PRINT Summer 1965

Frank Stella

Born Malden, Mass., 1936.
Studied painting at Phillips Academy, Andover, Mass., with Patrick Morgan.
Studied with William Seitz and Stephen Greene, Princeton University; received BA, 1958.
Lives in New York City.

AS MICHAEL FRIED HAS POINTED OUT, the particular formal postulate to which Stella has so far bound himself has been the deduction of the entire picture surface from the shape of the picture support itself; the stripes of Stella’s paintings become a striated surface echoing the shape of the canvas itself. But no sooner do we come to grips with the structural aspects of Stella’s art than we find that one of the results of this structure-dictated surface is the evocation of a mood which is not, perhaps, like the mood of Poons’ dots but not unlike the mood communicated by Newman’s verticals in fields of color. Viewers come away from Stella’s canvases strangely moved: the striations, like Reinhardt’s crosses, cannot be prevented from assuming a certain iconographical significance, and will not remain a neutral configuration. A quality of invocation—the same quality which has made the striation or the expand. ing series of squares so persistent a motif through. out the history of art—cannot detach itself from Stella’s canvases. The emotional content of the imagery now colors further choices: the “unrightness” of certain colors, width of stripes, shapes of canvas is now dictated (consciously or not) by expressive factors as well as formal ones.

The intensity of the esthetic response which Stella’s paintings bring forth leads to a complicating observation about the nature of reductive art: intensity of response is not correspondingly reduced as the components and devices of painting are pared away. (If the irreducible painting is one in which the quality of esthetic response is dropped to the near-zero point, then, perhaps, contemporary optical painting comes closer to it than any other.) If we assume, as has often been assumed, that the reductive art of Stella (or Reinhardt) seeks to diminish response as well as restrict formal components, then we must assume that the emotion-carrying striations (or crosses) are either perversely ignored by the artist (he pretends that they do not, in fact, carry emotion) or that he is confounded by the evocative nature of his imagery and must solve the “problem” of eliminating it. An assumption that explains more of the facts (and gives the artist more credit) is that the response provoked by the work of art approximates what the artist desired.

The level of magnitude achieved in the art of Newman, or Reinhardt or Stella testifies that while the quality of esthetic response can be purified by reductive form, it is not diminished, and it would seem to be the nature of this purified esthetic response desired by the artist that should capture the viewer’s or critic’s attention rather than the nature of the reductive forms employed to achieve it.

Perhaps the closest thing to the precise quality of response that Stella has structured his art to attain is the Geometric vase. Our response to the muted, inchoate rectilinearism of the Geometric period is conditioned by a sense of great reductive purity. The temerity of invention, the measured hesitancy of innovation, the careful clearing of ground, gathering of extraordinary energies conveyed by the great works of the period provoke in us a response roughly equivalent to the response Stella’s dogged rectilinearism seems structured to call forth. The point is not that Stella’s work should be identified with Geometric vases, but only that Stella does seem to be interested in provoking a certain kind of response and that one way of describing this kind of response is by suggesting that it is not unlike the kind evoked by the Geometric vase. Indeed, that quickened sense of imminent rebirth that gives its drama to the seemingly obliterative art of the period seems to be the enveloping atmosphere of a considerable number of artists currently at work, especially in sculpture, and perhaps it will not be long before the puzzling, stubborn repetition of essential shapes will be seen for the extraordinarily momentous art that it is.

Philip Leider