PRINT December 1976

Frank Stella’s New Work: A Personal Note

FRANK STELLA’S NEW FULL-TILT painted constructions appeared as a deliberate provocation of his audience and its expectations. His show at Knoedler served as a daring and spirited preemptive strike on a becalmed art scene, as well as another coup-de-grace to ’60s formalism, to which, of course, he contributed so much. One hesitates to imagine the effect of these bizarre, hybrid works on the remaining shrunken garrison of orthodox color field and Minimalist painters, clinging to dicta about flatness and the evils of tonal contrasts. Everyone I talked to, even if they hated the show, or withheld opinion, admitted that something startling had happened: almost everyone admired its energy. Energy is an infectious quality—it signifies the presence of life. Amongst the large numbers of semimoribund reductive paintings and Conceptual works being shown currently, one felt happy at Knoedler’s, whatever one’s ultimate reservations. Between Stella’s bombastic and rococo theatrics and, say, Brice Marden’s darkling, monotonous mumble, one knew immediately where the action was.

I first saw Stella’s paintings, the black ones, at the Modern in 1959, in Dorothy Miller’s “Sixteen Americans” exhibition. Basically I disliked them. Abstract Expressionism was winding down, and though I was, in my own work, looking for something cooler, more stable, more orderly, I was reluctant to give up the fervid New York energy that quivered in every Kline and Pollock and de Kooning. I resented Stella’s alternative, his sacrifice of this rich emotional resource. In a way, his work recalled my feelings about Ad Reinhardt’s paintings as opposed to, say, Mark Rothko’s: Reinhardt’s predictable smoke was a minor event next to Rothko’s irregular fire. Stella’s logical 1-2-3 method of constructing a work seemed less rewarding than the basically automatist procedures I was following. Every artist I knew and respected relied on automatist beginnings; it was a common denominator shared by an entire generation of artists, however disparate their final images.

The “Sixteen Americans” catalogue included Hollis Frampton’s glamorous photograph of Stella; it was surprisingly different from the artists’ photographs I was used to. The Abstract Expressionists were usually photographed looking strung-out and sullen in paint-splotched tee-shirts and dungarees, sitting or leaning awkwardly in unclean studios. 1959 was a Beatnik year. People still talked about bohemians, a bohemian, in Franz Kline’s definition, being a person who could live in a place where an animal would die. But Stella was photographed standing against an Avedon-white background, wearing a button-down shirt and a stockbroker’s suit. His posture was nonchalant Madison Avenue contrapposto, one hand resting casually in his pocket. The complete image—the man and his work—presented a world of neatness and regularity and self-containment that now, in retrospect, seems light-years away from the chaotic razzle-dazzle of Stella’s current world. He has become almost a different artist.

Between the black paintings and the present, Stella continued his careful, even cautious strategies. In the eccentric polygons, for example, he decided upon a shape and its internal configuration, and then made four versions of each, changing only the colors. This procedure had a precedent in the “Homage to the Square” series of Josef Albers; within a rigid, controlling framework, spontaneous and peculiar color choices are made. This was, of course, a step up in complexity from the earlier uniformly colored but shape-varied metallic works. In the “Protractor” series the silhouette holds, but both internal configuration (drawing) and color choices are varied. The movement is from an iron-clad grip on narrow materials, to ever-more open, more choice-ridden, and more internally disjunctive works. And now, in the present show, Mies van der Rohe is turning into Gaudi.

Stella’s current preoccupations began to surface two years ago. The scribbled-on metal reliefs shown at Castelli were alarming in the issue posed of sculpture defaced. But the reliefs, like the fabric and cardboard constructions which preceded them, were still rectilinear, and the aluminum and steel were more powerful as sculpture than as painting. These last two modes have now been dropped. Curves—mad French curves and ships’ knees and boomerangs and six-foot commas—now co-exist with huge metal rectangles, tilted in almost a parody of Cubism. Stella’s locked-in caution has utterly vanished. The huge curved pieces function as protagonists on a baroque stage, as if a family of Borromini’s volutes are performing in pastel tights. Because the color . . . what can I say? The color is perhaps the most outrageous element in the entire cacophony. The metal has been etched, sprayed, brushed, and covered with sparkles; the pure aluminum reliefs have been attacked with a vengeance, as if an East Harlem street gang has beset a brand new subway car. The colors are everything gaudy you can get in a can or a tube. The old Stella reticence is only noticeable in the fact that each metal part has its own hue, its own surface and stroke.

Last year I saw two smallish over-the-couch metal reliefs of Stella’s at Castelli’s, in the back room. He had not touched the immaculate metal with a single mark or color. They looked elegant and uninteresting, reminding me of the late-’30s Cubism of people like Laurens or Severini. Stella also must have harbored reservations about them, for subsequently he launched his frontal attack, building complexity by adding an entirely new system of aggressive paint application. The central modernist issue is, I believe, the collage esthetic, involving internal co-existence, the juxtaposition of often disjunctive material, and the presence of systems in a single work, rather than system.

Stella’s new work is not only a collage-construction technically, but a grandiose attempt to conjoin the preoccupations and practices of the major 20th-century art movements in a vast historical collage. The tilting planes of the metal armatures are Cubist, while their surface embellishment is Abstract-Expressionist. In fact, the styles of paint application in single works bring to mind different artists, as if Stella had had the magical collaboration of, say, Bradley Tomlin, James Brooks and Jackson Pollock. (There is a sense in which the mix of objects, shapes and scribbles, carried along above the emotional turbulence, reminds me of Pollock’s early Mexican-Surrealist-Cubist works, like the She-Wolf and the psychoanalytic drawings.)

The unsurpassed vulgarity of Stella’s color invokes a para-industrial Disneyland of appalling reality. Pop art, by comparison, seems arty and restrained, though memory traces of Lichtenstein’s Art Deco satires and Warhol’s pastel-garish color are invoked. The brew is rich indeed. Someone once asked Louis Armstrong who was the better trumpet player, Bobby Hackett or Billy Butterfield. “Bobby Hackett,” said Louis. “He has more ingredients.” By this standard, Stella is our finest artist. But here, of course, looms the problem. It is true that more is more often more than less is, but it does not follow that most is best. Richness and complexity easily shade into confusion and noise. Stella managed, by trying so much, a startling emotional overkill.

The problem of hyperactivity in his work is deepened in a peculiar way by an opposite notion: that it is, finally, so carefully deliberate. I felt I was being subtly manipulated by all the effects. A number of artists said that the work seemed theatrical, a reaction caused, I believe, by the sense one had of violence having been so precisely measured out.

Once one has absorbed the vulgarity of the color, the emotional facture of the paint, and the massiveness of the sculptural forms, one begins to imagine the steps in which the piece was built. First, a maquette for the aluminum structure would have to be made. Phone calls would follow, engineers would be consulted. Then the metal relief would be fabricated, and fabricated elegantly. The vocabulary of shapes in each is not infinite—it is surprisingly narrow: the two or three large, tilted rectangles; the long, sagging “stripes” of consistent width; a small number of large, eccentrically curving, commalike shapes; and an occasional odd, Arp-like section is included. After the delivery to the studio, one pictures, hanging there, a shiny, highly complex, highly formal, given situation. Stella, then, approaches each part separately, with a separate, specific color scheme and system of attack. His method in a crucial sense is closer to silkscreen than to the painterly wholeness of the Abstract-Expressionists it superficially invokes. And over all hangs the ominous cloud of historicism and eclecticism.

Motherwell once said that the two poles of art-making were masturbation and engineering; between the two the art got made. Stella remains the engineer, despite the heavy expressionist camouflage. Having said all this I still believe this recent Stella show is his most provocative yet, and, for me, by far his most interesting. I can easily accept the super-charged turbulence of the new work, preferring, as I do, movement to inertia. Stella’s substitution of a calculated, generalized restlessness for an achieved harmony is a problem that can work itself out. The central issue for me is the shift in Stella’s ambition which these new works embody. The idea of merging all the major art movements is an amazing goal, one that is all the more startling in a time of reductive esthetics which espouse the small thing done perfectly. Stella has progressively abandoned the safety of narrow, predictable systems for the unknown territory of the freely chosen, the open, and the obsessive. For a number of years the idea of a grand synthesis has been my goal, too, so I am well aware of its difficulties. There must be no inauthentic parts, and no disturbing historical quotes. One’s handwriting must remain one’s own.

Stella, however, has added unnecessarily to these already immense problems; he has tried to marry the fully sculptural to the thoroughly painterly. The two media are not contrasted, but rather the one is laid atop the other, as if Philip Guston had been asked to embellish a Brancusi. The result is more akin to obfuscation than to elucidation, the skin of one animal being stretched over the bones of another. The solution, perhaps, may lie in juxtaposing sculpture and painting in a single work while analogies between the parts create invisible linkages. At any rate, that’s Stella’s problem, and I’ll be watching with interest.

Budd Hopkins is a painter who shows at the Lerner-Heller gallery.