Frank Stella’s famous aphorism, “What you see is what you see,” seems most likely to have been followed in his mind by an urgent, “Don’t just stand there looking, do something!” This retrospective covering more than fifty years lays out the whiplash morphology of his work in phases of construction and deconstruction, deferral and aggressive attack, and space-grid explosions and implosions. These works offer a cosmology of empirical play and all-too-reasoned chaos jostling for one’s attention like a conference lounge full of Newtonians on meth. His austere “Black Paintings” established Stella’s art-world reputation as an uncompromising rationalist of the laterally extensive picture plane. The works and career that followed played out in a manic reaction to this early achievement. Stella’s early rigor became supplanted by raucous contradictions of stylistic coherence, just sufficiently “wild” to fit neatly within an overriding formalist logic. A clamor of reason dictated the order of his increasingly chaotic forms.
On ViewWhitney Museum Of American Art
October 30, 2015 – February 7, 2016
A selection of the “Black Paintings,” like The Marriage of Reason and Squalor (1959), is followed here by myriad geometric and chromatic variations of parallel stripes determined by each painting’s shaped support, as in Empress of India (1965). Stella also expanded his palette at this time to include metallic silver and copper and sometimes brightly colored hues in a harlequin array. Paintings from his so-called “Protractor Series” that followed, such as Harran II (1967), are composed of hypnotically fanning pinwheels, spinning the stripes of his previous series into rhythmic echelons of color. Each change in Stella’s style appears to react logically and seamlessly to preceding formal structures (parallel lines becoming parallel arcs, for example), yet in each shift there is also a kind of built-in irrationality, like the irregular, alternating weave of the arc of the protractor. Stella’s reasoned irrationality ultimately precludes the possibility of chance operations in his works, which creates an inertia of being, an odd kind of nihilistic idealism. Peter Halley noticed this tendency in Stella in a 1986 Flash Art article: “Stella takes the final step from the modern world of the ideal into the post-modern world, where the model precedes all.” Halley refers to the postmodern “model” here, which could also be translated as Stella’s tactical extension of the Enlightenment project: a hyper-rationalism, albeit without any real possibility of utopian agency.
Early critics and supporters of Stella, like Philip Leider and Michael Fried, cast his disruptive changes as reasonable within the “issue-oriented” art world of the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was a time when the loose canon unlimbered by Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists (and the trajectory of a particularly American cannonball across the high modernist bow), was being methodically re-aimed in successive barrages by young gunnies like Stella, Andre, Judd, and Morris. In retrospect Stella’s swift changes were only “issue-oriented” within the insular and often parochial art world of this latter-day New York School. It was a period when the latest cover of Artforum might signal a sea change in contemporary aesthetics and send a cadre of the formalist faithful down to Max’s Kansas City to ruminate over drinks on its oracular portent. The current retrospective offers a good opportunity to survey the historic scope of Stella’s idiosyncratic shifts, and to hopefully distill a relevant residue of contemporary meaning from the works without the diversion of the fashionably new.
From what Clement Greenberg might characterize as its Apollonian heights, this particular art world was to fall into a pluralist purgatory from which many are yet attempting to be redeemed. Greenberg’s protégée, Rosalind Krauss, would stake her early reputation on the declaration that any art that continued to blindly endorse a systematic program of hegemonic meaning would be prone to critical failure. The fall of Artforum modernism hence became the task of mourning in the October of formalist critique. In this newer, postmodern scenario, Stella’s restless form mongering became invested by default with a type of hapless pathos. His assembly lines of new artistic models have become allegorical of the troublingly pure products of dystopic American culture.
There is one refreshingly regressive pause nestled within Stella’s manic oeuvre presented here. The “Polish Village Series” takes up the parallel threads of the “Black Paintings” and the “Protractor Series” yet contrasts the recursive tension of those works with a slower, plate-tectonics. A work like Jarmolince: III (1973), with its frieze-like shallow shifts and polygonal irregularities is imbued with a pre-modern awareness of materiality; artisanal labor reconnected with its fundamental forces. These works are composed of humble materials such as homosote, masonite, felt-like fabric appliqués, and somewhat roughly joined frameworks, which help to ground their thatched planes. Stella derived his inspiration for this series from a book of images detailing the carpentry of Polish synagogue construction prior to the Nazi Holocaust. He has characteristically denied the works as representing explicit memorials, but one can’t help but connect their associative titles to the abiding materialism of these works.
Stella’s penchant for working in distinct series comes with a curious habit of adopting titles in which he oddly wants to connect an anecdotal significance to purely formalist follies. The artist has discussed the nature of this habit regarding the titles for his “Black Paintings,” which were plucked from both Nazi propaganda (Die Fahn Hoch, 1959) and jazz history (Turkish Mambo, 1959 – 60). He has related sitting around with his friends Hollis Frampton and Carl Andre thinking up titles for the paintings in an informal game of fraternal wit. This tendency can be read as the epicurean fancy of a tasteful flâneur. Titles of works such as Eskimo Curlew and The Whiteness of the Whale (references to Audubon’s Birds of America and Melville’s Moby-Dick) enact a kind of atavistic ecotourism and a merely symbolic sounding of a now extinct or rare species of tragic cultural consequence, while only tangentially relating to the works. Almost as if to address this blithe surfing over ersatz poetic seas, Stella offers The Raft of the Medusa (1990). This work is part of a series that combines crushed aluminum and steel elements. Its deconstructive logic helps achieve this work’s level of portentous materiality and gnarly gestalt. The assemblage does pretentiously reference Géricault’s 1819 Romantic masterpiece, but in this instance its title aligns with a trans-historical contextual significance, both artists having operated within regimes of incompetent leaders of reconstituted empires (The Bourbon Restoration and the Bush regimes, respectively). It’s a rare instance in the show where Stella’s eccentric empiricism analogically predicts the setting adrift of the idealistic ambitions of representational democracy in the West. Within its crushed symmetry one might also discern a faint cry of the artist’s own disillusion and horror at the pulling away of the foundations of Enlightenment reason.
Additional works in the show include some intimate sketchbook studies, which often feel weirdly self-conscious of their ultimate resolution in the larger pieces. In work from the mid-1990s onward, Stella bends toward attenuated mannerisms in quirky material combinations such as the marvelously hideous aluminum, enamel, and fiberglass Box Truck Painting (2015). Although these latest works are visually eccentric they still feel strangely predictable in their disparate parts. Taken as a whole, Stella’s antic but calculated reliefs comprise heraldic devices for contemporary culture’s hyper-reasoned, yet agency-challenged ideals. In this respect he is probably one of the West’s most representative artists.