PRINT December 1967

Frank Stella’s New Paintings

ONE THING IS, I THINK, true of both Stella’s newest paintings and the asymmetrically shaped canvases which he exhibited last year—that they are fallible in a way that Stella’s paintings have never been before. This is not a statement about the relative quality of the paintings—in fact, I think certain paintings from Stella’s newest series are the finest he has ever made—it is a descriptive statement about the general tenor of the paintings. Within the terms of Stella’s work, both series manifest a new kind of flexibility which somehow provides the latitude for a painting to emerge more conspicuously as a success or a failure, or even to succeed in parts. Not only are the distinctions between paintings which succeed or fail more conspicuous with Stella’s latest series of paintings, but in my experience of them anyway, because one is distinctly moved by one and less or not at all by another, there is more point in discussing them in these terms and in making qualitative distinctions.

With Stella’s work prior to the asymmetrical canvases from 1966, it has seemed to me that qualitative distinctions have been almost meaningless, or at least irrelevant in the face of the extraordinary completeness and succinctness with which Stella had presented a set of decisions. If Stella’s art amounted to no more than this, it would not carry the weight that it unquestionably does; what makes it so difficult to come to terms with, at least for me, is the feeling of uncertainty on looking at a painting as to whether it is the absolute authority which the painting represents that persuades and moves one, or the beauty of the thing itself (I am here thinking particularly of Stella’s symmetrically-shaped striped canvases). There is, in a sense, such a dislocation between the actualness, almost the practicalness, of the painting, and that which is affecting about it, that I would be aware of myself shifting between states of mind; being awed by the fact of the painting, its coherence, and the kind of immutable authority which constructs this fact, or else tentatively yielding to the strangeness and beauty of what it is I’m actually seeing. Never far from my mind, however, is the feeling that what I am yielding to is something that is at once utterly arbitrary, and yet not so because of the coercive logic with which it is constructed. I am here encapsulating a diffuse and fluctuating feeling, something that almost every critic who writes on Stella touches on in one way or another. My reason for stating it is that the feeling, which was for me so uniquely, often obtrusively, a part of the experience of looking at Stella’s earlier striped paintings, is significantly less a part of the experience of looking at his latest paintings.

To put it bluntly, with Stella’s most recent series of paintings I am less caught up by a peripheral awareness that what I see issues explicitly from the artist’s choice and from the restraints of his mind and hand. What I see with these paintings seems to be at a further remove from the artist. On a purely visual level, much more is happening, and is happening ungovernably, not wildly, as this might imply, but certain of the paintings have a vivid, almost clamorous beauty to them. They seem to declare themselves in a much more instantly arresting way, and in a way that is altogether different from Stella’s earlier work. There are several distinct changes in their makeup which account in part for this difference. In the order of their impact, color, I think, is the most instantly arresting. Stella is now predominantly using Day-Glo paints; by tinting certain of them with white, he has introduced a new range of pastel colors which have a peculiarly feverish gleam and pallor. He applies the paint thinly so that the substance is reduced to an absolute minimum, and there is almost no reflecting gloss as there was in his series of asymmetrically-shaped canvases last year. The effect of the colors is that of a kind of spectral luminosity, and in this sense the eye is caught by the sheer brightness of the color before it perceives the way in which color is deployed. This adjustment reveals a complexity of design which is at once compellingly lucid, and also compellingly evasive of comprehension. It is on attempting to make design decipherable, to make it conform to some unifying principle, that the scale of the paintings and their actual shapes fully emerge. Fully emerge is, however, a flatly inadequate description of the kind of fused interlacing and the flux and inflection which is set up in certain of these paintings between the surface articulation and the actual shape of the canvas.

Ostensibly there is nothing indefinable about the paintings; that is, there is nothing there which does not patently and insistently have its basis in fact, as does everything in Stella’s art. When I said that these paintings, as opposed to his striped paintings, make themselves felt at a further remove from the artist, I meant this evocatively. Yet, as I have schematically outlined, there are obvious factors which partially account for this: Stella’s complete break with the symmetry of the striped paintings, his choice of an extremely high-key scale of color, and an increased intricacy of the surface design. But this “remove” can, I think, be further accounted for by the fact that in this series Stella has begun to work much more explicitly within the neutral confines of permutation. On an obvious level, the principle of permutation introduces a wide array of possible configurations while simultaneously setting up a frame of reference that is, in a sense, at a further remove from the arbitrariness of direct choice. Thus, and this is important, a particular, stated kind of autonomy and cohesiveness is automatically conferred on the paintings, not only as a series, but also on each individual painting. (Only Darby Bannard’s paintings from the past two years come to mind as exploring and exploiting this area with anything like the rigor and effectiveness of Stella’s paintings.)

To lend precision to the discussion which follows it is necessary to go into the make-up of these paintings in some detail. With the new series Stella is combining two constants: a basic canvas format—a tondo to which he adds half and/or quarter circles—and a set of three units of design relating elliptically to the circle—a unit of concentric protractor shapes, and two fan shapes, one containing concentric arcs, the other radial spokes. The series comprises eighteen paintings in all and it breaks down into six basic canvas formats, each of which is repeated three times in combination with one of the three sets of design. Thus, Sinjerli I is a tondo combined with the protractor designs, and Sinjerli II is a tondo combined with fan shapes containing concentric arcs—the roman numeral denoting the particular unit of design. (The titles for the different formats are based on names of ancient Near Eastern cities built on a circular plan.)

In certain of these paintings Stella departs from what I have described as the neutral confines of permutation, introducing almost imperceptible violations and denials of the principle, and this lends them a seemingly impenetrable intricacy and density. One such denial, which applies to all the paintings and is vital to all of them, is Stella’s use of color. Although the units of design remain constant throughout the paintings, the colors which make them up are applied unsystematically varying within each unit and from one painting to another. The effect of permutation is multiple, pervasive and layered; in different but crucial ways it affects the formal qualities of these paintings, setting them apart from the earlier striped canvases and the asymmetrically shaped canvases of last year, and it is this aspect of Stella’s latest paintings’ that I want to explore here.

To start with generalities and move to the particular: with Stella’s earlier symmetrical striped paintings, one is more or less compelled to see them as a single, unified entity. The stripes which go to make up a given canvas form an indivisible part of the whole; they seem to be both the generating force which dictates the shape of the canvas and part of the substance of the painting (and as such, as many have observed, they reinforce the object quality of the painting). With the latest paintings, the most successful ones at least, the surface design appears simultaneously to dictate the shape of the canvas and also to be possessed of a separable, vital life. This is accentuated and reinforced by a kind of latent recognition that the combinations of surface design—however intricate and inextricably overlaid—and the actual shape of the canvas both have to do with the circle. I say latent recognition because the individual designs are rarely combined in a configuration which instantly allows one to perceive and recognize their literal, generic relationship to the circular shape of the canvas. And vice versa, the particular curves, straight edges and angles of the actual shape of the canvas seem inexorably derived from the particular formation of the surface designs. In this sense, with the most successful paintings, a particular set of surface designs, combined with a particular canvas format, provides an experience which is utterly unrecognizable as anything but that instantaneous visual fact before one.1

That the overt recognition of a particular design is disruptive to the experience of these paintings is, I think, proved by a number of them, especially Sabra III, in which a set of designs combined with a particular format suddenly makes one see the painting for what it is, a strange shaped canvas (in the case of Sabra III, the fusion of two half-circles whose diameters form two sides of a square) containing three seemingly unrelated forms (fan-shaped segments, one of which is a fused combination of two fan-shapes making an awkward seeming quadrilateral). The depicted design and the actual shape of the canvas are suspended in a curiously disjunctive state of inexpressiveness. One recognizes the logic of the overall combination—the elliptical relation of the fan-shapes to the crescent-shaped edges of the canvas—but seeing it on this level makes the painting seem merely artful, and spare in a contrived way. What the painting offers on a purely visual level is, as I have said, strange in the extreme. I found myself overwhelmingly aware of the painting’s silhouette and of the incongruity of its perfectly symmetrical “buttocks”—the two shallow crescents of the fused semicircles which make up the format.

There is a spurious aspect to this discussion, in that it relies on a knowledge of what is after all no more than an artist’s method of working. Yet, as I have already stressed, Stella’s decision to create a series of paintings based on the combination of two constants—that is, a basic canvas format and a basic set of designs—does affect the formal quality of these paintings in subtle but crucial ways. Perhaps the most elusive and also the most unsettling of these qualities is that sense of an automatic cohesiveness and autonomy which each and every one of the paintings in this series possess. If one feels, as I do, that certain of these paintings are the finest Stella has made, one has nevertheless to contend with what it is that takes them beyond the inconsequentiality of automatic resolution. By automatic resolution I mean the sense of a tailored neatness and lucidity with which the units of design and the actual shape of the canvas fit together and add up. It is striking, for instance, that with Stella’s series of asymmetrically-shaped canvases there is never a moment in looking at a painting when the depicted shapes are clearly seen to relate to the asymmetrical outline of the canvas. The particular asymmetry of each shaped canvas has, in a sense, to depend upon the efficacy of the depicted geometrical forms to deny the arbitrariness of the outline, and to possess and give it life. Yet, as Michael Fried has pointed out in an article on these paintings, one can never know the shapes of these canvases “as experienced wholes.”2 In order to experience these paintings at all, one has to have, I think, an implicit faith in their apparent quality of unresolve. There is never the latent recognition that what one is seeing is all inextricably part of a whole; a painting from this series never “adds up” in the way that Stella’s latest paintings do.

In order for a painting from the latest series to succeed, it seems safe to say that it has to go beyond the purely elliptical relations that automatically obtain between the shape of the canvas and the surface designs (Sabra III as I have already mentioned, fails for this reason, and the same is true, I think, of both Sinjerli III and Abra III). A painting has also, on the basis of my experience of them, in some way to transcend the inherent design or pattern character of the depicted shapes. The essence of the depicted shapes in these paintings is precisely their quality of design, of a constant unit of design that can be combined. However, I judge Sabra III to fail in pictorial terms precisely because one inescapably sees the three separable units of design as being flatly that, and nothing else. And this in turn makes one see, with a sense almost of irritation, the edge of the canvas as being curved. Yet, with Sabra I, the very same shaped canvas combined with another set of designs (in this case overlaid protractor shapes) offers an experience of a totally different kind—each burnished, interwoven arc declaring itself, and, as a seemingly inevitable consequence, the shape of the canvas—with an expressiveness that I can only describe as being at once consummately precise, yet complex in a full and sensuous way. What one is seeing here is, in a sense, the transformation of the identifiable design quality into something else, that is, this particular combination of designs and actual shape fires one with the exhilarating certainty that the fused arcs of color are actually interlaced, that the blaze and radiance of the colored arcs provide actual space for each to be spliced across and under the other. The two shallow crescents of the edge of the canvas, which in Sabra III seem disquietingly organic and bulging, in Sabra I seem naturally to derive their shapes from the two outermost arcs. Moreover, the ease and naturalness with which the outermost arcs possess and give definition to the outline of the canvas lends absolute naturalness to the illusory interlacing of the inner concentric arcs.3

If the impact of these paintings could be explained by the degree to which the design quality of the depicted shapes was transformed, giving way to a vivid and natural-seeming illusionism, their success would be an easy matter. Yet this explanation does not satisfy—the protractor designs, for instance, reduced to their barest bones in the tondo Sinjerli I, make a painting of extraordinarily sustained power and beauty. Sinjerli I also refutes any assumption that the success of the painting is dependent upon the degree of visual complexity resulting from the combinations of design.

These paintings do, I think, invite facile explanations, in part because they have to them that disturbing quality of automatic resolution which, once sensed or seen, is difficult to get beyond. That is, they offer a fuller and more complex experience in purely pictorial terms than anything hitherto created by Stella. However, it is a complexity of a kind which, on one level, can be easily unravelled and understood. It is a complexity, as I have already said, which can be reduced to its barest bones and then step by step be built up into an almost impenetrable intricacy. It is hard, sensing this, to yield to these paintings, but to do so is to discover their unique beauty.

Jane Harrison Cone



1. Seeing one depicted shape among several as being a recognizable shape—i.e. something like a triangle, or a trapezoid and the effect that this recognition has on one’s experience a painting, is a question which Michael Fried raises and discusses in his extraordinarily fine article, Shape As Form: Frank Stella’s New Paintings, Artforum, V:3, pp. 18–27. I want here to acknowledge that my discussion of shape in Stella’s latest paintings owes a great deal to Fried’s insights, and in general the issues that Fried raises and discusses in his article have sharpened my seeing and have revealed aspects that I might never have seen.

2. Ibid. p. 25.

3. I want to draw attention to Fried’s discussion of illusionism in Stella’s asymmetrically-shaped canvases in Shape as Form: Frank Stella’s New Paintings, ibid. See also Barbara Rose’s recent article Abstract Illusionism, Artforum, VI:2, pp. 33–37, in which she discusses Stella’s work along with that of Ron Davis, Bannard and Olitski.