Critics’ Picks

Frank Stella, Gobba, zoppa e collotorto (Hunchback Wryneck Hobbler), 1985, oil, urethane enamel, fluorescent alkyd, acrylic, and printing ink on etched magnesium and aluminum, 11 1/2' × 10' × 34''.

Frank Stella, Gobba, zoppa e collotorto (Hunchback Wryneck Hobbler), 1985, oil, urethane enamel, fluorescent alkyd, acrylic, and printing ink on etched magnesium and aluminum, 11 1/2' × 10' × 34''.

New York

Frank Stella

Whitney Museum of American Art
99 Gansevoort Street
October 30, 2015–February 7, 2016

In the late 1970s, Frank Stella’s foray into spectacular wall-mounted painted reliefs left many admirers at a loss. Thinking of his work from this period in what Robert Slifkin has termed a theory of “badness” in 1970s music and art is fruitful. There is a tackiness that is integral to the work, not merely as a rejection of aesthetic notions of composition but also as a renunciation of ties to minimal nuance. Yet, today, his tackiness also seems to predate the Photoshop aesthetic that is regaled in work by artists such as Trudy Benson and Keltie Ferris. We assume digital mediation to be deterministic of appearance; but what if Stella’s early bombastic compositions inflected digital aesthetics?

For instance, Gobba, zoppa e collotorto (Hunchback Wryneck Hobbler), 1985, is a tawdry bas-relief of cone-shaped and rectangular masses. In these works, the complex method of configuration led Stella to paint the sections in parts before they were assembled akin to a “paint fill” option. Looking back, one sees the artist alighting on some of the hallmarks of contemporary painting: a wickedly carefree dispensation of nonlocalized color, sketch-up areas competing with heavy finish, illogical scalar shifts, and a confounding disregard for tastefulness. Perhaps Stella’s motley aesthetic suggests how “badness” and tackiness could relate to a greater postmodern crisis with amalgamation in form and color. As early as the 1980s, after his wacky “Exotic Bird” series, 1976–80, Stella started using digital rendering technology to achieve polarization in pictorial space. When acrylic paintings such as Das Erdbeben in Chili [N#3] (The Earthquake in Chile), 1999, were planned with these tools, the derivation of their compositional dexterity and spatially challenging elasticity originated in Stella’s rich pool of “bad” maneuvers.