On the occasion of a major Frank Stella retrospective at the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, abstract critical asked Robert Linsley for his personal response to Stella’s art. The exhibition runs until the 20thof January 2013.
I’ve enjoyed Frank Stella’s art since my own beginning as an artist, and the crucial thing has been the enjoyment. The intellectual or theoretical side was always evident—the literalness or factuality, the deliberate voiding of the subjective—and I never needed to take a course or read a tract to feel its necessity or reason, but overriding for me was the pleasure that accompanied the fact that I could also feel the artist behind the decisions. I had a particular affection for the Protractors, although it was many years before I saw one of the original Black Paintings in person, and felt how strongly emotional and romantic they are. I find myself thinking back to those early days in art because recently I’ve acquired a real love for Stella’s Moby Dick series [illustrated here by the Grand Armada and Measurement of the Whale’s Skeleton]. I’ve known about them since they were made, in the late eighties, and always thought they were an important group of works, but only very lately have I really seen them, with a return to feelings about art that perhaps one only has when young. Inspiration means an intake of breath—the breath of life, being whatever one needs and wants to find in art. For me, Picasso, Matisse, Cézanne, and intermittently many others, were truly inspiring—they filled me with a sense of the possibilities of life. Emulation was the necessary beginning, but eventually I had to meet the challenge that was presented, to breath out and keep on breathing. In those days I drank in their work and always had a thirst for more, or, to return to the metaphor of inspiration, the fresh air of art brought every cell to life. Looking at art books was a daily pleasure that gave a perspective on the ordinary dullness of life; visits to museums were transformative. Every contact with art sent me back to the studio. I never had a “disinterested” response to beauty, for me it was always about what could be done—what had been done and what I could do, and every historical achievement was another possible path forward. This practical, achievement oriented attitude is why I like Stella’s writing, which is exactly that way, but I never expected to have such strong feelings about his work. Today I just want to stand beside the Moby Dick reliefs and feel the energy. It’s the unexpectedness of this response that, for me, proves its truth. What I mean by that is that what follows in this essay will be a description of those aspects of his work that explain my reactions, but the reactions are the proof that I am right to single them out. An assessment of Stella’s importance, present and future, will have to arise, for me, out of my own work—necessarily from where it differs from his of course—but also from its own future, as I can feel it arriving.
Stella’s first period reaches an end and culmination with the Polish Villages [illustrated here by Ostropol III, 1973]. (i) In this period he never invented a form, but managed to contribute a lot to abstraction by devising configurations of straight lines and regular curves, elements that in themselves are inexpressive and empty in a way that at the time, for some people, was provocative and even polemical. Series such as the Irregular Polygons and Polish Villages brought a complexity that still seems productive—there is yet work to do to build on those. In his second period, from the early seventies to the mid eighties, problems seemed to arise. I saw a show of the Exotic Birds [illustrated here with Bonin Night Heron, 1976] in Vancouver in about 1978, and remember my bemusement. The “baroque” glitter and extravagance seemed to be a turn toward the worst part of the market. I could easily see that he was making an appeal to sensibility over formal intelligence, and could accept that as a legitimate move, but the works didn’t appeal to me—though I never felt that was sufficient reason to give up on them. I can also appreciate that an artist would value independence over deference to whatever discourse is making the rounds at any time, and that to achieve that might entail meeting the market halfway—an acceptable strategy when the stakes are as important as an artist’s self sufficiency and freedom, and in Stella’s case the limits on his freedom seemed to be partly at least a function of his own successful past and real achievements. When I saw him at the opening wearing paint spattered jeans and a dinner jacket, a cigar and a baseball cap, it was pretty clear that courting collectors was part of the job.
Today I can see the Exotic and Indian Birds and the Circuits more clearly, and find that they are a lot more interesting than I thought then. But this change of perspective in me is owing to the third period, from Moby Dick onwards, which will be the main topic of this essay, but before getting to that it is important to notice the formal and technical problems that arose in the works of the seventies.
Instead of inventing configurations, Stella began, with the Exotic Birds, to make compositions of ready-made or found elements such as French curves, railroad curves and tools of geometry. (ii) He took up a repertoire of fixed shapes, and attempted an impossible task—to make successful arrangements without altering them to fit. Of course it’s not impossible, but it is extremely difficult, and the achievement is perhaps not so great. Stella had some hits and misses, and in the Indian Birds developed a system of complex interweaving of layers on curved mesh supports that perhaps did as much as could be done in that mode. Success meant simply complexity, a complexity that seemed to preclude or make unnecessary close reading of parts and their relationships. This is why I had my doubts about that work back in the day, because I was completely dedicated to modernist organicism, the way that in a picture by Matisse or Picasso or Cézanne every part is integrated into a whole that is more than an assemblage of disparate things. Modernist art may be full of disruptions, breaks and discontinuities, but the whole is always more strongly felt. Stella’s use of ready-made shapes put limits on what he could achieve, but now I appreciate that he is not really a modernist anyway, and that his close examination of the old masters is more significant that perhaps is generally realized. More about this further on, but for now it is also clear that during the seventies and early eighties he accomplished a lot that would pay off later. He learned how to make metal relief paintings, and how to hang them on the wall, how to paint them, and to work with fabricators on factory shop floors and with a studio team. He learned how to sustain more than one body of work over the necessarily long production schedules. He started to etch the surfaces of the panels, to use the negative shapes left by cutting them out, and expanded his ability to paint decoratively and “all-over.” The capacities were there for great work of a new type, but the next step was in a way a conservative or traditional one, to invent his own shapes. It started in the Circuits series with the use of flexi-curves, which of course have to be manipulated, and then moved to shapes designed from scratch, the “waves” that would contribute to the Moby Dick series. And with the Italian Folktales and “Had Gadya” prints Stella took to linking his pieces to works of literature through the title. That the works are not illustrations but seem to want to participate in the meanings that literature can carry is interesting because it has to do with the unresolved question of how abstract art can signify, and the quality of that signification. But the important literature to discuss at this point is Stella’s own writing.
His book, Working Space, is one of the best things ever written by an artist. Apart from the ideas it contains, the greatest pleasure it offers is the artist’s voice. Stella says what he means directly, humorously and in a completely natural and idiosyncratic manner. You can hear him talking. It isn’t required of any artist that they should write, or give public talks. It isn’t even required that they understand what they are doing, never mind explain it or comment on other art, and in fact many find all of these things difficult. They are difficult. I don’t believe that Stella has a standard literary skill, or any glibness with the written word. I think he addressed the difficulty of his task by going straight to the point—whatever he had on his mind he tells us, in the simplest way. This is enough to give the book distinction, and set it in the company of such essential texts as Matisse’s “Notes of a Painter.” I believe that all writing about visual art has to be judged aesthetically, as writing in other words. Original and truthful insights will never be heard and acknowledged unless they are cleverly and pleasurably presented, there are simply too many good ideas available, and too many smart people with the ability to express them. As in the general economy, overproduction is an ongoing crisis. But it is also lucky for us that Stella’s thoughts are worth listening to. Who could fail to be enlightened, if not charmed, by his ruminations on Paulus Potter’s “Young Bull”? His assessment of Kandinsky, rounded out by a critique of museum policy, is challenging for any abstractionist today. Of course not everything is on the same level—most of what he says about Picasso is pithy but familiar, still enjoyable for that. But most provocative is the main topic, Caravaggio.
Caravaggio has no place in modernism, certainly not in the twentieth century. There is a distant memory of his work in some early Manet, transmitted by Velazquez, but Stella’s assertion that Picasso picked up a Caravaggesque feel in Naples is really surprising, almost absurd—yet, the way he presents it, convincing. John Richardson, in his exhaustive biography of Picasso, does not support this speculation. He makes no mention of Caravaggio in his Naples chapter, or anywhere else, and claims that Picasso was most affected by the Farnese Hercules. In fact, I have a dim memory of Helene Parmelin recounting that Picasso had a strong aversion to Caravaggio. But all of that doesn’t mean that Stella is wrong. The kind of art history that Stella practices comes out of and feeds into his work—it’s an imaginative creation, not a tabulation of “facts,” truer than the academic sort because it has a more compelling reason to exist.
Caravaggio must have inspired Stella, inspired him to want a pictorial space that moves all around and between depicted figures and objects and also projects forward into the viewer’s world. This can only be an illusion; it’s not the actual space we live in, which is passable enough up to the surface of the picture, but the space of art, meaning an illusion that pictorial space is more vivid and real than the space we are standing in and which we normally forget to see and feel as we make our way through it. But whatever he found in the churches of Rome, he used it to challenge the foundations of American abstraction. There is no point in rehearsing a very well known argument, but just consider how rare that gesture is. How many artists turn against the discourse that has sustained their career and enabled their success, not to take up a politically opposite position, but to help it overcome its own limitations? abstract critical is full of smart polemicists, with strong and particular views, but I submit that a strategy like Stella’s remains very rare, and valuable—to critique without denying the validity of any other position, to make the honest assessment of failure the basis for a new affirmation, to propose the boldest and least obvious solution. To take one side of any two-sided argument is pointless for an artist—a waste of time and ultimately destined to become just part of the noise of our civilization that makes it harder to realize anything. To expose the weaknesses of one’s own side as part of the battle for the future is something else, and it presupposes that one believes in a future for art. When Stella says of himself as a young artist that “It was not enough to worry that in the pursuit of art one might fail to catch up to it; in addition, one had to worry about doing part of the job to keep it running.” (iii) I think we should take him at his word, and accept that it is not an arrogant or ego-centric claim. It’s the love of art in action, the only way that such a love can really exist anyway, despite the testimony of connoisseurs and aesthetes.
In the event, Stella’s work, in the period of the Norton lectures, did not recapture the illusion of an enveloping space produced by chiaroscuro. In the Cones and Pillars series [illustrated here by Bene Come Il Sale, 1987] and the Italian Folktales, he didn’t shade and didn’t make illusory volumes. Instead, he tried to give his by then characteristic and distinctive works, the relief paintings, a new kind of space somewhere in-between pictorial illusion and literal space, and so keep faith with abstraction as it had developed. Parallel black lines of graded width running along the “pillars” and cones don’t so much give a feeling of volume as signify volume in a very reduced graphic way—the curved bases do much more of the work, and actually support the schematic hatching lines, because an ellipse reads very strongly and easily as a circle tipped at an angle. The jury is out on the success of these works—personally I like them more all the time—but they are certainly one of the more audacious attempts to give abstraction a vividness that it had lost in the seventies. Just after finishing the Moby Dick works, Stella described his prints as “Illusionism compromised by literalism. Literalism compromised by illusionism.” (iv) He goes on to say “…maybe we could end up with pictorial literalism.” (v) a remark that shows how tied he remains to the discourse of his own period, specifically to Michael Fried and his minimalist peers. But then everything that historical painting did, with tone, light, colour, composition, drawing, did arrive in the Moby Dick series, on a wave of pictorial ambition that carried the work higher up the beach, past any preoccupation with mere techniques such as modeling or shading. The point is not to imitate the art of the past but to equal it; he says “competition is better than imitation even if you fail.” (vi) And with this Stella accomplished the most amazing thing—to extend modernism by negating it’s own negation of historic European art and joining abstraction, of all things, with the past that it had left behind at its own origins.
In any assessment of the success of Stella’s efforts to get abstraction off the painterly surface and into a more compelling imaginative space it’s a good idea to remember that the relief paintings have always been accompanied by prints. The Moby Dick prints, in three or more series, depending on how you count them, have lots of depth, but it is the conventional space of modernist painting, made of overlapping planes that sometimes seem close up beside each other, sometimes farther apart. So the question that arises is whether the relief paintings are necessary, whether they offer any genuinely new spatial possibilities. If they are a kind of painted sculpture then the space involved is just the normal space of life; if all they do is add literal depth to the ordinary notional or imaginative depth produced by overlapping planes in a drawing, then they don’t add enough to be worth the trouble and cost of making them—might as well stick to canvas or paper, the results will be just as good, and Stella’s prints suggest something like that. Instead of an art historical advance in the conquest of space, the relief paintings may just be the highly individual manner of a particular artist, but as it happens, they do open up a new way of thinking about pictures, through an unexpected and apparently peripheral feature—their painted backs.
He probably had nothing important in mind when he began to paint the supports and the backs of the shapes of the Indian Birds, beyond a felt need to include all visible parts in the picture, but in the event the painted backs of the Moby Dick works lighten the planes, almost dematerialize them, as absurd as that sounds. The surfaces of both front and back are as rough and tactile as one could wish—another aspect of Stella’s work that deserves further mention—but somehow the fact that both sides are painted brings out the phenomenal nature of paintings, their status as appearance, which I would nominate as the essence of the pictorial. The painted planes don’t appear as things, but as images, and so as illusions, no matter lacking the paraphernalia of illusionism, and the painted backs make them more so. In some cases the figures on the front seem to have penetrated and show through on the back differently coloured, as if the plane itself was like Alice’s looking-glass, a transformative medium.
In Working Space Stella was highly critical of how so much abstract painting has become bogged down in paint, stuck to a surface that had become a final resting place for modernist ambitions. Yet the planes of his relief paintings, up to Moby Dick, are just surfaces for decoration. When he starts to invent forms he then has the possibility of painting those same forms, and in fact draws and paints the same repertoire of cut out shapes of which the series is composed onto those very shapes. When the Moby Dick reliefs reach their peak, in the “C” and “D” series, the layering of shapes over shapes, sometimes jumping up or down a level, always interrupted by other images that compose other layers, reaches a chaos of complexity. There is clearly nothing random anywhere, but the totality of what is going on cannot be caught in the glance so typical of modern looking, always searching for the concept or the recognizable category. Stella wants us to slow down and look, but then to speed up with the work and enter an all enveloping pictorial space. And that’s just from the front. When the sides and backs are taken in as well things actually get a little easier to grasp, as the relationship of the planes becomes more clear, but the actual painting on the back is often bewildering, sometimes looking like an enumeration of all the conventional manners of seventies abstraction. He puts so much work into making paintings that will rarely if ever be seen that one doesn’t know how to take them at first, but then one is further astonished by their enthusiastic badness, which becomes another kind of reward. Stella must have realized that there was no escape from the sludge of surface bound abstraction except to embrace it. He clearly rejects the canonical strategies of emptying, clearing, purifying and clarifying. The first and obvious interpretation is that abstraction can keep its surfaces but they must be lifted onto planes suspended in space, so the relief painting is a solution that doesn’t really change anything, but I think there is a more profound recognition—namely that there is nothing wrong in principle with the materiality of paint, it just needs imagination and energy to froth it up into something real, and, as Picasso showed so well, the way to make art better is to find out how bad it already is, start there and head down. In other words, the important distinctions are qualitative, not theoretical or art-historical. This may strike some as obvious, but it’s also much more difficult and risky to realize than any abstract or theoretical program. It may strike others as deeply conservative, but then that argument is just an alibi for the need to explain everything, itself an avoidance of the difficulty of making a great work of art.
Stella has become a master of both colour and touch, and the extreme variety of his surfaces—in the front view—proves that easily enough. Every kind of painting, scraping, wiping, drawing and piling up are used with virtuosity, not to mention the texture of the metal, sometimes corroded or etched, which fits right in. But the backs—and note that they often have a different character than the fronts, and can use very different painterly languages—take the whole effort over the top. Inclusion becomes the strongest form of critique, which indeed it is, because it proves that the artist is not hampered by anyone else’s failure in this collective adventure of painting, that he or she doesn’t have to recognize any historical determinism. But I think that their greatest importance lies in how the fact that both sides of a plane are painted dissolves away the plane itself, ensuring that a relief painting is really a painting and not a sculpture. And this happens even as the work is obviously and unqualifiedly material. They are not necessarily heavy, like a Serra, because aluminum and magnesium are relatively light. They are heavily painted, yet imaginatively and creatively light.
The crux of the Moby Dick series, and of all the greater and lesser works that have come since, is that Stella is a montage artist. His works are assemblages of self-contained parts and his art is to dissolve them into a new whole. Like many other practices with the same principle it is a matter of taste and judgment to what extent the differences between the elements remain and to what extent their links to each other grow stronger and more apparent. So it was when he started to make relief paintings, but the evolution of the work has been not only toward greater unity and wholeness, but toward the recognition that the old masters were all montage artists as well. Preliminary sketches, Iife drawings, landscape sketches, photographs, quotations from other works and sources outside art—those have been the given elements melted down to make large scale unified works, whether in Renaissance Italy or Baroque Spain or 19th. Century France. The great tradition of European painting is a tradition of assemblage and montage, but the modern period proposed a narrower concept of unity and organic wholeness. The central modern tradition, rooted most strongly in Cézanne, imagines the parts of a picture as growing out of each other, not as brought from outside and assembled together. The great modern pictorial metaphor, figured in the arabesques of Matisse, is the plant. One may object that it hardly matters how one gets to such an appearance, and that it takes a lot of work, a lot of fussing and fiddling, cutting and stitching, to turn Frankenstein’s monster into a fair simulacrum of a living body, but the history of modern painting does present us with a distinction between works that are more or less constructed and works which are more or less organically grown. As I said, Cézanne is the ancestral figure, and the visible corrections, changes and rethinkings in his pictures are not to draw attention to the artwork as a conscious construction but to show how the forms grew over time. At least that’s how it feels, perhaps because he never let geometry take over. The temporal aspect is up front, and that’s what Matisse took for his guide and inspiration. Later abstractionists radicalized this move—Pollock, Frankenthaler and Louis being the canonical figures. This work is so strongly temporal that no corrections are possible, only addition. The result has been a new source of energy and many great initiatives, accompanied by necessary limitations. Stella’s drive is to overcome limitations, and his own limits were the early works in which the organic unity of modernism had become concept as much as felt reality. They didn’t grow into their form, they were invented whole, not an untypical thing post Abstract Expressionism.
Stella never turned his back on his own past, he just tried to expand the range of what he did, and so it has become clear that he was never an organicist. The most surprising thing is the quality of an ambition that makes the relevant comparison not with Matisse or Cézanne, but with Rubens or Caravaggio, both montage artists, though that may be hard to see immediately in the latter case. The proof is found in the way that time is sedimented into the work. Caravaggio could not have painted his big pictures in one session. For all that they depict a single moment with more vividness than had been seen till then, he must have returned to his models on subsequent days, and the energy of the work is in the will exerted to realize a singular time and place over many days of labour. Stella’s strong response to Caravaggio is then revealing—it is wonder at how the finished work doesn’t show any joints, even though we know they are there. The penetrating, projecting and enveloping space that Stella talks about is a unified substance magically produced from many parts, and more importantly many moments. But the relevant context is a modern art that has diminished the temporal range of the studio, in two ways. Firstly, through increased conceptuality, which means that the work exists as an idea before it is made, so there is no work to be done, only execution. This is a description of Stella’s early groups, as it is of most of what today could be called global conceptualism. Secondly through the collapsing together of conception and execution in the strong organicist mode, a good example of which might be the more than 600 drawings of Robert Motherwell’s Lyric Suite. Since every moment is another gesture and another work, it’s even hard to imagine how to value one over another, and so art achieves an insurmountable minor status. The minor and the lyrical are limits on abstraction in its bodily, improvised, gestural mode. So this is what Stella means by “working space”—a working time in which every joint in the work, or every join, is another opportunity to reflect, alter, adjust and change toward a major achievement. It shouldn’t be too hard nowadays to accept that time is a dimension of space. That the work emerges from the making, from building with the hands, counters conceptuality and keeps everything material and tactile. The necessarily long production schedules demanded by the integration of factory and studio overcome the temporal restrictions of organicism and gives mental space to clogged painterly surfaces. This is how his painting of supports and backs, which in principle is just filling in, acquires distance and perspective—and gives pleasure.
To see how the Moby Dick reliefs accomplish their canceling of the central organicist tradition of modernism as they reach back to the studios of Rubens and Caravaggio, Piazzetta and Tiepolo, (vii) Delaroche and Courbet, one has to identify the factory made shapes invented by Stella and used in different combinations from work to work, where they are cut, bent, fragmented, doubled, painted on and over, etched and corroded, used as stencils for negative shapes and finally linked by association and repetition with Melville’s original. This is not easy to do—it entails close acquaintance with many works and many acts of comparison. For this, Robert Wallace’s book on the series is invaluable. (viii)
Stella’s work poses a problem for my own, the motivation behind this essay. My work is in the strong organic mode, and though I have found a way to cancel the limitations entailed, there is a further distance to go. The Moby Dick series gives me so much pleasure, but I was never content to be a consumer of art—great art demands an answer in work, not just words, so here I must leave off. But I want to include one more quote from Working Space: “…life is more wonderful than the imagination and recall of the people who live it. What saves painting is that a totality of experience drives it, lifting it above the pettiness of encounters between artist and critic.” (ix) Stella’s assertion that life is better than we remember it is exactly the opposite of the conventional view, supported by daily experience, namely that we prefer to remember things as better than they were. But how can we participate in this better life, which seems to be always passing us by? What he means is that life is always unsatisfying, but work makes it better; that our collective arrangements will always be inadequate but when an artist exceeds him or herself it’s a gift to us all—a building forward that proves that it’s not art as the image of a better world that gives hope, but as the record of human capacities realized in work.
Robert Linsley, Kitchener 2012
(i) I am neglecting the Brazilian series
(ii) Obviously a protractor is a tool of geometry, but I think my distinction still holds, since protractors don’t appear as protractors, as three dimensional forms, until later.
(iii) Working Space, Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1986 p. 158
(iv) quoted in “Melrose Ave.” The Writings of Frank Stella, Jena 2001 p. 219
(vi) quoted by Robert Wallace in Frank Stella’s Moby-Dick: Words and Shapes, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press 2000, p.7 The book is out of print and difficult to get, but Wallace himself has copies for sale.
(vii) I had to stick in some of my own favourites.
(viii) see note 4
(ix) Working Space, p. 153