Leading up to A.i.A. cover artist Frank Stella’s retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art (Oct. 30-Feb. 7, 2016), we present Philip Leader’s survey of Stella’s paintings from the 1970s, originally published in our March/April 1978 issue. Making an increasingly radical departure from his well-known Minimal styles of the 1960s, Stella produced three groups of paintings from 1970-1978. Leider’s article appeared as the catalogue essay for the exhibition “Stella Since 1970,” which he organized at the Fort Worth Art Museum and traveled to eight other museums in the U.S. and Canada. —Eds. October 26, 2015
The great painter is a prophet as regards his art, but he fulfills his prophecy himself. by painting. The truth that was Van Gogh’s was for him a plastic absolute towards which he constantly aspired; for us his truth is what his pictures signify as an ensemble.
1. Fact Sheet
Yet we have no idea of how painting lives. Or how it dies.
The pictures selected in this exhibition are a representative but not generous selection of Frank Stella’s work of the last seven years. The period begins with 40 drawings made during the spring, summer and fall of 1970, the Polish Village series. By 1974 paintings based on each of these drawings had been completed. In 1975 Stella began the series of metal constructions which make up the rest of the exhibition. These fall into two distinct groups: the Brazilian pictures (because named after neighborhoods in Rio de Janeiro), and, the most recent, the series whose titles bear the names of exotic birds.
The works based on the 40 drawings of 1970 are by far the most numerous: upward of 130 had been completed by 1974. Most of the drawings were executed in three versions. In the first version (indicated by the Roman numeral I in the titles) the medium is paint and collage on canvas, canvas onto which felt, paper and second layers of a variety of colored and painted canvases have been applied. In the earliest works in the series the canvas support was conventionally stretched across wooden stretcher bars, but technical difficulties involving shrinkage and warping of the applied materials arose, calling for a more rigid support. The canvas was thereafter glued soundly to a heavy cardboard or KachinaBoard base and secured to a reinforced, and detachable strainer support. In the second version (“II”), the medium is paint and collage on wood. In addition to felt, paper and canvas, thicker elements such as pressboard, Homosote, Masonite, KachinaBoard, plywood are affixed to the wooden (most frequently KachinaBoard) support, creating an effect of low relief parallel to the picture plane. In the third version (“III”), the medium is paint and collage on Tri-Wall cardboard, though here the materials are applied not onto the flat support, but onto tilted planes built in individual sections attached to each other, creating the effect less of elements affixed onto a support than of elements penetrating, or interlocking with themselves and the support. The earliest drawings in the series—the first 13—have so far been executed only in the canvas and collage-on-wood versions. Canvas and collage-on-wood versions of the fourteenth through the twenty-second drawings were executed simultaneously, with the third, Tri-Wall cardboard (or tilted plane) version added later. The twenty-third through fortieth drawings were executed in all three versions simultaneously.
Accompanying the full-size execution of each work, small corresponding models were made. Though it is no longer possible to determine with accuracy how many of these preparatory studies were made for each version in the series, at least one and sometimes as many as four are known to exist. For the first 13 works in the series the models were made out of cardboard, but with the introduction of the tilted-plane version, several other models were added. [pq]Accompanying the full-size execution of each work, small corresponding models were made.[/pq]For the actual working model, a flexible maquette of Bristol board was cut and pinned, but as these rarely survived the fabrication process, a wooden model was made as a permanent record. In addition, a Tri-Wall model with a Tri-Wall background was made, as Stella wished to keep before him the possibility of using and developing the background. (Kamionka Strumilowa IV is a work based on this idea.)
A version of Bogoria, similar to but not identical with Bogoria II, was executed in aluminum at the Milgo Manufacturing Company, Brooklyn, N.Y., but this work remained unsatisfactory, and Stella never completed work on it. A solid aluminum model of Bogoria, with a background similar to the later Tri-Wall models, was worked on extensively by the artist and Milgo and finally completed in 1976. This remains the only work in the Polish Village series to have been executed in metal.
In late 1974 Stella prepared 25 drawings for the honeycombed aluminum Brazilian pictures. Four versions of the first ten drawings were fabricated, resulting in a series of 40 pictures: two small maquette versions, one in aluminum, one in steel, and two large honeycombed aluminum versions. (The remaining 15 drawings have so far not been executed.) The factory-fresh aluminum surfaces needed to be treated in order to hold the paint in the manner Stella desired. The surfaces were first thickly scumbled with lithographic grease crayon, after which a caustic solution was poured over them. As the solution dried it etched those parts of the surfaces not protected by the grease crayon. A coat of clear lacquer was then applied to form a base coat. (The method of etching the steel maquettes differed slightly.) After drying, colors were applied with transparent, lacquer-based silk-screen inks over those broad areas in which we can see through the color to the etched aluminum beneath. White was added to the lacquer-based inks in those areas where more matteness and opacity were desired, though sometimes these areas are covered with Magna as well, and oil stick was used for the scumbled and scribbled planes. Frequently, a coat of Bocour’s Pearlescent White provides the roughened surfaces for this scribbling.
Sometime in 1975 Stella prepared the 28 drawings for the more complex Exotic Bird series. Of these, 15 have so far been executed, each in three versions. The first version is the smallest, repeating the scale of the working drawing and the foam-board working maquette and usually in the range of 1 1/2 to 2 feet square; the second version is three times larger than the first, and the third version is five and a half times larger than the first. All three versions, of course, differ in their coloration. The treatment of the aluminum surfaces is essentially the same as described for the Brazilian series, except that in the Exotic Bird series quantities of the ground glass that can be observed glinting from point to point in the pictures were applied to the surfaces as a second coat of clear lacquer was drying, and Pearlescent White was not used at all.
The Tri-Wall cardboard works in the Polish Village series, all of the works in the Brazilian series and the first six of the Exotic Bird series were fabricated by Tompkins Tooling Industries in Gardena, California. The rest of the Exotic Bird series were fabricated by the Hexcel Corporation in Casa Grande, Arizona.
Art would like to stop being pretense and play, it would like to become knowledge.
It seems certain that with regard to art the future will see our century much as we see it, as the century that gave birth to abstraction. Abstraction marks the path of our century’s painting as perspective marked the fifteenth’s. That, it turns out, is what Cézanne will have meant when he said, “I am the primitive of the way I have discovered.”
This was not always clear. Cézanne’s greatest disciple, Picasso, believed to the end of his days that Cézanne had directed painting, not to abstraction but to a new, radical and more truthful way of representing objects. Picasso considered abstraction most deeply during the period of “hermetic” Cubism, as the terrible uncertainty of the “clues” tells us. In the end, however, he concluded that “Abstract art is only painting,” and never looked seriously in that direction again. But by 1913 Mondrian had already written, “For the spiritual artist, color and brushwork sufficiently represent matter,” and the realization that Cézanne, and certainly Cubism, led away from the object altogether—the view held by Kandinsky and Malevich as well—became, by the time of Pollock, all but universal.
In the emergence and eventual triumph of abstraction in our century can be discerned a process similar to that described in relation to the history of science by Thomas S. Kuhn in his widely influential book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn distinguishes four stages in this process: normal science, anomaly, crisis and paradigm-conflict. A major paradigm of the kind discussed by Kuhn can be located in the history of art, for example, in the methods and formulations evolved for more precise representation by the generation of Brunelleschi, Masaccio, Alberti and the other early 15th-century masters of perspective space. (Kuhn has remarked elsewhere1 that in art, “it will be pictures, not styles, that serve as paradigms,” but this may not be so.) Their contribution shared the “two essential characteristics” of paradigmatic breakthrough: their achievement was “sufficiently unprecedented to attract an enduring group of adherents away from competing modes,” and “simultaneously, it was sufficiently open-ended to leave all sorts of problems for the re-defined group of practitioners to resolve.”
Once such a paradigm is established, a period of “normal science” (or, in our application, “normal painting”) ensues, in which the implications, possibilities, extensions and applications of the new modes are explored and developed. It is a period, furthermore, in which “overt disagreement over fundamentals” is not encountered: during the centuries following the 15th, the fundamentals of the Renaissance Paradigm are not questioned.
The end of this period of “normal science,” according to Kuhn, is signaled by the repeated appearance of stubborn “anomalies” which ultimately throw the paradigm into a state of crisis:
When . . . an anomaly comes to seem more than just another puzzle of normal science, the transition to crisis and to extraordinary science has begun. The anomaly itself now comes to be more generally recognized as such by the profession. More and more attention is devoted to it by more and more of the field’s most eminent men. If it still continues to resist, as it usually does not, many of them may come to view its resolution as the subject matter of their discipline. . . . Though there is still a paradigm, few practitioners prove to be entirely agreed about what it is.2
Kuhn distinguishes three ways in which crises of this kind end. In one, a crisis-provoking anomaly is “labeled and set aside”—which is a reasonable description of the way in which the tradition of normal painting dealt with El Greco. Secondly, “sometimes normal science ultimately proves able to handle the crisis-provoking problem despite the despair of those who have seen it as the end of an existing paradigm.” An application of this form of crisis-ending to the history of art might be the absorption into normal painting—by the Dutch, then by Velázquez and Rembrandt especially—of the “problem” presented painting by Caravaggio.
The problem of Caravaggio is especially interesting because his case is one of the earliest in which many did in fact see what he stood for as the end of the existing paradigm, “the very ruination of painting.” Driven by needs that evade explanation, the artist produces work which appears to others, and frequently to himself, inept, and in many cases the urgency of this need is questioned: might it not mask genuine ineptness? It is possible that to the day he died Caravaggio may have wondered if the charges might not be true, that the depth of his need to paint as he did could be measured precisely by his inability to paint as others did. But to Honthorst, say, what did it matter how Caravaggio came to it? Or to de La Tour, to Velázquez, or to Rembrandt? Later, the depths of Caravaggio’s, or van Gogh’s, or Cézanne’s need and doubt are seen as integral parts of each artist’s greatness, even if, as can always at least theoretically be the case, that need was no more than a need to obscure his own ineptness, that doubt only the nagging secret knowledge that if he could paint one way, he would not paint the other.
As the history of art moves closer to abstraction, anomalies of Caravaggio’s kind appear with increasing frequency. It is always a matter of an artist whose work cannot be distinguished from the most elementary badness, of how other artists are unaccountably attracted to him, of how his work comes to be defended, distinguished from badness. Finally, with much huffing and puffing, the artist is squeezed into the limits of normal painting, “despite the despair of those who have seen it as the end of an existing paradigm.” As late as 1928, Malevich is still patiently explaining that Cézanne was not inept: “From each critical review one learns that he cannot draw at all and is altogether a bad artist. What does this mean?”3 By the early 20th century, normal painting could not any longer accommodate the anomalies—Malevich is himself a case in point. When this happens, we encounter the third and last way that a crisis might end: “with the emergence of a new candidate for paradigm.” The transition from an old to a new paradigm in art has some characteristics in common with the corresponding phenomenon in science:
. . . it is a reconstruction of the field from new fundamentals, a re-construction that changes some of the field’s most elementary theoretical generalizations as well as many of its paradigm methods and applications.4
Something like this was under way shortly after the death of Cézanne, when the possibility of a legitimate painting without depiction of any kind at all presented itself as an anomaly with implications more far-reaching for art than any that had arisen since the 15th century. The theoretical implications of the earliest work in abstraction—Kandinsky, Mondrian, Malevich, etc.—posited a painting which had no recourse to traditional space, composition, color or configuration; a painting, furthermore, in which what was to replace these was yet to be discovered. Work in abstraction from 1907 until mid-century closely approximates Kuhn’s description of the period between “the first consciousness of breakdown and the emergence of a new paradigm.” How much like Kandinsky, for example, is the “scientist in crisis,” who will
. . . often seem a man searching at random, trying experiments just to see what will happen, looking for an effect whose nature he cannot quite guess. Simultaneously . . . [he] will constantly try to generate speculative theories that, if successful, may disclose the road to a new paradigm. . . .5
As more and more attention is attracted to the new possibility, the discipline is characterized by a mounting atmosphere of contention:
The proliferation of competing articulations, the willingness to try anything, the expression of explicit discontent, the recourse to philosophy and to debate over fundamentals, all these are symptoms of a transition from normal to extraordinary research.6
With Pollock and his generation abstract painting became no longer an anomaly, but a competing paradigm, fulfilling completely Kuhn’s two essential characteristics, having attracted to it “an enduring group of adherents,” and providing to those adherents possibilities for the work so open-ended as to appear boundless. It is, in fact, the compelling force with which abstraction attracts its adherents that makes us think of the word “paradigm” to describe it at all. Even from the other side of the world, behind what was then called the Iron Curtain, the eyes of the earliest “dissidents” were focused not on Picasso’s Femmes d’Alger or Matisse’s découpages, but on Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm.7
A period of paradigm-conflict now ensues, which finds its most poignant embodiment, perhaps, in the all but total inability of Picasso (and Matisse as well) to see Pollock’s work as painting at all.
This effect of redefining the very meaning of the work that accompanies paradigm-change is sensed as almost a revolution in world-view: “The normal-scientific tradition that emerges from a scientific revolution is not only incompatible but often actually incommensurable with that which has gone before.”8[pq]This effect of redefining the very meaning of the work that accompanies paradigm-change is sensed as almost a revolution in world-view.[/pq]Those artists who have been persuaded of the difference between Pollock’s paintings and simple badness are at the same time persuaded that painting itself is something different from that which they once thought it was, is an undertaking with much different ends and means than they once thought it had.
The incommensurability of abstraction—and especially of Pollock’s—with what had gone before was difficult for criticism to grasp. The tendency of criticism—even of the most advanced kind—to understand the achievements of abstraction in terms of older paradigms has frequently caused criticism to lapse seriously behind practice, and to find practice baffling when it failed to consistently reflect supposed continuities with the painting of the past. The ends, if not the means, of depictive art were seen by some to extend to abstraction, while others extended the means—Cubist practice, for example—of previous art to explain the anomalies of abstract practice.
But talking like that would be like talking about lingering elements of the Classical Paradigm in the art of early Christendom. The lingering elements there, as in abstraction, only show how hard it was to unlearn it all, make art that had nothing to do with it, art that found more spirituality in a pagan woodcarving than in all that “the beautiful, hard Hellenism, with its sovereign absorption in perfectly wrought and perishable white limbs”9 had to offer. Abstraction has likewise opposed the deeper spirituality of the regressive traditions to mere depiction: Picasso, speaking of the art of black Africa, said, “It wasn’t the forms of the fetishes that influenced me; what they did was make me understand what I expected from painting.” The earliest defenses of abstraction by Kandinsky, Mondrian and Malevich insisted on its greater spiritual significance above all. “In order to approach the spiritual in art,” wrote Mondrian in his Sketchbooks around 1914, “one employs reality as little as possible because reality is the polar opposite of the spiritual.” And when Malevich wrote (1930), “To examine a creation of Cubism formally is to fail to understand its essence,”10 he meant that compared to the depth of the spiritual differences formal differences were trivial.
Like the art of Christendom, abstraction advanced behind a claim to a greater truthfulness, a greater truthfulness about painting, about space in painting above all, and beyond that about life, about the world. The force of this claim became self-evident only in time. In speaking of the inability of the proponents of one paradigm to win over adherents of another by means of rational persuasion, Kuhn quotes Max Planck’s “sad” remark:
‘a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.’11
“I see my work,” Frank Stella said recently, “as being determined by the fact that I was born in 1936.”12 In the most elementary way, the other paradigm does not exist for him (except, perhaps, in forms like Surrealism, Pop art, etc.), for he is of the first generation of American artists to have lived his entire creative life in abstraction. To him it is unimaginable that the greatness of Mondrian, or Kandinsky or Malevich could ever be called into question, or that Pollock and the circle around him will not be as important to the future as the Impressionists are to us today.
A new artistic truth has thus triumphed, whose matrix of issues, such as changing styles, depiction (“lingering elements”), compromise, encounters, figuration, Surrealism, doubt, inhabits Stella’s art as it had, in more or less different degrees of urgency, the art of his predecessors.
The idea of modern art, and with it the decision whether to like it or not to like it, was born in the Renaissance. Then, as now, there arose the seemingly free choice as to whether to like it or choose instead to like only the art of another time, or of another place, or in any event, an art not modern. In choosing abstract art we choose to acknowledge what it is to live in the 20th century, as those who chose Masaccio chose to acknowledge what it was to live in the Renaissance.
3. Changing Style
. . . only he is alive who rejects his convictions of yesterday.
In the fall of 1970, Stella entered the hospital for some minor knee surgery. Complications ensued and during what became an unpleasantly long hospital stay Stella worked on the 40 drawings he had begun during the summer. The drawings represented an abrupt break with the Protractor series which had occupied him since 1967, and returned in spirit to a series of 44 paintings made during 1965-66, the irregular polygons. Those paintings were themselves an abrupt break with what had gone before.
The immediate meaning of the 1966 pictures was in their breakaway from Stella’s own achievement. It appeared that he was no longer interested in pursuing a kind of painting that “forces illusionistic space out of the painting at constant intervals by using a regulated pattern,” or, rather, as if he were feeling that painting is not fulfilled in the too-rigid application of the demands of the strict style. Certain rules controlling all his previous work are relaxed, if not suspended, in the irregular polygons. It does not seem to matter as much whether there is this or that vestige of depictiveness, whether there appear here or there elements of incipient illusionism, whether the order of colors is as accountable in strict style as it was, say, in Jasper’s Dilemma. Shapes within the paintings are less certainly derived from the overall shape of the picture; colors operate more independently, and frequently verge on metaphor; a certain amount of illusion, both spatial and figurative, is allowed to “come along,” as it were.
The pictures’ titles were chosen from among the names of small towns in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, which Stella had seen during fishing and hunting trips with his father. The sense in which the idea of “breaking away” bears upon Stella’s relationship with his father is in the nature of a deferred rather than an immediate meaning of the paintings of those years; of such deferred meaning, more later.
Because they represented so patent a compromise with his own achievements, the paintings of 1965-66 were ambivalently received by many whose opinions mattered to Stella, but it is possible that he remained more confident in them than in anything he had done since. In any event, it is to them that the drawings of 1970 are plainly linked, and immediately upon his release from the hospital, Stella set about making the paintings based upon them, a task which was to absorb him for the next four years . . .
“What saves me,” Picasso once said, “is that every day I do it worse.” Stella was troubled by the new paintings through all the early stages of their making. He was approaching them in two ways, both based upon collage—one relatively flat, and one with much thicker elements—and he remained, if not dissatisfied, then vaguely disappointed in the results. The pictures lacked this or they lacked that: the results of the lamination of different textures—felt, canvas, wood, both painted and unpainted—did not “give off” enough, the colors remained passive, the flame did not seem to be worth the candle. The feeling, often debilitating, that more could be done than he was doing could be tested only in the most mulish studio routine, and two years of dogged application passed before Stella got his first view of where things were to go. [pq]Stella was troubled by the new paintings through all the early stages of their making. The feeling, often debilitating, that more could be done than he was doing could be tested only in the most mulish studio routine.[/pq]It was not until the Tri-wall cardboard (honeycombed cardboard) versions, which occurred to him more than halfway through the series, that the transition from collage to construction took place. And the honeycombed cardboard, as it happened, was manufactured in the same plant that manufactured honeycombed aluminum.
As the work moved steadily through this transition, strong identities with Russian Constructivism—materials, relief, dynamic clusters of planes—emerged. Similarities to certain of Malevich’s architectural drawings, affinities with Tatlin’s painted reliefs, Liubov Popova’s “architectonic paintings,” etc., became inescapable. These proved in every way more substantial than Stella might have imagined, and he found himself on more solid ground everywhere as the work progressed. The work since 1970 leaves us much less to complain about than the paintings of 1967-70. Coming much more consistently out of the seminal 1966 pictures, the new work is less eccentric, color-drunk, hedonistic, frivolous, and much more compatible with his character as an artist.
It seems incorrect as a matter of psychology to see in all this an “influence” of Russian Constructivism. It is more in the nature of an unpremeditated encounter with some earlier point in abstraction, one whose implications must be acknowledged and evaluated as they become manifest. The evocation of Matisse, for example, and with him the whole decorative disposition of abstraction, constituted such an encounter in the earlier Protractor series, an encounter Stella met at first with interest, then doubt, and finally, in 1970, in dismissal. But often these encounters provide an increasingly clearer view of what the work at hand is about, and at the same time give rise to a richer understanding of what a previous point in abstraction was about as well.
The first all-metal pictures, the Brazilian series, the most assured group of pictures Stella had made in ten years, are remarkably susceptible to a Constructivist analysis. The gradual elimination of collage in favor of engineered planes which describe the areas on which painting may be done corresponds fraternally with a vision of Malevich’s which itself emerged from a consideration of one of Picasso’s Cubist collage-constructions:
Thus we see that the expansion of forms of volume involves large spatial relations which already demand the technical and engineering efforts that lie in the constructive link of one element with another. Thus we see now technical means penetrating into the purely painterly picture, and these means may already be called “engineering.” At this moment the characteristics or functional qualities of the engineer begin to become linked with the artist, or with the artistic aspect of expressing the artist’s painterly sensation.
Such an engineering method of constructing our artistic picture, as distinguished from other utilitarian constructions, we may call an “artistic construction.”13 [italics Malevich’s]
(The resulting work can be called both constructions and pictures. Malevich is careful to avoid confusing this “painterly building of the picture in space” with “the place of the art we call sculpture,” for “the entire material for building the picture is selected and developed on the basis of a painterly sensation or feeling.” Even though, that is, the surface is one on which figurative painting can no longer happen, it is to painting that the work belongs, to the history of painting that it must be assimilated. It is as if in them we see that painting, taken a certain way, can come to constructions as sculpture, taken a certain way, can come to earthworks.)
The Brazilian series is marked by a straightforward clarity in the interplay between color and the “large spatial relations.” The parts of the picture to be painted on are unequivocally given in the manufactured shape. Planes can be made passive or dynamic, dominant or subordinate, put in motion or left at repose, all with color, but colors may not leave their planes or change until the plane is full. Nor is it possible, without fatally compromising the overall clarity, for colors to form their own planes, i.e., become drawing, though a certain amount of “scumbling” can be useful in transforming the character of certain planes. The power of color, however, to utterly determine the character of the finished work is obvious upon any comparison of two works based on the same manufactured shape. That is, the relationship between color and structure is throughout a dynamic one, and there is no question of a simple subordination of color to given form. Rather, in their restricted compartments of planes, the explicit dignity of each color is guaranteed by its conspicuous role in the formation of the constellation as a whole.
All this is reminiscent of the “strict style” relations of color and shape characteristic of all of Stella’s art prior to 1966. It discovers a system of givens and forbiddens within whose order it is possible to work. It is remindful of Thomas Mann’s description of the twelve-tone system:
The way you describe the thing, it comes to a sort of composing be-fore composition. The whole disposition and organization of the material would have to be ready when the actual work should begin, and all one asks is: which is the actual work? . . . [that] which one might call the actual composition, would be transferred back to the material itself—together with the freedom of the composer. When he went to work, he would no longer be free.14
A certain element of the arbitrary enters the pictures that follow the Brazilian series, and the import of the newest work in the exhibition lies mostly outside the borders of Constructivism. The encounters described above happen in a landscape, the landscape of abstract art. What happens in the work tells the artist that he is in the territory of Constructivism. He can cross a border at any time, without really knowing it, until he “encounters,” say, Surrealism in his work. Then he knows where he is. . . .
Every artist who hopes to attain a major change of style, within abstraction especially, must prepare himself for a period in which he will have to “compromise with his own achievement.” During this period he can expect to lose friends and stop influencing youth, and discover that he has “fallen off,” “retreated,” experienced a “failure of nerve,” become confused. In a major change of style of this kind the artist experiences, furthermore, a degree of doubt that never assailed the strict style of his youth, because, by definition, work that compromises with his own achievement will often look, to himself and to others, like bad work, and he will seem to have forgotten all that he had taught earlier. To call such periods an “age of Surrealism” is not exact, but it does describe the loosening of the strictness that governed the age of intelligence, the admission into the work of any number of “compromises.” It is a matter of having taken things as far as possible, only to find oneself trapped in an outpost of art, with work threatening to come to a standstill, thin and uncreative. At such a point the artist must compromise with the logic of his own work in order to go on working at all—it is either that or remain a prisoner of his own achievement forever, face those sterile repetitions that stare at us from the late work of Rothko, Still, Braque, so many others. Driven by inner needs that suspiciously evade explanation (“That artistic fatality that is independent of any explanation,” Fellini called it), relying on certain intuitions, his new work will appear not as intelligent, the necessities of each decision not as demonstrable, and hitherto banished alternatives will exert a disconcerting attraction. Mondrian’s work was beginning to look that way toward the end of his life, Picasso’s after meeting the Surrealists, Pollock’s when he stopped making drip paintings. In each case, to a greater or lesser extent, the charges are true, and yet the paintings of these periods do not lose our attention, or not as we get older, at any rate.
Picasso’s Surrealist age, which began with the Three Dancers of 1925, reached a peak in the Woman Looking in A Mirror of 1932, and never utterly left his art thereafter, is a classic example of attaining a major change in style and coming out of it more or less in one piece. The Woman Looking in A Mirror compromises everywhere the achievement of the Portrait of Kahnweiler done 20 years earlier, yet has never lost its force for that: it is not unthinkable that the future will prefer it, as it might prefer Broadway Boogie-Woogie. Of Pollock’s last paintings, perhaps not, but they will always speak to us of his struggle in those years to free himself from the bonds of his own achievement. Changing styles, as he knew, is nothing other than staying alive, and it is a lesson that was never lost on Frank Stella.
“I would like to combine,” Stella told William Rubin toward the end of the Protractor series, “the abandon and indulgence of Matisse’s Dance with the overall strength and sheer formal inspiration of . . . his Moroccans.”15 By 1970 that ambition seemed incompatible with abstraction, but seven years later a kind of painting that permitted an unimaginable indulgence emerged from within the “overall strength” not of Matisse but of Malevich, from whom comes not only the “large spatial relations” but the formal distribution of the elements as well, which look like his Suprematist sketches. But the planes are no longer of the clean Constructivist kind. They appear and disappear mysteriously into the space behind, between the picture and the wall, revealing dark corners. Discrete figurative entities perch on planes that appear out of thin air. Many conventions, in short, are resuscitated which, from the point of view of his earlier work, seemed exhausted—extinct, in fact, like the birds after which the pictures are named. The drawing everywhere suggests Pollock, Miró, Masson . . . Surrealism.
Encounters like this cannot go ignored, even though all his life Stella had taken it as axiomatic that nothing good could come out of Surrealism. Every corny convention driven from painting since Cézanne seemed to have found a refuge in Surrealism’s Home for Bad Art, and for a painting to be both good and in any measure Surrealist would be something in the nature of a miracle. Yet of what could these new pictures remind him other than that Jackson Pollock, too, had been a Surrealist? And if, hitherto, Stella had seen that as part of the problem, it was also in some measure part of the solution, for even the drip paintings owe something of their greatness to their Surrealism. Surrealism’s threat to the integrity of abstraction had perhaps been exaggerated. Many of the artists Stella admired did not seem bothered by its theatrical presence here and there, and an entire generation younger than his—those, say, who grew up with Smithson—did not find it necessary to hire security guards to keep Surrealism off the premises. It seemed time to stop getting hysterical every time Surrealism, art’s nigger, came into the picture. Part of the immediate meaning of the change in Stella’s style in his most recent pictures is an easier attitude toward Surrealism, a quickened interest in the possibility that on the other side of the laws against Surrealism there might lie a new world of freedom for abstraction, if one could just push past to it. Laws, after all, can be judged by miracles as reliably, if not as frequently, as miracles can be judged by laws . . .
Every artist of the better sort, wrote Thomas Mann, “carries within him a canon of the forbidden, the self-forbidding.” A change of style of the magnitude undergone by Stella in the last two years constitutes a restatement of this canon, a shift in the view of what is possible and what is not possible to abstraction at any given time. In these most recent works, Stella, throwing open the doors to much that had hitherto seemed to him forbidden—figure-ground dichotomies, composition, gestural paint-handling, etc.—has achieved for abstraction a renewed animation, life, vitality, that has already about it some-thing of the sheerly miraculous. One would be blind not to see it, catatonic not to feel it, perverse not to acknowledge it, spiritless and obtuse not to admire it.
4. Unofficial Business
“Pity us,” wrote Apollinaire, “we who are enduring this endless quarrel between Order and Adventure. . . . ”
“God damn it, if you’re going to make an abstract picture, make an abstract picture.” So Frank Stella, of his elders and betters, at a time when it seemed to him that all painting was awash in illusion—an illusion of abstraction in a welter of descriptiveness.
The issue wasn’t figuration per se—it was an early discovery that abstraction did not consist in simply reducing painting to its possible minimums. The fictiveness of pre-20th-century painting frequently turned up in fresh and quite acceptable ways. Certain kinds of descriptiveness had always been allowed to “come along” with abstraction, the kind which, in Stella’s words, is “visually incidental, in that [it does] not essentially determine the character of the pictures.”16 There could be an abstract picture with a bird in it, for example, as in Hofmann’s The Lark or Pollock’s White Cockatoo. Such “visually incidental” figuration could happen spontaneously without threatening the integrity of the picture’s abstraction (but it couldn’t “appear” to happen spontaneously, and it couldn’t happen that way too often). There was no explaining why it didn’t ruin the picture, but it didn’t. Another kind of such nonruining figuration happens in Mondrian’s 1942-3 painting, Broadway Boogie Woogie, which invites a descriptiveness unimaginable in his work of the ’30’s. It was not about these that Stella was complaining: such rejuvenations and quotations of this or that from depictive painting did not “essentially determine the character of the picture.” The pictures that gave the trouble were pictures that took much more from depictive painting than that. Surely, whatever abstract painting was, it wasn’t a constant record of your sensitivity,” he complained.
By Stella’s time, the rectitude, the integrity of abstraction was being undermined by the failure any longer to exercise any degree of honest control: a cloying and ingratiating vine of descriptiveness seemed everywhere to have overgrown the “way” that Cézanne had discovered. Among the better painters, Guston was then only the most obvious example of a corniness that was general. A way needed to be found to call attention to the slippage; there was too much old painting in the new painting.
“The one and only way,” wrote Reinhardt in 1962, “to say what abstract art . . . is, is to say what it is not.” In beginning his career, Stella was constrained above all to produce a kind of painting that was not susceptible to the kind of criticism that Guston or Motherwell, much less their followers, were susceptible to. One was doing better by abstraction to run the risk of making pictures with “no meaning” than to insist on meaning with effects alien to the nature of abstraction.
In one of his early paintings, Stella had, uncharacteristically, allowed a drip of white paint to remain where it had fallen. A critic, he said, had seized upon this lapse, and called it an expression of “Stella’s doubt,” as if that single drip betrayed some lingering anxiety that he had thrown the baby of meaning out with the bath water of “action painting.” But Stella knew (except when he was doubting it) that there was always meaning in abstraction. It was part of abstraction’s newness, and a part of the nature of its appeal to the 20th-century mind, that its first meaning is revealed within[pq]Stella knew (except when he was doubting it) that there was always meaning in abstraction.[/pq]the context of abstraction itself, with other, perhaps even deeper meaning in some crucial measure deferred. The nature of such deferred meaning cannot be known, and the means, therefore, by which it is to unfold cannot be premeditated.
It is perhaps as a matter of attempting to define the parameters within which such meaning is felt to exist that the early artists of abstraction—Mondrian, Kandinsky, Malevich—wrote so obsessively. These writings are taken by us now less importantly as theoretical defenses of abstraction than as a kind of unofficial depictiveness. The film based on his own Spiral Jetty, made by Robert Smithson, is another form of such unofficial depictiveness; an unintended face in a Cézanne another; a handprint by Pollock another; a fallen sculpture by Richard Serra another; Stella’s titles another. The varieties are many, but they have in common the fact that they do not “count” in estimating the immediate meaning of the work, which lies within abstraction alone. It is as if, even when deliberate, they are not intended to be “noticed” until some time in the future and relate, if to anything, to some deferred meaning. Stella’s titles are meant to frame the painting in a particular biographical, political or esthetic ambience, but it is never clear, even to him, how much of this private language, so to speak, he feels the viewer ought to know. In speaking to Brenda Richardson, who organized a recent exhibition of the black paintings of 1958-60, it is as if he is willing to speak of the meaning of the titles as he would not speak of the meaning of the paintings.
Such forms of unofficial depictiveness differ in essence from the “clues” that litter the paintings of Cubism, for there such not-quite-bonafide references to the subject are designed to prevent the painting from slipping over into abstraction. Unofficial depictiveness, however, is unofficial, precisely to preserve the integrity of the picture’s abstraction. Still, it is probably in the unresolved clues of Cubism that such ambivalent messages as Pollock’s handprints and cigarette butts have their origins.
Two such disparate phenomena as an unintended image in a painting by Cézanne and a fallen sculpture by Richard Serra become intelligible as examples of unofficial depictiveness. Sidney Geist’s discovery of the certainly accidental appearance of a looming female head in Cézanne’s Large Bathers has decisively extended the meaning of that painting, and in a way that could not have been anticipated by the artist:
The Large Bathers, besides being the culminating work in a long study of a group of nude female figures in a landscape, should also be seen as the repository of the motifs of Cézanne’s inner life expunged from his conscious artistic effort of the last fifteen years. . . . It shows us a Cézanne of a complexity and heroism seldom acknowledged in the pure painter we honor. . . .17
Some workmen were putting up a sculpture by Richard Serra. There was an accident in which one of the workmen was killed. I remember discussing it with Robert Smithson, and my astonishment when he said, “The question is, was it a crime or a tragedy.” The accident had become, like the face in the Cézanne, part of its meaning. This would not have been true of any sculpture, just as Geist could not have said what he said of any unintended face. In both, the accidental event, one within and one outside the work of art, had to reach to some inherent meaning in the work, in the Cézanne, as Geist indicates, to “expunged” motifs of Cézanne’s inner life, in the Serra, as Smithson indicates, to that ambience of risk, hazard, peril and threat without which it seemed that Serra could not work.
Like Pollock’s handprint, the titles of Stella’s early paintings did not “count” in considering the paintings’ immediate meanings. “All I want anyone to get out of my paintings,” Stella said, “and all I ever get out of them, is the fact that you can see the whole idea without any confusion.”18 This is, entirely as it should be, a proposition within the history of abstraction. On the negative side, it implies that the “idea” in other painting had become confused, and on the positive side it implies that paintings devised in such a manner as to deliver the “whole idea without any confusion” could return to abstraction a certain lost purposefulness and regain for it a certain respect that he and his generation had begun to lose. It is that, in brief, that Stella wished other artists to see, and that which he acknowledged to be the immediate meaning of the work. To this there was no relevance in the titles: they are there but not there, like cigarette butts, handprints, films, unconscious images–a repository of all those impulses. William Rubin has written that:
Stella’s titles constitute personal associations with the pictures, and he would be horrified at the idea that a viewer might use them as a springboard to content.19
Nevertheless, when she asked for it, Stella generously provided Brenda Richardson with enough “springboards” to fill a hook. An unimagined world of dark iconography pours from the pages of her remarkable catalogue of the 23 black paintings,20 themes of depression, suicide, disasters, “black and deviate nightclubs,” areas of urban blight, “song titles with unusually depressing subject matter,” even a girl named Jill who “was around at the time. . . . ” But of course 20 years had passed, the paintings’ immediate meanings were history, and history wants to know everything. It happens to all art. It all becomes in the end “solid and substantial, like the art in the museums.”
The convergence of Stella’s work after 1970 with that of the Russian Constructivists has resulted, to the extent he has systematically reconsidered them at all, in a refreshened admiration on his part for that branch of his predecessors. It is an admiration by no means limited to–which perhaps does not even include–particular examples of their work, but extends to the entire moral, artistic and political ambience which that period in the history of abstraction has come to stand for.
Stella selected the titles of the paintings based on the 40 drawings of 1970 from among the names of 18th-century wooden synagogues destroyed in Poland and Russia during 1939-45; he had seen pictures of them in a book. [pq]”All I want anyone to get out of my paintings,” Stella said, “and all I ever get out of them, is the fact that you can see the whole idea without any confusion.”[/pq]There is nothing Stella-like in the buildings–there is more of Piaskie to be seen in the architectural drawings of Malevich than in the groundplan of Piaskie Synagogue–though Stella does see in their carpentry something of the “interlockingness” that is so prominent a motif in these works. He also recognizes a certain obstinacy in those buildings, and appears to associate the stubborn building and rebuilding of them over the centuries with the attitude with which, as it turned out, the paintings in the Polish Village series were made; for, as we have seen, it seems to have appeared to him frequently that there was no point in going on with them.
A final appropriateness of the titles in the Polish Village series is that, to Stella, the trail of blackened synagogues commemorated in them maps out the “Munich-Moscow axis” of Russian Constructivism, and at this point a certain political urgency enters, so to speak, the picture. One is reluctant, especially in this age of trashy neo-Marxism, to speak of the “political content” of these paintings. Imagine, however, this exhibition viewed through the eyes of a Russian dissident artist. Although Stella’s work–for that matter the work of any American artist–has always spoken to such as him of freedom, a series of works evoking Russian Constructivism speaks to him instantly of an art, his own, which was once free and is free no more. To him, and this whether he notes the titles or not, these pictures are more specifically about freedom than they would be to an American (for an American does not always even realize, as a Russian dissident must, that the very act of being in a museum, seeing these pictures, is in itself an act of freedom). He has, therefore, every right to see in them a message of freedom, and the point is that such a message would correctly reflect Stella’s actual politics. It is not that political meanings were intended to be part of the immediate meanings of these works; it is that political meanings are one of the implications of the encounter with Constructivism that these works are about, and what Stella had done in the titles, along with whatever else yet to become clear, is to acknowledge that.
The future would have seen to it anyway, as it has already begun to see to the deferred meanings of the black paintings, but all unofficial depictiveness, intended or not intended, conscious or not conscious, comes into existence as a way of helping meaning along, a proleptic guarantee, as it were, of a kind of meaning granted without question to the old painting and persistently denied to the new.
If one doubts too deeply the inherent existence in abstraction of that other kind of meaning (often amusingly called “human content”), then one should paint in that other kind of way. There seems to be, however, no way of successfully mixing the two; they are conflicting paradigms, one on the way out, the other on the way in. Still, each paradigm has the power to strike doubt in the other, and all the varieties of unofficial depictiveness may at bottom be expressions of it. After all, “Doubt,” said poor Max Jacob, “that is art.”
1. In his “Comment [on the Relations of Science and Art],” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 1, 1969, pp. 403-412.
2. Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press, 1962 (2nd ed., 1970), pp. 82-83.
3. K. S. Malevich, Essays on Art, ed. Troels Anderson, Copenhagen, 1968, II, p. 23.
4. Kuhn, p. 85.
5. Ibid., p. 87.
6. Ibid., p. 91.
7. Socialist Realism is not, of course, what Kuhn would call a paradigm, since paradigms do not attract adherents at the point of a gun. It is as if this Russian example is an opera bouffe version of real occurrences in an authentic world of art. Ilya Glazunov is a case in point. It appeared (in July, 1977) that this honored Soviet artist had made a painting that was an “anti-Soviet caricature” and caused a scandal. This is a farcical version of a fake paradigm about either to absorb or set aside a fake anomaly, while the genuine anomalies are dealt with in a fourth way, unimagined by Kuhn–they are declared schizophrenics. Kuhn remarks that “Like the choice between competing political institutions, that between competing paradigms proves to be a choice between incompatible modes of community life.” It is hard to imagine how different things would be if abstract art had been allowed to develop freely in Russia.
8. Kuhn, p. 103.
9. Cavafy, “Of the Hebrews (A.D. 50),” trans. Rae Dalven.
10. K.S. Malevich, II, p. 138.
11. Kuhn, p. 151.
12. “Frank Stella Interviewed,” Artscribe #7, July, 1977, London.
13. Malevich, II, pp. 60-61.
14. Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus, New York, Knopf, 1948, p. 193.
15. William Rubin, Frank Stella, New York, Museum of Modern Art, 1970, p. 149.
17. Sidney Geist, “The Secret Life of Paul Cézanne,” Art International, Nov. 20, 1975, p. 16.
18. Rubin, p. 42.
19. Ibid., p. 45.
20. Brenda Richardson, Frank Stella: The Black Paintings, Baltimore Museum of Art, 1976.