Ever since Frank Stella said that a painting is “a flat surface with paint on it—nothing more,” in the early 1960s, his body of work has appeared to grow steadily outwards. The freestanding architectural works he has made since the mid-’80s have never quite let go of painterly perimeters, however. It would perhaps be more accurate to call them “highly sculptural” rather than actual sculptures. “Even when he does create a work in 3-D,” the artist Keltie Ferris observed during a roundtable discussion at the Whitney last Friday night, “it really seems like a painting. It always addresses itself to painting. [The work] is always against a wall, with a frontal visual address.”
The talk was held as part of the Whitney’s current Stella retrospective, which opens with a potent juxtaposition: Stella’s vivid, or rather garish (Ferris’s admiring word), lengthy 1999 painting Das Erdbeben in Chili [N#3] next to his equilateral (“rule-bound, severe,” elaborated panel member and artist Jordan Kantor) grayscale set of concentric squares, Pratfall (1974). “They’re two sides of the same coin,” said artist Sarah Morris, the coin being Stella’s seemingly contradictory practice. (She added, apparently as an afterthought, “I never thought Frank Stella was very macho.”) Kantor added:
“Here are two very distinct subjectivities, two very distinct ways of being an artist, two very distinct modes of thinking about and making art. I think for a certain generation of arts enthusiasts, you would have come out and recognized the painting on the left as Frank Stella. I feel like the way art history is written, it’s like, ‘What is your unique contribution to the ongoing conversation,’ and artists usually only get one chance to say one thing. After that, you sort of have to deal with the fact that hopefully you’re living for 50 more years….This show’s contrast in presentation tells me that this person is multiple, this practice is multiple, and this might be confusing.”
Kantor views Stella as both an answer to Abstract Expression and a bridge to Minimalism, though Morris and the fourth panelist, artist Walead Beshty, see ties to Pop—or rather, a response to the issues raised by Pop art.
Ferris, in agreement about Stella’s Pop sensibilities, had a visceral reaction to the artist’s tendency to re-create paintings in different sizes and in a variety of colors. “The idea of these coming in big, medium, and small sizes, and in different colors, just makes me uncomfortable,” she said. “It’s like, Would you like a red one or an orange one to fit nicely on your wall? I understand he was a front-runner of that idea and I respect him for it, but that structure does make me awkward and nervous, even though that is so much a part of painting.”
“That doesn’t necessarily have to be a cynical point of view,” Beshty said helpfully. “I mean, there’s this quote of his about readymade paints…something about how color doesn’t matter or color is absurd to think about…I forget the quote.”
Ferris continued on. “I feel like Stella’s work articulates really well how to use space in a painting. As an undergrad, it was very inspiring to me—it encouraged the idea that the imagistic, pictorial world can be the site of abstraction, and that space can go forward and back. Kind of similar to the ideas in the ‘Forever Now’ show…”
“What was the ‘Forever Now’ show?” Beshty asked.
“It was MoMA’s painting show,” said Ferris. “It was…OK,” she said, giggling derogatorily. The audience laughed.
Ferris then discussed her appreciation of Stella’s fluorescent eyesore, the trompe l’oeil Talladega (1980), an obvious ancestor to Das Erdbeben in Chile [N#3]. “It’s viciously aggressive,” she enthused. “Timeless bad taste.” The audience clapped, which made her laugh.
“Abstract is traditionally such a tasteful style,” she said. “The presentation of perfection. In that sense, I love how Stella embodies the anti-cool.”