The evening of October twelfth was rainy and unpleasant in Cambridge, Massachusetts. But the season’s first Norton lecture was well attended nevertheless. Patrons, critics, and practitioners of the arts, their customary retinues in tow, as well as academics and the merely curious, crowded into Harvard’s Sanders Theater to hear Frank Stella discourse on Caravaggio and the vocation of painting.

While the name “Stella” undoubtedly accounted for the presence of such luminaries of the art world as Leo Castelli, who was one of Stella’s first great supporters, it was the draw of the prestigious lecture series that filled the house. Since their inception in 1925, the Norton lectures have represented the pinnacle of academic enfranchisement for prominent artists and critics. To be named to the Norton chair is to pass into the canon of those whose work one no longer merely reads or listens to or looks at but whose work one teaches; and, especially in the arts, to be included in the curriculum alongside acknowledged past masters is arguably the academy’s highest form of praise. Previous holders of the Norton chair include T. S. Eliot, whose Norton lectures became The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, Stravinsky (The Poetics of Music), Lionel Trilling (Sincerity and Authenticity), Ben Shahn (The Shape of Content), and many others of similar repute.

Born in 1936, Stella is the youngest Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry to date (“poetry” is construed broadly to comprise “all poetic expression in language, music, the fine arts, and architecture”). It is perhaps ironical that Harvard should choose for this most traditional, humanistically oriented position an artist who, in an oft-quoted 1964 interview, reproached those “who want to retain the old values in painting—the old humanistic values that they always find on the canvas. If you pin them down, they always end up asserting that there is something there besides the paint on the canvas. My painting is based on the fact that only what can be seen is there. It really is an object.”

One might suggest that, on the contrary, Stella’s appointment merely illustrates tradition’s power to assimilate the professedly non- or anti-traditional, so that what seemed radical in 1964 is commonplace in 1983. This is true enough, though one reason this happens so regularly is that most of what comes to be recognized as art, no matter how radical its rhetoric, continues to move on a map drawn by the very tradition that it seeks to subvert. In challenging tradition, art expands rather than escapes tradition’s rule.

But Stella was a natural candidate on other grounds. Since his debut in the art world in 1959 with the celebrated “black paintings,” he has again and again shown himself to be one of the most thoughtful and visually fastidious artists to arise since the eclipse of Abstract Expressionism. And, what is perhaps equally important, he is one of the most verbally articulate contemporary artists to champion the cause of abstract art.

Stella is scheduled to give the usual six lectures over the course of the academic year. Under the general rubric “Working Space,” he will proceed from Caravaggio to highlight other figures in the pantheon of art, including Rubens, Kandinsky, and Picasso. But one gathered from the first installment that he will be primarily interested in relating such historical inquiries to the concerns of contemporary abstract painting. Indeed, part of the burden of this first lecture was to reaffirm the legitimacy of abstract art by insisting that its characteristic ambitions did not spring full-grown from the heads of Kandinsky and Mondrian but have a long and distinguished pedigree.

For those familiar with Stella’s reflections on art, the lecture presented no real surprises. But, as those reflections have generally consisted of rather brief explanations in interviews or remarks to accompany a show, it was rewarding to see him apply himself in a sustained way to a single topic. Not that this was a simple matter even here: Stella speaks softly and very quickly, often swallowing the last word or two of a sentence. But he also tends to repeat his main ideas in various formulations, and over the course of the evening his argument became clear enough.

Abstract painting, Stella suggested, is in crisis. After the achievements of Mondrian and Color-field abstraction, painting seemed to lose its way. Not only has it become increasingly difficult to envision a vital future for abstraction but, perhaps even more significantly, it is difficult to relate it to a meaningful past that extends back much beyond the early twentieth century. In this sense, the current crisis in painting is said to parallel a crisis that occurred near the end of the sixteenth century with the death of Titian. Hence, Stella calls for a new Caravaggio to fill the void. For just as Caravaggio reinvigorated painting through his new treatment of space, so too painting’s task today is to discover “a new pictoriality,” a new sense of space, that is not determined by extra-artistic considerations. “After all,” Stella argues, “the aim of art is to make space, space that is not compromised by decoration or illustration, space in which the subject of painting can live. This is what painting has always been about.”

The last part of this statement becomes more credible when we realize that for Stella painting did not really come of age until the Renaissance, when the reconstruction of space according to one-point perspective gained dominance. The creation of such autonomous “working space” is Stella’s real subject. For him, the problem of painting is not so much the problem of representing a three-dimensional object on a two-dimensional plane but the use of “convincing illusionism” to make pictorial space seem real. According to Stella, painting should not confine itself to the picture plane (thus enslaving itself to “the tyranny of the perimeter”) but should seek to create a “communicable whole,” a “sense of absolutely convincing reality” that is capable of “making figuration look real and free.” (One recalls Kant’s observation that “beautiful art must look like nature, although we are conscious of it as art”) Adopting a phrase from Berenson, Stella describes Caravaggio as a premier “space composer,” meaning by that term not a composing in space but a composing of space. Dreaming of making painting “an enterprise that is independent and self-contained,” he praises Caravaggio for living up to the post-Renaissance artist’s “new-found responsibility” to create his own space, “space with a special self-centered character.” By steadfastly exploring this space, Caravaggio “made the studio into a place of magic and mystery, a cathedral of the self.”

Stella’s way of putting the matter may obscure the extent to which his interpretation of Caravaggio accords with other, more traditional interpretations. For example, in his classic Caravaggio Studies, Walter Friedlaender observes apropos the Vatican Deposition that we “no longer look into a fictitious world set apart by design, color, and light; the entire construction seems to come physically toward us as if entering step by step into our world. We are the recipients of the miracle.” But unlike Stella, who stresses the autonomy of Caravaggio’s art, Friedlaender notes “a kind of antinomy in the later works of Caravaggio: the figures and objects are by their arrangement made to reach out almost palpably to the immediate perception of the spectator, while the strong and inexplicable light fills them with a sublimity which keeps the worshipper in a state of awe.” For Friedlaender, the sense of autonomous space communicated by Caravaggio’s paintings is undercut by its allegiance to a reality outside the aesthetic sphere. Caravaggio remains essentially a religious artist.

Stella’s description of Caravaggio’s studio as a “cathedral of the self,” drawing as it does on the traditional figure of the artist as a “second god,” is no doubt in part hyperbole. But like most hyperbole, such talk is exorbitant language striving to express an exorbitant claim. For Stella’s obsession with autonomous pictorial space is more than a formal, academic concern. The ineffable subject of painting—"what is not there, what we can’t quite find, but which at the same time we can’t stop looking for"—is for him inextricably bound up with an uneasiness about finitude and mortality. “Painters instinctively look to the mirror for reassurance,” he tells us, “hoping to shake death, hoping to avoid despair of passing time.” And if their hopes must inevitably be disappointed, then art, with its beautiful, self-sufficient creations, can nevertheless assuage that disappointment by inviting us to forget, if but momentarily, the burdens of finitude and self-consciousness.

Stella’s presentation was considerably more textured, witty, and ironical than I have suggested here, always emphasizing the impossibility of the release from time that painters are, on his account, condemned to seek. Nevertheless, it was this urgent theme that recurred most often in the course of his exposition and that seemed to impress his audience most deeply. At a reception following the lecture, I asked a student from Boston’s Museum School what she thought of Stella’s presentation. On the whole, she was carefully noncommittal, but clearly felt that he was on to something with the idea of the studio being a “cathedral of the self.” “Art is a personal religion,” she asserted, ignoring the oxymoron, but added darkly, “though sometimes it seems hell-bound.”

My pleas for elaboration were fruitless, though in this context it is illuminating to compare Stella’s understanding of painting with the account of painting Alberti gave in On Painting (1435). According to Alberti, painting—understood essentially as the skillful fixing of images seen as if reflected in a mirror—“contains a divine force” that lets one forget the passing of time and can make the absent seem present, the dead alive. Thus the accomplished artist “sets himself up almost as a god,” feels himself to be “another god.” Nor is it without interest here that Alberti credits Narcissus with the invention of painting. “The story of Narcissus is most to the point,” for “what else can you call painting but a similar embracing with art of what is presented on the surface of the water in the fountain?” Just as Narcissus, having turned away from Echo’s love, sought to embrace the glittering, inaccessible image projected on the pond, so the painter, turning away from the immediately given, seeks to embrace the measured image with which he reconstructs the visible world.

Though he repeatedly claims to take his distinctions “from nature,” Alberti in fact presents us with a view of art in which nature is systematically subordinated to the demands of the human spirit. Painting for Alberti—as, in a more radical way, for Stella—does not so much reveal as remake reality. It represents man’s triumph over otherness in the construction of an autonomous “work of space” that, resisting the indifferent voracity of time, gives its creator a sense of godlike sovereignty. Caravaggio’s success in communicating a sense of such space is what makes him so important a precursor for Stella. In Caravaggio, Stella found the beginnings of that “new pictoriality,” free from “decoration or illustration,” free from dependence on any content outside itself, that much contemporary art is still searching for.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 2 Number 4, on page 86
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