort Worth Museum of Modern Art, which might seem to place West Coast viewers at something of a disadvantage. But the current iteration of the exhibition also affords some unique advantages. One is the opportunity to see Stella’s artistic evolution in comparison to the substantial mini-retrospective of Ellsworth Kelly’s work currently ensconced in the Donald and Doris Fischer galleries at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, located across town. Both artists came into the public eye at roughly the same time (Kelly a little sooner), and both had very prominent careers that went through a prolonged and ongoing metamorphosis.
From the vantage point of those pedestrian art viewers that museum marketing departments are so desirous to court, their works might seem very much of the same piece: all large-scale, flat shapes and vibrant colors. But more worthy of note are the differences between the work of the two artists, not that we need to uphold one or the other as somehow being “better.” Both were among the 31 artists that Clement Greenberg included in his landmark 1964 exhibition titled Post-Painterly Abstraction, and both were also included in the Museum of Modern Art’s Op Art follow-up titled The Responsive Eye from 1966, curated by William Seitz. Kelly’s colors are more precisely modulated, and for the most part are presented to us in layers of oil paint. The results come across as being more fine-tuned and pitch- perfect, fully in keeping with Kelly’s purposefully more “classical” use of broader, more austere shapes that subtly evoke expansive spaces. By way of recognizing those attributes, we can say that Kelly’s work more clearly derives and departs from the tradition of French Modernism, with perhaps a special nod given to the work of Henri Matisse.
On the other hand, Stella’s colors are more graphically flamboyant and more brittle, informed by such things as Pop Art and the common materials of industrial design. He has always been keen to experiment with all of the innovations in paint chemistry that have taken place since Lenny Bocour first marketed acrylic polymer paint in the mid-1950s, and his emphatically unmodulated colors usually make a proud point of emphasizing the acidic punch of their synthetic origins. In short, Stella’s works have always bespoken visual vernaculars that stray further away from art history than those of Kelly, and in so doing they make a distinctly American point of their bold newness in a way that makes Kelly’s work seem conservative in comparison, especially when we consider the Apollonian character of his astringent compositions, which speak more of rectitude than zany rambunction. In contrast, Stella’s post-1977 work is all rollicking shapes that explode in the viewer’s face like fancifully baroque confetti bombs. They have a strangely fascinating “I don’t care if it doesn’t look like art” character to
them, which in the eyes of many is what certifies the work as being important. Through close to a dozen successive series spanning five and half decades, Stella’s work has always made bold and energetic departures from its own past, always breaking new and for the most part fresh ground. And yet, from a vantage more attuned to a broader notion of visual culture, Stella’s work may not be quite as post-historical as his supporters would uphold it to be, because, even though it seems to turn its back on an upper-case notion of art history, there is another history to which his entire artistic evolution seems more than eager to reflect, that being the evolution of late modern to post-modern architecture, inflected as it was and is by the possibilities of computer-assisted drafting and the precisely torqued structures made possible by it. Just as Stella’s work goes from rigidly reductivist geometry to baroque convolution, so too does the evolution of post-1959 architecture go from Philip Johnson’s glass- and-steel boxes to Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry’s biomorphic labyrinths of neo-baroque light and shadow. And like the careers of those starchitecht superstars who have so noticeably redefined urban spaces from Berlin to Shanghai, Stella’s own career also shows itself as being adroit at following the flows and consolidations of institutional money, all the while not giving too much thought to the subtle scents of blood that might remind us from where it came.
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Frank Stella: a Retrospective @ de Young Museum through February 26, 2016.
About the Author:
Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries focus on satirizing the tragic consequences of blind faith placed in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak's December 9, 2014 interview, published on Broke Ass Stuart's Goddamn Website.