PRINT March 1965

Frank Stella

IN THE 20TH CENTURY, AMBITIOUS ARTISTS have often chosen rockbottom as their precarious goal. Whether in terms of Duchamp’s relentless pursuit of the devastating consequences of logic or Mondrian’s pruning of all but the bare and vital skeleton of pictorial illusion, the path that leads to the brink of nothingness has created en route some of our century’s most exhilarating adventures and enduring works. Since 1945, this irrepressible tradition has fathered, among other things, the impulse that stimulated masters like Rothko, Still, Newman, and Louis to reduce their vocabulary to the most elemental components and thus to create the full power of their mature styles, as well as the dilemma of how then to continue. And it is this tradition, too, that has compelled many younger artists to challenge these old masters, in turn, by taking their own risks in the dangerous domain of the reductio ad absurdum, where one can lose all or gain all. Of this new generation, few artists, if any, have produced a more consistently intelligent and vigorous sequence of first-rate paintings than Frank Stella.

Stella’s radical position became publicly apparent in 1959, when, at the age of twenty-three, he was represented in the Museum of Modern Art’s “Sixteen Americans” show by four huge canvases that rivaled in size the acknowledged masterpieces of Abstract Expressionism and that disconcerted their audience by what seemed to be an impudent monotony and emptiness. (Fig. 1) The predicament of those critics and spectators who condemned Stella’s work as a kind of Dada joke was perhaps understandable. How quickly could one have recognized, say, the qualities of four austere 1920s Mondrians if one had never seen a Mondrian before? Indeed, with Stella, as with Mondrian, an evolutionary context is almost essential before the individual painting can be properly perceived. The black pictures of 1959 were not born suddenly but, in fact, were the logical and patient distillation of a series of remarkable early works. In these, Stella, like many precocious young artists, did battle, as it were, with some of the major pictorial forces of the 1950s—the bold compartmented armatures of Gottlieb, the atmospheric tiers of Rothko, the heroic scale and openness of Newman. From such pictorial premises and many others, Stella slowly drew the surprising conclusions of his black paintings, works that contested the authority of their sources through an uncompromising logic difficult to ignore. Thus, most of the values upheld by the masters of the 1950s were attacked by Stella in terms of their own grandiose dimensions. With clues taken from the refreshingly clear parallel and concentric geometries of Johns’ early flags and targets, Stella managed to turn these old masters inside out. Exquisite chromatic subtleties, individualized choices of shape and brushstroke were suppressed in favor of predictable patterns of heraldic symmetry, a palette restricted solely to monkish black and white, and an impersonal application of paint. Above all, these black pictures tried to reject the illusionism still practiced in the 1950s. Atmospheric density, spatial overlays, discreet forms seen against grounds were all eradicated with disarming thoroughness and consistency. Stella’s paintings seemed to iron out the pictorial spaces of the 1950s to an unprecedented flatness: the picture was no longer an illusion above or behind its surface but was rather the flat surface itself. In order to squeeze out any vestiges of depth and atmosphere, Stella insisted on recognizing the shape of the canvas as the essential fact of the picture. Like a surveyor assessing the extent and nature of a newly acquired territory, he plotted out every square inch of pictorial land in patterns of even stripes reiterating the simple perpendicular and parallel relationships of the frame. No forms overlapped; none seemed secondary. Instead, the entirety of the rectangular field was recognized as being of one importance. The picture could no longer be reduced to major and minor components, but had to be accepted as a whole, as a flat and irreducible object. The pictorial field was thus redefined as the picture itself, and not as a neutral space in which something happened at occasional points.

The stark reduction of these strong and ascetic paintings posed the perennial 20th-century question of where the artist could go next. As is proper, the artist, not the critic, answered this question with a series of new canvases of 1960 (Fig. 2) that demonstrated, amazingly enough, that their somber predecessors had not been dead ends, but rather generators that could create another set of problems to be resolved. Thus, the paths marked out in the black paintings toward utter flatness, calculated regularity of pattern and surface, and the use of the framing edge as the sole basis for the internal design were pursued still further and with even more unexpected consequences.

In place of black stripes, which, in the context of the 1950s, looked impersonal and emotionless, Stella now chose a tone still more chilly and achromatic—the glossy, factory coldness of aluminum paint. All things being relative in art, the black stripes of 1959, with the weblike fragility of their white interstices, began to look vibrant and softly luminous by comparison with this new assault upon 1950s sensibility. The aluminum stripes and the white rivulets of bare canvas that separated them moved now in the direction of a still more mechanical evenness and hardness, a persistent goal in Stella’s work that remains, however, an elusive one, thanks to the spectator’s gradual accommodation to increasingly slight and subtle irregularities of edge and surface.

Even more inventive was the shape of the canvas, for it deviated here from traditional rectangularity in favor of symmetrically placed notchings. This innovation both created and reflected the internal geometries of stripes that now ran only parallel, and not perpendicular, to the enclosing edges. If the black striped canvases implied that the picture was a plane surface defined by the frame, these new aluminum paintings made the point explicit. The result was a picture or, better said, an object of extraordinary tautness and indivisibility. The striped geometries and the picture’s framing edges were inseparable functions of each other; the rectilinear notches of the borders determined the patterns they enclosed and vice-versa.

Once Stella had broken with the inherited rectangularity of the picture frame, the new possibilities were endless. Characteristically his working methods took the form of a theme and variations, that is, a set of related pictures each offering a unique solution to the problem posed by the group as a whole. This time, in a series of 1961, exhibited in New York in 1962 (Fig. 3), the paint moved from aluminum to an equally shiny and metallic copper, and the notchings on the frame now expanded into wide-open rectilinear shapes—a T, a U, an H—that first looked alarmingly unfamiliar as arenas for pictorial activity. Indeed, these works, even more than before, established the identity of the shape of the canvas with the parallel patterns of stripes, so that the pictures appeared to be almost fragments of frames, the bones rather than the flesh of painting. And in a later series of 1963, exhibited in New York in 1964 (Fig. 4), this unerring structural logic produced a group of polygonal canvases—among them, a decagon, a pentagon, a trapezoid—that became yet more closely united with the picture’s frame rather than with its contents. In these canvases, which complicated Stella’s vocabulary by the introduction of acute and obtuse angles, the very core of the picture was hollow, so that the usual relationship between the picture and the picture frame was reversed. And here, too, Stella’s willful rejection of the precious palette of the 1950s reached a new extremity of harshness in the choice of a metallic purple sheen that smacked of the vulgar, spray-gunned commercial colors exploited in much Pop Art as well as in the automobile fragments of Chamberlain’s sculpture.

Just as Stella studied the question of the structural relationship of the picture to its frame, he also, in other works, re-examined the question of color. Concurrent with the anti-colors (aluminum, copper) of the shaped canvases were pictures that rediscovered, as it were, the raw pleasure of the simplest primary and secondary hues. (Fig. 5) Monochrome paintings of the flattest red, blue, or green startled the eye after the chromatic nuances of the 1950s, much as Stella’s elementary geometries provided a similarly drastic structural house-cleaning, not unlike Johns’ early flags and targets. With typical logic, Stella then built up complex relationships from these chromatic building-blocks, arriving at a kind of basic color chart that ran the whole gamut of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple. In so juxtaposing different colors, Stella raised another set of questions, for these luminous candy stripes created variations in light value that reinstated in fresh terms the kind of spatial illusionism rigorously excluded from the monochrome paintings. His keen awareness of this new problem was nowhere better demonstrated than in a diptych-like canvas, “Jasper’s Dilemma” (1962.63) (Fig. 6), which, with topical reference to Johns’ own problems of color versus grisaille, places side by side two pictorial charts that enumerate light values as perceived, on the one hand, through eleven graduated hues and, on the other, through a series of nine grisaille variations ranging from black to white. Far from resulting in a pair of arid textbook diagrams, such a canvas creates a field of scintillating counterpoint between a painting in color and, as it were, its accompanying reproduction in black and white; and, lest the optical dazzle run askew, Stella harnesses it firmly in a complex rectilinear labyrinth coiled tight as a spring. Indeed, it is this same hard-won awareness of the painting’s structural bones that gives Stella’s more recent color-stripe paintings of 1964 (Fig. 7) a vital tension and inevitability that reduce most other optical paintings to the level of decorative “frissons.”

A restless and inquiring artist, Stella has also continued to expand the potentials of the shaped canvas in works that may surprise even those accustomed to the earlier rectilinear and polygonal forms. In one series, exhibited in London in 1964 (Fig. 8), the complex angles of the polygons burst from their self-enclosure into sweeping paths of energy that zigzag recklessly across the wall with the kinetic charge of an abruptly veering automobile. The paint quality, too, contributes to this sharp mechanical bite; for, like many young artists of the 1960s—both Pop and Abstract—Stella prefers the resistant quality of industrial colors and machine-made surfaces, produced, in this case, by metallic powder in polymer emulsion.

Other shaped canvases offer even more primary nuggets of a kind of new American-Futurist energy—for instance, an icy green vector of concentric chevrons that dart across space like the comparably abstract hubcaps and arrows that speed through the unprimed fields of Noland’s latest canvases (Fig 9). From such dynamic units, Stella constructs intricate wholes, and in other works of the 1965 Los Angeles exhibition, these wedges of steely Pop colors collide in duets and trios of breathless, yet disciplined, energy. (Fig. 10) With lean and perfect precision, these swift forces seem to be caught just before take-off, clinging to each other momentarily, as if magnetized.

That these explosive clusters of velocity are ultimately the descendants of the static sobriety of Stella’s black-striped canvases of 1959 may at first be surprising; yet, in retrospect, this five-year evolution unfolds with a rigorous logic and persistent invention rare in the 1960s. Indeed, the uncommon strength and integrity of Stella’s young art already locate him among the handful of major artists working today.

Robert Rosenblum