Imagine an exemplary career for a contemporary American painter. Such a career would be full to brimming with both commercial and critical success, and would somehow manage to retain the sheen of avant-garde daring while firmly establishing itself as a popular conventional taste. The prelude to such a career would have to be a reasonably tony education: high school at Phillips Academy, Andover, say, followed by college at Princeton, where the young artist’s talent would be recognized and encouraged, and where he would begin to make important connections in the art world. Because an exemplary artistic career must include some period of struggle, it would involve a year or so of obscurity in New York; but because no exemplary career is unprecocious, it would also involve stunning early successes: an exhibition of several works in the important “Sixteen Americans” show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1959, for example, when the artist was only twenty-three, followed by a one-man show at the Leo Castelli Gallery a few months later.

Of course, an exemplary career requires more than a brilliant beginning, and the succeeding years would therefore have to bring innumerable honors and accolades. The artist’s style would undergo dramatic shifts, eliciting enthusiastic praise and stern censure from critics, and ever larger checks from museums and collectors. In 1970, when the artist was but thirty-three, the Museum of Modern Art would see fit to devote a major retrospective exhibition to his work, making him the youngest artist to be so honored. Then there would be years of consolidation. Galleries and museums and collectors from every corner of the civilized world would clamor for his art; learned essays and articles on his work would proliferate, bolstering its academic reputation. There would be further dramatic changes of style. These too would be duly analyzed and commented on, and would be followed by more honors and accolades, culminating in 1983 when the artist would become the youngest person—and the first abstract artist—appointed to deliver the prestigious Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard University, lectures given in previous years by such eminences as T. S. Eliot, Igor Stravinsky, Northrop Erye, and Lionel Trilling. When published in 1986, the artist’s Norton lectures would garner enormous attention for their energy and bravura, preparing the ground for a second major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art the following year.

It is no secret that the protagonist of this idyll is none other than the New York artist Frank Stella. And quite apart from the details of the sketch, so perfectly does Stella conform to the contemporary ideal of artistic success that one is tempted to say that if he did not exist the art world would have had to invent him. Nevertheless, there comes a time in even the most celebrated artist’s career when one must ask whether the accomplishment has really kept pace with the reputation. For after the inexorable public-relations machinery of museums, galleries, and journalism has moved on to celebrate a different artist, we shall still be left with Stella’s work. How well does it stand up? Does it elicit memorable aesthetic emotion as well as public praise? Is it, as we have been assured time and again, an artistic achievement of the first order?

The exhibition of Stella’s later work that opened in mid-October at the Museum of Modern Art provides an apt occasion to ponder such questions.[1] Like the 1970 Stella retrospective, the current exhibition was organized by William Rubin, Director of the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Modern and one of Stella’s earliest admirers. Because Stella’s pieces tend to be quite large, the exhibition is limited to thirty-eight works, all dating from 1970 and after. The absence of any examples of his early paintings is to be regretted, not least because the course of the artist’s development from the late Sixties is best understood as a reaction against the stringent aesthetic of his early, Minimalist paintings. But Mr. Rubin has made a judicious and representative selection of works from 1970 to the present, and the exhibition affords a reliable overview of Stella’s oeuvre and artistic concerns from that period.

The story of Stella’s artistic development is the story of ever-increasing visual complexity. When he burst upon the art world at the end of 1959, it was with a series of large rectangular canvases painted entirely in a dull black enamel. The surface of each painting consisted of a simple geometric pattern —uniform chevrons, for example, or interlocking rectangles—that was formed by thin, slightly wavering lines of unpainted canvas. There was no color, no contrast of forms or materials, no illusionistic depth or drawing. As Stella put it in an often-quoted interview from 1964, in those paintings “what you see is what you see.”

Appearing at a moment when painting was still dominated by the extravagant outpourings of Abstract Expressionism, Stella’s Black Paintings created a sensation. In retrospect, they can be seen to have inaugurated the Minimalist movement in art. Stella’s attempt to pare down painting, to purge it of extraneous gesture, warmth, and emotion made his work appear almost as a species of anti-painting, an inversion of everything that painting stood for and expressed. Nevertheless, the Black Paintings exercised a strange fascination on many observers. Above all, they impressed certain viewers with their utter seriousness. In a letter of recommendation Alfred H. Barr wrote for Stella in i960, he confessed that the paintings “baffled” him but added that he was “deeply impressed by their conviction.” It is easy to appreciate both reactions. The Black Paintings are indeed baffling. Even today, they seem possessed of a visual leanness that borders on the anorexic. They give one very little to warm to, to respond to, very little to like. On the other hand, they are also possessed of a compelling visual tautness and concentration that, whatever other merits they may claim, Stella’s succeeding work has never recaptured.

After the Black Paintings, Stella’s art mutated quickly. He experimented with copper and aluminum paint, producing a number of paintings that look like metallic complications of the Black Paintings. By the middle Sixties he was using a wide palette, which included iridescent Day-Glo colors, and irregularly shaped canvases: notched rectangles and Vs, irregular polygons, and shapes that were determined by the methodical use of a protractor. In the mid-Seventies, Stella began making the huge, brightly colored reliefs from aluminum, fiberglass, and other materials that have become so familiar in recent years and whose history the current exhibition details. His work, once the ne plus ultra of unadorned flatness, extended further and further from the picture plane as metallic curves, plates, cones, and cylinders swarmed outward from an increasingly obscured support. The contrast between these recent creations and the stolid flatness of the Black Paintings could not be more striking.

Despite the chaotic appearance of some of his more recent work, Stella has always approached painting analytically. At least since the Black Paintings, he has worked in series, exploring variations of a single theme or idea in a number of related works. The reproductions of preliminary drawings and maquettes that Mr. Rubin includes in the catalogue suggest how methodically Stella approaches his art. The earliest works in the current exhibition are from the Polish Village series, a group of some one hundred and thirty reliefs designed in the early Seventies. Stella has said that the titles of these works—Mogielnica (ca. 1972), Brzozdowce II (1973), Targowica II (ca. 1973), etc.—are meant to commemorate Polish synagogues destroyed by the Nazis in World War II. It cannot be said that this lugubrious reference is recalled in any way by the works, which are irregularly shaped constructions of mixed media on board or aluminum. As it happens, most of them resemble blown-up relief versions of Malevich’s Supremacist drawings. While Mr. Rubin is not given to dispensing criticism in his catalogue essay, he does admit that the Polish series “has what is for Stella a relatively high incidence of near misses and outright failures.” In fact, though, the handful he has chosen to show here are the most modest, most simply decorative, and least demanding of any works in the exhibition. They do succeed, but only by not aspiring very highly.

In the mid-Seventies, Stella painted a series of large (just over eleven feet) square canvases depicting a small central square surrounded by some twenty uniformly wide square bands of deliberately graded colors, each separated by a thin off-white line. Dubbed the Diderot series, they take their titles from various books by the great figure of the Enlightenment: Le Rêve de d’Alembert (1974; this one is a double square, almost twenty-four feet long), Bijoux indiscrets (1974), Jacques le fataliste (1974), and so on. The effect of the paintings, with their relentless, color-wheel-like repetitions, is somewhere between a mediocre Vasarely and those optical tests that one finds in introductory textbooks on perception. Mr. Rubin tells us that Stella sees the paintings as evoking “the notion of the critic,” especially in the figure of Stella’s college friend and influential early champion, Michael Fried, who was deeply interested in Diderot at the time. But again, like so many of Stella’s works, the paintings in the Diderot series prompt us to reflect not on their ostensible subject but on the wholly arbitrary nature of Stella’s fanciful titles.

The rest of the exhibition is devoted to examples from the several series of large reliefs that have absorbed Stella’s interest for the last decade. Though at first glance these works have an aggressively improvisatory feel, they, too, are elaborately planned out and (to use a term Stella favors) “engineered.” As Stella notes, the works in the Polish Village series were the last reliefs that were not “fabricated entirely in factories.” Mr. Rubin explains in great detail that, since the Exotic Bird series in 1976, Stella’s typical procedure has been to use mechanical engineering templates to trace various curves on graph paper. When he arrives at a design he likes, he has a maquette made, from which finished versions of the reliefs—generally enlarged by factors of 3 and 5.5—are fabricated. The finished reliefs are then sent to his studio to be painted. “An important aspect of using the templates,” Stella said in a recent interview,

was that they permitted me to effect my own version of coming free on the surface. I was now free to do easily what most people did the hard way. I could make so-called relational paintings or, rather, the structural schemas for such paintings, just by sliding the templates around the surface. No need to erase, paint out, or redo. Only when I had the composition the way I wanted it was it transferred to the graph paper—directly into a mechanical drawing—and then into a three-dimensional Foam-core maquette, where I turned the template forms at angles to the picture surface.

Mr. Rubin presents Stella’s methods with admirable clarity. But behind the question of Stella’s methods of fabrication lies another, more difficult question: how good are the reliefs as works of art? On this question I am afraid that Mr. Rubin is a less reliable guide. Of the Indian Bird series, for example, Mr. Rubin speaks of “their appearance of willful ‘bad taste.’” Perhaps he was thinking of their muddy carnival colors; or the sequin-like glitter that is sprinkled here and there on the twisted maze of curvilinear planes that constitute their “façade”; or the willfully ugly mass of mesh or metal tubing that provides their support. Any or all would do to confirm the charge of bad taste, though none really explain Mr. Rubin’s insistence on scare quotes.

Then again, Mr. Rubin describes Misano (1982) as “one of the most classically ordered of Stella’s metal reliefs” and applauds in particular Stella’s “ability to handle a multi-layered configuration of highly variegated components without slipping into visual congestion.” Without slipping into visual congestion? Judgments about this sort of thing can be very personal, of course; but if the issue is visual congestion, then to my eye Stella’s agglomerations of garishly colored strips of etched aluminum and magnesium, far from being “classically ordered,” seem like the artistic equivalent of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway at about 5:00 p.m. on the Friday before Labor Day.

When it comes to the nitty-gritty of artistic production, Mr. Rubin is a diligent scholar. The present catalogue, like his catalogue for the 1970 retrospective, devotes the most meticulous attention to ascertaining Stella’s professed artistic aims, materials, methods of composition, sources of titles, and so on. This is no doubt a laudable impulse. But the truth is that such painstaking scholarship gains value in proportion to the value of its object of study. When it is applied to most living artists, the effect is bound to be slightly ludicrous. It puts one in the position of solemnly pronouncing on artistic and biographical details that are of only the most ephemeral interest. Stella’s enthusiasm for racing cars surely belongs to this category. And Mr. Rubin’s announcement that this interest influenced Stella’s name for the Circuit series cannot but strike one as slightly comic (as indeed does the photograph he reproduces of Stella with a racing car driver, an executive from BMW, and a car whose decoration he designed).

But if Mr. Rubin’s scholarly zeal seems at times comically misplaced, I am afraid that his style of writing is unlikely to bring smiles to the faces of many readers. No one, at any rate, can accuse him of being an overly felicitous writer. The catalogue is full of bewildering observations like “Stella’s use in the Circuits of new forms (such as Flexicurves), compound template shapes, and recuperated or residual shapes constituted, morphologically speaking, a quantum change in his work,” or “We have also seen Stella recuperate the Malerischkeit [painterliness] of Abstract Expressionism in a forward-looking manner that subsumed an interest in graffiti.” Clearly, Mr. Rubin has an irresistible fondness for this peculiar transitive use of the word “recuperate”: “Picasso recuperated figurative drawing”; “[s]uch forms . . . were recuperated by Stella”; “[w]e have already observed that the later Circuits were increasingly made up of ‘accidental’ or ‘found’ shapes taken from elements recuperated from the procedure of cutting out the templates”—this last meaning, one supposes, that in the Circuits Stella used bits of material left over from the fabrication of other works.

Walking through the Stella exhibition, one catches traces of many artistic precursors. Mr. Rubin outlines the important influence of Jackson Pollock and Jasper Johns on Stella’s early works, and notes, but fails to detail, the influence of the Modern’s great 1980 Picasso retrospective. In Stella’s own estimation, “The struggle to make the forms in the painting ‘real,’ to make them physically present, is the lesson . . . which I learned from Picasso. It’s not the presence of a recognizable figure in Picasso that in itself makes things real, but his ability to project the image and to have it be so physical, so painted. It’s so aggressively painted that it bursts out into image, and that image has a sense of being real, of breaking through pictorial boundaries to coexist in our everyday space.” In fact, this bold manipulation of space is not the only thing Stella learned from that Picasso exhibition. As the briefest glance at works like St. Michael’s Counterguard (1984), Giufà e la statua di gesso (1985), or Salta nel mio sacco! (1985) show, he also absorbed a good deal of Picasso’s formal Cubist vocabulary, right down to the juxtaposition of specific abstract forms and color values. Such works seem like nothing so much as simplified three-dimensional re-enactments of paintings like The Embrace (1925), and one is left wondering whether whatever visual strength they possess is not due as much to Picasso’s ingenuity as to Stella’s.

Picasso is no doubt the most distinguished modern artistic presence haunting Stella’s recent work. But he is by no means the only one. As Mr. Rubin notes, David Smith’s Zig series echoes strongly in Stella’s Welkom (1982). And the comic-book palette and busy, schematic composition of some of his best known pieces from the so-called Cones and Pillars series—Diavolozoppo (1984), for example—impress one as take-offs, alas, of the campy cartoons that Roy Lichtenstein has been peddling as works of art for over two decades. More subtly—if not, perhaps, more successfully—many other of Stella’s recent works, like La vecchia dell'orto (1986) or Lo sciocco senza paura (1985), seem constructed from backgrounds of second-rate de Koonings upon which are affixed a noisy appurtenance of cones, triangles, and curves. The conjunctions are not notably successful.

Yet there is no doubt that Stella has a gift for the bold optical gesture. Among his recent works, Shards V (1983), a large, brightly colored melange on aluminum, perhaps best epitomizes the striking effects he can achieve in his reliefs. The dazzling turmoil of shapes, knit together by four intersecting orthogonal elements, is strangely arresting. But—and this is a question that recurs again and again as one contemplates the works in this exhibition—is this relief effective primarily as art? Or is its appeal—when it exercises an appeal—more narrowly perceptual? All too often, I'm afraid, one must concede the latter. For beneath the calculated circus glitz there is very little of aesthetic substance in Stella’s reliefs: they claim our attention primarily not as works of art but as exotic optical curiosities. That their novelty and interest tends to fade quickly on re-viewing is a sure sign of this aesthetic poverty.

In my view, Stella’s best works in this exhibition are also his least characteristic. Early reliefs like Newell’s Hawaiian shearwater (1976) and Eskimo curlew (1976) succeed partly because they oscillate tantalizingly between painting and sculpture, preserving a tension between the genres that later reliefs surreptitiously resolve almost entirely in favor of sculpture. On the other hand, perhaps the single most successful work in the exhibition, Mellieha Bay (1983), a mixed media relief on fiberboard and other materials, impresses one simply and wholly as a competent, if somewhat dated, sculptural relief. But it stands out so vividly in the subterranean galleries the Modern has devoted to Stella because it lacks his signature pictorial devices: the jutting, brightly painted curves and squiggles of the earlier reliefs, the schematic boldness of the Cones and Pillars series. Mellieha Bay is at once the quietest and the most authoritative work in the exhibition.

In his essay for the 1970 Stella retrospective, Mr. Rubin took issue with the prevailing wisdom that a “second phase” in the artist’s development began when he embarked on the Irregular Polygon paintings in 1966-1967. According to Mr. Rubin, this view oversimplifies the many continuities between Stella’s work in the late Sixties and his earlier work. In the present catalogue, however, he has committed himself to the idea that by now Stella has in fact embarked upon a “second career.” But this second career is said to have begun not with the shaped paintings of the Sixties, but with the large-scale reliefs that Stella began in the mid-Seventies.

In this context, Mr. Rubin distinguishes between Stella’s early Minimalist paintings and his later “maximalist” reliefs; the principle was exclusion in the former, inclusion in the later. “Stella conceived of his new abstract ‘figures’ above all as a means of creating and articulating a viable new space,” he tells us, “one that could compensate non-figurative painting for the space choked out of it by medium-oriented painters in the decades following Abstract Expressionism.” Stella’s overriding question, in Mr. Rubin’s words, was “how much could he subsume from the neighboring plastic arts of sculpture and architecture and still be making paintings? And how many of the lapsed conventions of painting itself-—in the realm of configuration, spatial structure, and even narrative form—could be redeployed in an art that still remained wholly abstract?” These are indeed excellent questions, and Mr. Rubin is merely echoing Stella himself when he suggests that contemporary abstract painting may freely poach on sculpture and architecture, that the pictorial elements abstract painting publicly discarded in the Forties, Fifties, and early Sixties may be quietly let in the back door with impunity.

In a recent interview, Stella accepted the terms “painted reliefs” or “relief paintings” to describe his work, but added, “the impulse that goes into them is pictorial, and they live or die on my pictorial abilities, not my abilities as a sculptor.” Mr. Rubin does yeoman’s service attempting to persuade us that Stella’s work has remained essentially pictorial. He asks us, for example, to distinguish between “the pictorial” and “the sculptural” rather than between “painting” and “sculpture”—because such “nouns” are “too inflexible to contain modernist innovations and mutations.” But it will take more than such grammatical legerdemain to convince anyone that Stella’s large reliefs can be experienced as anything other than a species of wall sculpture.

These days when artists or critics invoke recent developments in science or mathematics to explain art (quantum mechanics and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle remain the two favorites in this regard), one can be reasonably sure that they are talking flapdoodle. Stella generally avoids this sort of thing, but in his continuing effort to convince us that his recent art is primarily pictorial, not sculptural, he is willing to try anything. “Mathematicians talk now about figures of 1.78 dimensions or 2.3 dimensions,” Stella informs us. “Pictorial space is one in which you have two-dimensional forms tricked out to give the appearance of three-dimensional ones, so that the space you actually perceive comes down somewhere in-between .... I work away from the flat surface but I still don’t want to be three dimensional; that is, totally literal . . . more than two dimensions but short of three so, for me, 2.7 is probably a very good place to be.” The problem is, of course, that Stella’s recent works are not “somewhere in-between” two dimensions and three dimensions: they are adamantly, aggressively three-dimensional, often extending three or four feet from the wall. Repeatedly insisting that these works are essentially pictorial, not sculptural, does nothing to alter that elementary fact.

Quite apart from whatever artistic merits his work happens to possess, one of the things that has reinforced Stella’s prominent place in the art world today is his articulate insight into the plight of contemporary abstract painting. Stella has always been eloquent on this score. His most sustained diagnosis of that plight appears in the book based on his 1983 Norton lectures, Working Space.[2] Stella begins by complaining that since the late 1960s abstract painting has been too neat, too safe, too antiseptic. It achieves “surface coherence at the expense of pictorial energy .... [W]hat we are left with is illustrated space which we can read; what we have lost is created space which we could feel.” “In the end,” he writes,

it comes down to this: abstraction has left behind the tradition of figurative painting that began with the Renaissance, and instead has taken with it the worst illustrational bias that Western figurative art had developed: its notion of averaging effects, of smoothing over spatial transitions. This had disastrous efFects because it forced abstraction to start out cautiously. Abstraction has come to be in need of extraordinary efFects rather than average effects—in need of bold displacements rather than smooth transitions.

Working Space culminates in the extraordinary claim that “the aim of art is to create space—space that is not compromised by decoration or illustration .... This is what painting has always been about.” Like so much in the book—including Stella’s main thesis that the crisis in twentieth-century abstract painting parallels a crisis in painting that occurred at the end of the sixteenth century—this assertion is accurate neither as an art historical statement nor as a description of the ambition of contemporary painting. But it does go some distance as a description of Stella’s own artistic ambitions. The historical inspiration for Stella’s indictment is Caravaggio, whose “confrontational, projective illusionism” Stella proposes as an antidote to the sterility of contemporary abstraction. Mirabile dictu, it soon becomes clear that Stella sees himself as a new Caravaggio and that he regards his recent work as implementing the illusionistic lessons of the Lombardian painter in a contemporary key.

The program that Stella puts forth—or perhaps one should say “puts over”—in Working Space is a breathtaking fusion of contraries. Having once championed a notion of painting that was ferociously anti-illusionistic, Stella now emerges as a spokesman for a new brand of illusionism, not the “shallow illusionism” of mere illustration, of course, but something much grander. He wants his paintings to exhibit a contemporary version of “that spatial mobility which the human figure articulated in the illusionism of the Old Masters,” but he doesn’t want to re-introduce the human figure. He wants painting that has “the cast of reality,” that can impart “the sensation of real presence and real action,” without, be it noted, resorting to realism. Like many a good modernist abstract painter, Stella still insists that traditional realistic illusionism is “gone. It’s used up”; but he nonetheless wants to make use of the effects of illusionism. In this context, Mr. Rubin obligingly distinguishes between the “holistic” illusionism of the Old Masters and the “fragmentary illusionism” that Stella practices. But at bottom what this means is that Stella wishes to have the cake he has just eaten: he wants to employ the histrionics and optical efFects of realistic illusionism without committing himself to the strictures of mimetic fidelity that illusionism once served.

If nothing else, Stella’s argument in Working Space helps explain why he has emerged as the corporate-office-lobby artist par excellence. His recent works have the look of modernist abstract art, but in fact they confront the viewer with an essentially sentimentalized, clichéd visual experience. Elsewhere I have examined the relation of Stella’s argument in Working Space to the tradition of modernism.[3] Here it suffices to note that his works after the mid-Seventies effectively represent a complete inversion of the principles that animated his earlier work.

Mr. Rubin ended his 1970 catalogue with the remark that Stella’s “endurance faces many challenges, not the least of which is the quality of his own past.” That is true enough. But Mr. Rubin himself has contributed mightily to an even greater challenge to Stella’s endurance: the challenge of his wildly inflated reputation. Recalling a recent visit he made to Stella’s studio, Mr. Rubin confides that he “could not but be overwhelmed by the sheer profusion of his ideas, and the immense outpouring of energy on which they ride.” This is largely a rhetorical flourish, perhaps, serving as it does to conclude the essay. But it is entirely consistent with the “great artist” motif that he pursues throughout his text, the “like all great painters” gambit he employs to assure us of Stella’s towering eminence. Accordingly, there is a good deal of talk about Stella’s “genius,” and even the artist’s limitations are enlisted to enhance his reputation. Noting 'Vestiges of a certain banality” in Stella’s work, Mr. Rubin begins his essay by suggesting that they only underscore its sophisticated popularity, the popularity of all “truly universal” art—“at least,” he tells us, “I take this to be among the lessons of Dante, Shakespeare, and Picasso.” Dante, Shakespeare, and Picasso? Dante, Shakespeare, Picasso, and . . . Stella? The cruel result of such extravagantly disproportionate praise is that it tends to backfire, redounding not to the artist’s glory but to his denigration. It is never long before an edifice of empty superlatives crumbles, and the more unbelievable the initial claims, the more stringent the reassessment. The effect is a climate of suspicion that makes it harder to appreciate or even perceive an artist’s real, albeit more modest, accomplishments. This full scale exhibition of Stella’s recent works reminds us just how modest his achievement has been; the fulsome catalogue merely undermines our appreciation of that achievement.

 

  1. “Frank Stella: Works From 1970 to 1987” is on view at the Museum of Modern Art through January 5, 198S. The exhibition then travels to the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in February and the Musée National d’Art Moderne (Centre Georges Pompidou) in May before continuing its American tour next fall at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (October 16 through December 31, 1988), the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston (February n through April 23, 1989), and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (June 4 through August 13). The accompanying catalogue by William Rubin, Frank Stella 1970-1987, is published by the Museum of Modern Art (172 pages, $45). Go back to the text.
  2. See Tim Hilton’s review of Working Space in the February 1987 issue of The New Criterion. Go back to the text.
  3. See my article “Beyond Abstract Art?” in Commentary, March 1987, pp. 53-58. Go back to the text.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 6 Number 4, on page 21
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