PRINT December 1971

Stella’s New Work and the Problem of Series

ALTHOUGH FRANK STELLA’S NEW PAINTINGS are drawn from a series he is even now in the process of executing—13 shapes with three versions of each shape—the works themselves are deeply marked by questions about the viability of the very notion of painting in series. For, first of all, the new pictures are composed of an interlace of exceedingly irregular geometries which do not seem to be the functions of a master idea or generatrix, as were, say, the integers in the Protractor Series; so that there is in this set of paintings neither the systemic relationship between external shapes that one felt in the Protractor Series, nor the kind of “family resemblance” of shape that obtained in Stella’s earlier runs of pictures. Secondly, each of the three variations of a given external shape are more disjunct, both figuratively and literally, than they have ever been before. This is true literally, because two of the versions are worked out in a collage of textures (including felt, vinyl, and painted canvas), and the third in low, planar relief. And it holds figuratively, because in some of the versions, the internal divisions of a given member of the series are treated so differently from version to version that the coherence implicit in the very idea of “version” is drained off of one’s experience of the works. Thirdly, this loss (intentional loss) of continuity with the mode of painting-in-series is doubly internalized by the pictures themselves. The physical break between one texture and the next or between one level and its neighbor, disrupts the literal continuity of the picture surface; and more crucially, a type of illusionism is at work within the members of this series which tends to disrupt a quality which has been central to modernist paintings until now: namely, the singleness-or wholeness-of-aspect of painting itself.

All of this suggests that Stella is now attempting to establish for himself a new medium within which to work, and if this does not quite mean abandoning the idea of conceiving in series, it means continuing to do so only as the ground of coherence on which to assail the very nature and idea of series. This juncture in Stella’s career calls to mind for me the occurrence in 1951 of Pollock’s reorientation of his own medium: the dense multicolored skeins of his classic pictures suddenly supplanted by loose figurations of thinned black paint which he bled or stained into unprimed, white canvas. Why Pollock chose to do this is still a question, but the consequences of his choice suggest parallels with what is happening now in Stella’s art. Two of these consequences are that the large majority of the paintings executed in the post-1951 medium were among the weakest of Pollock’s mature career and that the medium itself was nonetheless incredibly suggestive to other painters—namely Frankenthaler, Louis, and Noland—and thus the works themselves must be seen as generative even in their relative weakness. Stella’s new work is likewise engaged in questioning the very source of success in his earlier painting, a process which has left these new pictures largely enfeebled and unresolved. Yet, given Stella’s stature as a painter, the fact that these pictures open onto the problematic nature of working in series—and the way that they pose the problem—are issues that I want to situate within the general concerns of recent painting.

Nearly all modernist painters of the last two decades (Hofmann is the only exception that comes to mind) worked in series. In the writings of modernist critics like Greenberg and Fried, the rationale for this has been linked with the task of disengaging the enterprise of painting from the kinds of internal choice that characterize description and narration. The idea of series is thus coupled with the fact that at some point in time major painters felt and responded to the inauthenticity of a kind of composition (relating parts, balancing objects, opposing vectors) which was like making judgments or propositions about the world at large, and sought instead to find a medium which would be both about this object—the painting—and about painting in general.1 Once the medium was found—whether it was pouring rivulets of paint, spraying colors into one another, centering concentric circles of color—it both permitted the generation of a series of objects made through that medium, and demanded it. Demanded, because insofar as the creation of the medium was tied to the nature of painting generally, it was tied to the need for painting itself to signify. And this would entail a kind of deepening of the meaning through reiteration that a single statement could not achieve. To use a very crude analogy, the medium was like a code by which meaning could be intentionally sent and comprehensibly received; so its success as a code was vested in successive operations. One can imagine a situation where a listener, without the existence of a code, hears a cluster of blips and divines that it is a message and even (correctly) divines what the message is. But it would be very hard to know how to view such an occurrence; and one would probably feel that this was indeed a case of divination rather than understanding—which is to say that in the case of that kind of one-shot meeting-of-minds it is impossible to speak of a code. Rather, the existence of the code must be grounded in an idea of language which permits a successive generation of meanings. This is not to imply that if Noland, for example, had only painted one target, it would have been a bad painting. Simply, that one would not have known how to take it, and that only by achieving the series of targets through the successive functioning of the medium, could Noland ground the intentionality of his meaning and of meaning itself.2

The series, then, operated as a ground against which the medium became visible. But by the mid-sixties one began to see, in this situation, a kind of figure-ground reversal. Because, for the painters—particularly Noland and Stella—who used shaped canvases within which internal divisions of the surface were regularized in relation to those shapes, the medium itself began to look like serialization. In 1967 this became unmistakably true for Stella once the Protractor Series embodied a working method in the permutation of a single module (the half-circle) and a set of internal divisions based on that module (the fans, rainbows, and interlaces). And once one’s medium is serialization, one has reached a condition which is itself inimical to the existence of painting.

Why this should be so was the subject of an earlier article in Artforum3 in which I claimed that serialization involves a withering away of the viewer’s sense of copresence with the work of art at hand, or, in Walter Benjamin’s terms, a destruction of the sense of aura. That these are the conclusions that are there to be drawn from serialization is a fact to which the phenomenon of Conceptual art testifies. For Conceptual art wishes to transform the work of art into a simple token of a master idea, the way various printings of a poem are tokens of what we would call the poem itself.4 And this involves delivering up the notion of a medium into the arms of Media.

That this is inimical to painting itself is clear from the following passage by a philosopher who is anxious to incorporate the notion of working-in-series into the theory of modernism, and to do so makes the claim that each work in a series insists on its copresence with the viewer because “each instance of the medium is an absolute realization of it; each totally eclipses the others.” He goes on to tie this assertion to the notion of painting as such:

In its absolute difference and absolute connection with others, each instance of a series maintains the haecceity (the sheer that-ness) of a material object, without the need of its substance. Perhaps this quality is something minimal art wants to convey. But modernist paintings acknowledge it, so that I must respond to it, if I am to know it, by acknowledging my own haecceity, that my existence is inescapable from my presentness. In response to minimal art I am deployed, dematerialized, unindentifiable; the moment is not grounded, but etherealized; the momentous is not defeated, but landscaped. In response to modernist painting, I am concentrated, finitized, incarnate.5

But if, given serialization, we feel that we are not copresent with the “picture,” that indeed the idea of it and the multiple serial developments which support the burgeoning of that idea, are somewhere else (and my own experience of serial painting is what I rely on to claim that this is the case), then the haecceity of the work of art is not maintained. And then what is being acknowledged is not one’s own and the painting’s position in space and time, but a metaphysicalizing of the situation which is indeed beyond painting.

It seems to me that this is a predicament which Stella felt himself to be in near the end of the Protractor Series, and accounts for his resorting to square or rectangular formats for works like Ile à La Crosse, 1969, and River of Ponds, 1969: in which the vocabulary of the interlace is forced into the perimeters of a more conventional picture shape.

In his new paintings, Stella totally gives up permutation and, as I tried to describe at the outset, begins to undermine both the appearance and affect of the series. What is more, he deploys shape in such a way as to suggest a focus for the works at or near their centers. (This is particularly true of Chodorow, Odelsk, and Narowla.)6 Such centering is a strategy that works against the grain of an extendable or permutable idea which an unfocused or centrifugal arrangement tends to sponsor. Further, although there is a strenuous reduction of actual paint on their surfaces (in favor of collage and relief textures), Stella gives to these works the hallmarks of painterliness: changes of facture (texture) and disruption of local color by shading (cast-shadow). Both this new painterliness and new sense of focus tend to centralize the experience of the painting in the work at hand, which is to say in one’s copresence with it.

In the two best paintings in the exhibition, namely Odelsk I and Chodorow I, Stella also has recourse to a kind of illusionism which more directly signifies the terms of copresence. Beyond the splay of small, irregular shapes and color areas of Odelsk, one feels the existence of two major shapes: an equilateral triangle and a parallelogram, the first penetrating from above into the field of the second. Both of these shapes are given elliptically, since 1) the perimeters of the painting do not complete the boundaries of either one; 2) the internal divisions of the surface only partially sponsor one’s perception of the shapes; and 3) the color through which the shapes are manifested is not constant for any one shape. (The triangle in Odelsk is broken by a white bar above which the triangle is brown with an internal band of maroon, and below which it is a kind of flesh tone. The parallelogram is a field of green-black which at a point past the tip of the triangle becomes in its turn the same flesh tone as the triangle.)

But it is the nascent illusionism of the picture which puts pressure on and gives meaning to this fragmentation. To the (viewer’s) left of the tip of the triangle is an angled T-form of gray and blue which is not quite parallel with the white bar cutting across the triangle higher up in the painting. Together, the gray form and the white bar set up the suggestion of convergence at a point off and to the right of the painting. This, coupled with the way the gray T-form presents itself as the shaded side and cast shadow of the triangle understood as a slab, forces an intermittent reading of the triangle as turned away from the plane of the wall, and therefore oblique to the picture surface. Its tilt appears, when it does appear, to be not only along the vertical axis of the figure but along the horizontal axis as well.

This is the situation which I referred to earlier as the disruption of the singleness-of-aspect of the painting. Because it suddenly appears in Odelsk as if the picture—like an object—had several facets or aspects, not all of which face the viewer, so that the painting in some way is not everywhere equally open and simultaneously available to the viewer. Obviously the tension this sets up is with the material substance of the shapes themselves which are primarily given through the edges of the painting and the boundaries of the collage segments: agents which are both, in fact, parallel to the plane of the wall. But if the literal shape of the picture is in fact frontal, the question Stella makes these paintings raise is, what kind of fact is that? And that in turn links to a question which I feel Cubism had posed for painting in general—a question which painters until now have not had to consider.

The question which was posited in certain of Picasso’s key 1911 pictures is: is the painting itself something which is seen in plan or in elevation? Further, is this not a choice between two types of diagrams, neither one of which opens up onto the modality of depth which is our experience of the world? And doesn’t this confusion come from the fact that the painting (like Picasso’s Still Life with Chair Caning which is itself a stand-in for an oval tabletop, its rope frame replicating carved table molding) is a kind of object in the world? If it was the triumph of central point perspective to make moot this question by synthesizing the two orientations (plan and elevation), is it not the burden of abstract painting to found its own coherence on the issue of what kind of orientation is natural to this most unnatural of objects?7

Odelsk and Chodorow posit the question of orientation through the fact of a sense of multiple orientations. This is Stella’s means of making the disjunct pieces of these paintings feel continuous with one another and moreover depend for that continuity on the viewer’s sense of himself or herself situated (uneasily) before that single object, the painting. That is to say, he or she and it are copresent to a situation in which the direction of his or her presence is the challenge that the painting poses. Conversely, in the case of a work like Konskie Ill, the absence of this as a felt question or challenge leaves the matter of establishing continuity up to design, which in every case works to the detriment of these pictures.

Insofar as modernist paintings have insisted on the singleness-of-aspect of painting itself, they have asked us to grasp the work of art with the kind of immediacy with which we experience our own inner states: like pain, for example, the painting was to be understood as a phenomenon that is fully transparent to consciousness. But the lesson that Stella seems to have drawn from his own work with serialization is that as the painting tends toward diagram, it enters the condition of the mathematical formula—both it and the developmental runs it is capable of generating are transparent to consciousness as an abstraction through time, in which both its presence and the viewer’s physical presence to it are no longer part of its meaning. By introducing the problem of orientation into the encounter with the painting, Stella seems to want to ground painting itself in the terms of an experience which is manifestly sensuous.

It is true that the problem of orientation is central to one’s experience of the work of Ron Davis. However, it seems to me that the way a picture by Davis is read is a matter of either/or (either in terms of a coherent, perspectival illusion of a three-dimensional object, or as a flat surface), whereas Stella wants to declare it as a problem inseparable from either reading. To do this he has resorted to a vocabulary of shape which veers towards Synthetic Cubism (late Gris and Laurens in the case of Konskie, and something like Braque’s Clarinet collage of 1913 in the white bar of Odelsk). And because this sharing of style at times appears like stylishness, it works against what appear to be Stella’s serious concerns at present. Those, as I have tried to show, have to do with the reversing of the implications of serialization in an attempt to find new grounds on which to express the fact of copresence.

Rosalind Krauss



1. In, for example, “Ari and Objecthood,” Artforum, Summer 1967, and “Shape as Form,” Artforum, November 1966, Michael Fried discusses the medium of shape. See also his catalog essay on Jules Olitski for the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C., 1967.

2. This, I take it, is what Kenneth Baker also means by his reference to modernism’s “effort to specify certain ways in which meaning can be made and made to persist as meaning.” See “Keith Sonnier,” Artforum, October 1971.

3. In “Pictorial Space and the Question of Documentary,” Artforum, November 1971.

4. See Richard Wollheim, “Minimal Art,” Arts, January 1965, for a discussion of the token.

5. Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed, New York, 1971, p. 117.

6. The names in the series are taken from the names of Polish villages.

7. “Cubism in Los Angeles,” Artforum, February 1971, pp. 32–33.