Earlier this year, at the Armory Show in New York, a group of stainless steel and 3-D-printed thermoplastic sculptures were on view at Marianne Boesky’s booth. “Who is this new, hot, young artist?” dealers could be heard asking. The answer: Frank Stella, who, at age 79, has come a long way from the black paintings that made him famous in the late 1950s. Now, at the Whitney, Stella’s third New York survey highlights every weird, unexpected change in the artist’s career, from his early shaped canvas to his new sculptures. Because Stella made so many unlikely choices as his career evolved, many critics have been confused, and that was certainly the general consensus when MoMA mounted Stella’s first retrospective, in 1970. Writing for ARTnews’s May 1970 issue, Elizabeth C. Baker called the show a “letdown,” citing William Rubin’s failure to seamlessly relate Stella’s then-new work to the shaped canvases that led critics to call him an important artist in the first place. (A catalogue, she noted, fixed many of the exhibition’s problems, notable among them being where it was staged: the museum’s “depressingly predictable temporary wing,” which was too small for the retrospective’s scope, in her opinion.) Baker’s full review and analysis of Stella’s work follows below.—Alex Greenberger
“Frank Stella Perspectives”
By Elizabeth C. Baker
A selection of his paintings from 1958 to the present survey his varied and important contributions to the art of the ’60s; at the Museum of Modern Art.
There is something disquieting about the sense of finality produced by the recent eruption of “retrospective” shows of a whole group of artists who are still relatively young. We have already seen, this season, major exhibitions of Lichtenstein, Oldenburg, Flavin, Dine, Morris (in Washington and Detroit), Warhol (in Pasadena), and now Frank Stella, currently the pièce-de-résistance at the Museum of Modern Art (to May 31). It is almost as if museums are suddenly closing the books on the recent past. This is not to suggest that they revert to their old practice of relative neglect of young artists. But should the full apparatus of art-historical methods be brought to bear on still-evolving talents and careers? These formal “retrospectives” (often covering ten years or less) sometimes produce bizarre results. This can even happen when, as is usually the case, artist and curator work closely together.
In this context it is not too surprising that the Stella exhibition, organized by curator William Rubin, should come as a mixed blessing. This has nothing to do with the obviously vital questions posed by the show about Stella himself. As an artist Stella has been intelligent, consistent, relevant, prolific, highly influential and has turned out to a body of work which has been, at least in terms of the issues it deals with, close to the heart of much of the most serious painting and sculpture of the 1960s. Yet not only are there few surprises or insights forthcoming from the current presentation, but—more disturbing—it does not entirely sustain our recollections or expectations of provocation or profundity. There is a built-in pitfall for this show: the audience for it, or most of it, accepted Stella long ago and knows his work well—indeed, has coexisted with it, and has readjusted to it in the light of frequent gallery exhibitions. In other words, everyone harbors his own version of Stella; for this reason alone this show will elicit various argumentative reactions. While Stella is by now generally accorded more or less old-master status, we could not go on forever apotheosizing him for the startling revelation of his earliest work. And however we have looked at him, our perspective will gradually change. It may be necessary to discard many preconceptions with the receding of the striking timeliness of his first works.
But if one comes away from the current show with a feeling of letdown, it is accompanied by a strong suspicion that this may be caused by the museum’s handling of the situation. Much of the trouble is probably just institutional habit. At the most prosaic level, more space would have helped, and more imaginative use of the depressingly predictable temporary exhibition wing. Beyond this, there was a formidable responsibility not to petrify or embalm the subject of such a show.
With Stella, the section is so scrupulously, mechanically distributed that it asks to be read like point-by-point illustrations to a text-book. It never gains visual momentum, never seems to project a sense of joy in the works for their own sake. By encyclopedically sampling just about everything Stella ever did, the Museum of Modern Art has once again managed to treat living art with surpassing dryness. (Paradoxically, this is not true of the book which accompanies the show; on the contrary, Mr. Rubin discusses the work with a sensitive awareness of its often-conflicting levels, and broadens the basis for a general understanding of it.) What one seeks in vain in the exhibition itself is some signs of strong advocacy—inclusive, exclusive, partisan—of the work at its exhilarating peaks. Stella’s career most emphatically has these peaks. This is not to say Mr. Rubin lacks commitment to Stella’s work; but in being so thoroughly expository, he has not given Stella’s most interesting phases their due. Yet a heightened critical sense of an artist’s strengths, as represented by actual works divorced from theoretical message, as well as a clarifying of his intentions, is what a large exhibition like this should ideally produce. That this whole question is either side-stepped or blurred by Mr. Rubin is particularly unfortunate, since the problem of quality of individual pieces (apart from generalized validity of idea) does not appear to be Stella’s primary preoccupation either.
What the show stresses is the logical progression of structural ideas. It is a virtual rule-book of the principles of “deductive structure.” That Stella has engaged most major 1960s formal issues comes across with admirable clarity, and it is true that his work lends itself to this kind of systematic exposition. Formalist criticism of the 1960s (which has often seemed almost solely self-referential) has in Stella’s case been thoroughly applicable (as it never quiet was for Louis, Newman, Caro, even Noland). But its emphasis on Stella’s extreme theoretical consistency has, if not distorted, somehow diminished his work. It has not helped that he has become a kind of launching pad for various highly dogmatic ideas. For all this has submerged other important qualities—especially his irreducibly personal and idiosyncratic obtuseness. To call him eccentric is too strong, but it contains a measure of truth. Often when Stella is most logical or factual, he is also most ambiguous. In addition, his visual sensibility seems not classic, but frequently baroque. Certainly his adherence to geometry and the way he uses it are far from rational matters. Included in the anti-formal content, too, is a continual perverse negation of his own pictorial consistency. This is at least as essential as his logical bent. Or it might be accurate to say that his logical bent is so strong that, in following it inflexibly to various conclusions which visually are unexpected, unforeseeable, extreme, the results can be eccentric? This happens periodically in all phases, even the recent “decorative” phase, when visual expectations come into precipitous contradiction with a systematically derived scheme; Stella is doubtless aware of this and by no discarding the results, he is acquiescing to his own “excesses.” Perhaps after all it is the intellectuality which insists on “working it out,” no matter what it looks like; perhaps in the fact he not only obviates the necessity for visual felicity, but also welcomes any concomitant awkwardness; perhaps it it not so much a willingness to be idiosyncratic, as a need to be. In any case, from the beginning Stella appears to have worked from a kind of pre-picture irrationality—an intuitiveness determining the context for his disconcerting inflexibilities. This is why “deductive structure” is only one of many decisions in each picture, and not necessarily the generative one.
Stella’s logic, rather than providing a measure of safety, contains a potential for danger when carried to its extreme as it often is. If the exhibition had represented more fully the black and the aluminum paintings, the notched Vs, the running Vs, some of the more pungent color works and some of the more dislocated-looking shapes of this year, a substantially different artist would have emerged.
Distribution of choices is important in what is not a very large show—43 paintings, 20 drawings. The works which led pup to the black paintings have long been the subject of curiosity. Yet only two were shown: Coney Island, with its primary color scheme and thick, nondescript surface and Astoria, with wettish yellow horizontal bands, indicate the solidifying refutation of Abstract-Expressionism via the example of Jasper Johns.
More unfortunate is the fact that there were only four of the revolutionary black works. Yet these are the heart of that near-mythical early period which especially needs to be seen in depth. They seem, here, only a kind of preparation for the subsequent changes to be rung on the stripes.
Throughout the early ’60s, there are two or three of everything. Despite his ostensibly stripped-down minimal language Stella was in and out of color, in and out of shape, in and out of house paint, metallic paint, Day-Glo paint, in and out of pre-ordained color systems, regular geometry and free geometry. This early part of the show is carried by the tight relationships of shape and stripe, and holds together on that basis, no matter what one might have liked in the way of different emphases.
Beginning with the 1966 paintings of bright color and extravagant shape, described by Mr. Rubin in his text as “irregular polygons,” objections of a different sort occur. Complex and interesting as these paintings are in thrusting a synthesis of Stella’s theory into a very surprising vehicle, few of them are convincing as paintings; they also represent a rather short period of time, and seem essentially transitional. So those that were included are either too many, if they are to be seen as individual works, or too few, if their serial implications (perhaps their most interesting aspect) were to come across. The protractor series and its subsequent phases have also clearly been slighted. A complex continuing group of several years of duration, these works are huge, and few as they are, occupy much of the frugal allotment of space. It is regrettable that related versions of some of these are not included, for in recent years Stella’s method of evolving compositional schemes through a permutation process is important. Works stemming from the same format have never been shown together. And this would have been a change to evaluate the results; though the serial approach is known, it has never actually been seen.
Also skimped are the new post-protractor works (1968 on) which signal a new attitude—within the “picture-shaped” format, the suggestion of recognizably traditional pictorial space. Related are some of the new long shaped ones with a startling lateral spread not seen since the running Vs. Certain examples of both of these two types indicate an important new tendency in color use—the strong Matissean (not florescent) effects of this year, exotic, unexpected and unprogrammed, which represent a new side of Stella. Yet, those chosen for the show are the frailest, most light-struck pastels, and are in fact nearly monochrome in effect. What they seem to propose is an involvement with Noland’s color temperament which seems far from pertinent in light of what Stella has done his year. One wonders, indeed, what dictates these chocies, and whether Mr. Rubin and/or Stella himself downgrades the more recent coloristic forays. (It may simply be that the show’s cut-off date precluded their presence; in any case the hiatus was filled by Stella shows at the Rubin and Castelli galleries this winter.)
Change has been implicit though the apparent consistency of Stella’s career. The points at which this is most apparent shed light on the variousness of his undertaking. Stella’s career has it uneven aspects, but its particular kind of variability is a credit to both his energy and his integrity. He repeatedly gave up certainty for change (albeit within the confines of perpetuated certainty—but presumably this is the other face of intellectual consistency.)
There is a gradual but quite marked alteration of emphasis from the romanticism of the black paintings, their anti-art ferocity and personal emotionalism; for all their polemical, programmatic negation of Abstract Expressionism, they were not so far from it as all that. They are exceedingly intense, look hand-made and rely on Abstract-Expressionistic scale. These works have not lost their initial many-layered significance. They hold the complex roots of the painter’s early attitudes, unswerving adherence to absolute abstractions coexisting with an aggressive anti-art stance and considerable Dada-related irony. It is worth remembering how natural and close, at the time, the link seemed between early Stella and just-evolving Pop Art. Subsequently clarified and refined formal implications notwithstanding, this ironic content persisted in Stella for years.
Looking beyond bothersome factors of fame and reputation, and beyond memories of a now-recapturable shock at such harshness, one realizes the black works remain tough, daring, and mysterious. Also, oddly enough, anti-emotional as their original intent, they are, in retrospect, about as romantic as you can get. This has partly to do with their “saintly” rejection—it is no wonder that these, with their puritanical rigor and conceptual compactness, remain the phase most admired by young artists today. In addition, Stella was doubtless fully aware of the extra-pictorial implications of his anti-pictorial black. It is not without some some of the absolutism which black held for de Kooning, Newman, Pollock, Still.
So there was a substantial transformation to the snappy and clear early-’60s character of the increasingly hard-edged color works. A progressive simplification took place too—a stiffening of the contours of the stripes, a tidying of the surfaces to an ever more meticulous degree. Along with this come the controversial “object quality,” the thickened stretchers, the notched formats, the cut-out shapes. (Seeing these in conjunction with the other works, one is forced to doubt whether many of these shaped works—especially medium sized ones—ever worked terribly well as paintings; many of them insistently metamorphose to figures on a ground.) With the shaped works, the closed geometric figures (hexagon, parallelogram, trapezoid, etc.) and the 90-degree-angle open ones reached a high point of simplification and stasis. This was the moment at which their identity as flatly non-referential physical objects—their literalness—was at its peak, and was most openly dealing with concerns similar to those of Judd and Andre; but the involvement of Judd and Andre with things like real space, materials, and the most straightforward and open physical relationships was relevant for Stella for a much longer time. (More recently, Stella has become more an more involved with illusionism, Judd has too, although on a different course.)
Then a growing ambiguity of surface-space relations reintroduced itself with the notched Vs, with their propensities to create illusion; this took place immediately upon the opening up of the figurations, and the tipping of the parallel lines. Then the lateral extension of this figure-type culminated in the running Vs, which developed a taste for expansiveness which was to re-emerge in large scale and increasingly elaborate effects from the protractor series on. These paintings carry to some kind of illusion-prone ultimate the parallel-stripe vocabulary and also refer back to the black works for their degree of relative complexity of sensation; and like the physical unevenness of the blacks, the running Vs’ sullen metallic color has life to it. Blunt yet illusionist, tough-hided and flat yet baroque, these mix his opposing urges toward the systematic and the stunningly strange.
Up to this point, Stella’s work evolved on the basis of his original impulse which carried him along with only subsidiary fluctuations attributable to other tendencies of time (to the extent that this can be said of someone so very much part of the time.) With the irregular polygons, there is evidence that the exterior forces played a more decisive part. These paintings came just after a period when the air was filled with what seemed heavily significant experimentation in the borderline area between painting and sculpture, with painters on all sides involved in “shaped canvas”—and sculptors no less in color. At the same time, the irregular polygons also probably indicate influence of critical writing paralleling and also promoting related ideas. The irregular polygons have a strong reference to the sculptural (though they are flat) and they imply physical projection, not pictorial space. They are the last gasp of overtly sculptural suggestion; he is pictorial in his illusionism after this, regardless of whether he happens to choose shaped stretchers or not. The spatial references when there are any become internal as the pictures are subdivided in a wholly changed way.
In these jagged, tense and disintegrative works, composite shapes form arbitrary configurations for the first time; never-quite-flat color fields are confined within melodramatic geometric confrontations. The results appear somewhat mindlessly agitated. Color is unconcernedly at adds with form. But form to one side, what seems to explain this peculiar phase, eccentric, flashily banded and “colored-in,” is the elusive but recurrent Pop quality. (There seems to be such a thing as relative seriousness of color and shape alike. These are unserious.) They are also not discontinuous if viewed in terms of earlier works whose references often include either the color context, the obviousness of shape or the hard-surface manufactured look of Pop.
This 1966 phase, whatever one may think of it, represents not only the major break in physical consistency, but also a major alteration of impact. Previously the paintings remained modest, didactic, deliberately uningratiating. They were aggressive, but prosaic; they were arrogant, but not unprepossessing. Their aspiration was more intellectual than physical, despite the conventional reliance on scale. But from 1966 on, the paintings expanded in visual assurance, became enormous, even grandiose, with an intent to both decorate and overwhelm. The circular motifs which comes with the protractor series introduce a possibility or much more sweeping compositions, all kinds of complex figurations, now on a quasi-architectural scale, and a pervasive movement which is not unrelated to Abstract-Expressionism. Color emerges first in jarring, ready-mixed artificial Day-Glo, then in more esoteric and resonating hues. The surfaces start to yield in conjunction with an new transparency to the paint. The illusionism from the protractor series onward is more complex that that which existed earlier; the running Vs, for example were strictly linear and involved in space; that is, a plane could appear to buckle, but never could be seen through. While the parallel-stripe works repel attempts to seem into them, the curvilinear ones for the first time open up to imply tunnels, apertures, and glimpses beyond. A strong argument is advanced by these paintings for color having symbolic equivalences to the natural world (blue=distance, etc.), regardless of the abstractness of the context in which they are introduced.
The enlargement of the protractor works provides a peculiar ambiguity counteracting the clarity of the structural schemes: the scales expands to contain color, and at the same time begins to distort measurable perceptions. The function of color itself in these works is far from simply sensuous, as has often been suggested. In the early works, with color deliberately restricted, it carried references in addition to having pictorial weight. Type of paint as well as hue was important. While its main pictorial function was in a dark-light range, it acted metaphorically too. Color functioned within inflexible linear systems, but did nothing to counteract them (except in isolated examples such as Jasper’s Dilemma). But by 1967 there is a collision between systematic structure and the freed color. Colors are mixed now, not out-of-the-jar. They are thin, transparent and “fine art” in their associations. A crucial complicating change is the interjection of neutrals an earth-tones into hot artificial schemes (cf. Louis and Noland). Also the close proximities of adjacent hues present many subtleties at odds with the arbitrary design decisions.
Even more profound that the pictorial complication of the post-1966 work is a shift in spirit and intention which is indicated by the multiple version of each idea. Along with introducing many sets of new decisions, there are also major decisions that are no longer made. That is, in entering into serial groups, where each format is made in several versions of internal pattern and several color groupings, the single distilled canvas, replete with impacted meaning, no longer carries the whole charge. Strictly speaking, the use of color can never be serial in a systematic way structure can, so there is no numerical way to exhaust the possibilities. Is this thematic explosion an abdication? A downgrading of the single piece? Does it mean a tendency towards uncriticalness and overproduction (as paintings now develop in series of 90, the final number of the protractor group)? Or on the contrary, is this a fertile, adventurous, equally meaningful way to work? Unfortunately these questions are left unanswered by the single-picture approach of the show.
In the latest works, Stella seems to be well into a new way of thinking. In opening up to more physical and pictorial complexity, he is also working away from the topical necessities of the art of a particular moment, beyond the narrow historical dialectic of today. His context is now broader—for instance, he recently considers himself to be working in the realm of decorative problems problems as seen by Matisse. Stella’s work is unique among young avant-gardists for its degree of what might be called sublimated erudition. In addition he is unique for having at his disposal a vocabulary personal enough, consistent enough and flexible enough to bear within it outside allusions and yet remain itself. (Clearly these are advantages which can come of a fully absorbed art-historical scope.)
Much of this hangs on geometry. Geometry in art is generally considered to be hand-in-glove with logic; yet it contains broad potential for intuitive expression. (The kind of geometrical art Stella’s is not underlines this point; closest in time and superficial resemblance are Bauhaus, Neo-Plastic and Albers-type geometry. These, though apparent “mainstream” antecedents, were among the ones Stella wished to deliberately discard.)
However, there are more compatible precedents (not to imply any evolutionary links, but rather affinity) which say something about geometry. It has often been noted that the interlace motif of the protractor series (et seq.) resembles Irish and medieval manuscripts (the subject of Stella’s university thesis) and other Celtic ornamentation. The Celtic geometry forms a tough tissue of living stuff from compulsively intertwined line. Stella is more measured and reasoned, yet the emphasis on linearity and the drive to elaborate it is strikingly related. Persian patterning makes an illuminating parallel too (Stella went to Iran and Central Asia in 1963). In vaulting of certain medieval order in diagrammatically multiplied parallel straight lines. This is structural, yes, but goes beyond necessity into abstract delight. This odd affinity goes further: both deal in contrasts of light and dark (cf. Stella’s whole gamut of striped works), and in both, line equals edges which don’t touch, as with Stella’s “breathing spaces” between stripes—or mortar.
Closer in time there is Orphic Cubism (perhaps the transmission point for Fauve color, geometrized). With parallel arcs and overlaps, it is akin to recent Stella for its pure, prismatically transparent color. (Delaunay when to mural scale for his decretive aspirations too.) The linear patterning of Art Deco is related, as well as the fanciful pseudo-strict ornamentation developed by Frank Lloyd Wright (how fine it would be to see recent Stellas in the correspondingly and concentrically looking Guggenheim Museum).
What all of these examples have in common with Stella is that the geometric structure, once it is established, takes on an inexorable existence of its own, almost like organic growth. An irrational faith in line, in patterning, in diagramming, justifies what is produced. Watching the figuration develop is its intrinsic fascination. Though this, the pre-ordained character of the structure has the ability to bring about an infinite succession of pictorial surprises and visual jolts. (Structure and/or figuration seem to have a greater capacity to do this than even the most high-pitched color.)
Stella has done a difficult thing in the last few years, which is to broaden rather than narrow his range. This may be harder than honing, reducing, essentializing the process which is more often the rule. By beginning with a position of spectacular finality, right way he placed himself were most artists would try to end up. But after he continued to move, and his ability to change has been amazing. It is in this context that his post-1966 works must be judged. It is well to be cautious about labeling his new figure-ground canvases conservative. For it is probably in the confines of the new-old, infinitely ambiguous pictorial arena that freshest problems for painters are now to be found. In the newest works, as well, there seem to be a partial resurgence of the old hard-boiled Stella: ambivalence and oddity showed signs of recurring this winter. A shaped stretcher has never been a prerequisite for his radically—the black works, it must be remembered, were never rectilinear; and throughout the phases he has undergone, a “normal” format was periodically the container for some of his best ideas. Going back to the rectangle may be a base for new departures; this has happened before with periodic, phlegmatic retreats to the square. Some more of these changes would appear to be on their way. But whatever is to come, the evidence points to the probablity that the tense, aggressive, largely problematic oriented Stella has given way to an artist who must now be evaluated in the much broader field of 20th-century abstraction.
Questions of the ultimate validity of Stella’s work occur in two contexts, but not simultaneously. It is surprising how many people accept only the striped works; the reasons are partially non-visual-much of the burden of their value falls on their impacted, almost ideological stance. At the other extreme is the point of view that the early works were just too much of too little, and that is only in the expanding and relaxing color works of the last few years that Stella comes into is own.
These too attitudes, oversimplified as they may be, do reflect a serious issue that inevitably crops up regarding Stella. This involves the kind of intensely history-conscious art which his is. The problem is to what extent art can be based on a given historical situation: in this case, were the limits Stella set for himself too closely tailored to the moment—so relevant—that the paintings, when divorced from the polemical notions vital to their being, lose the larger part of their meaning? Was Stella’s early absolutism too certain, and too infallible? And, on the the other had, in his recent disengagement from historical necessity, has the work diminished in stamina? All of these questions might explain the disappointment one feels in confronting certain of the works in the exhibition.Yet there are others that clearly transcend any questioning. There is no doubt that the early work will continue to project much that seems flat, and the late work, much that is florid; but there are so many points of such high accomplishment, where the visual and the theoretical triumphantly fuse that one hopes, and can foresee, they will recur.