New York

Frank Stella

Frank Stella’s move away from a surface of continuous parallel stripes echoing the shape of the Support to the paintings, as shown in his current show at Castelli Gallery can be seen both as a development of the implications of his recent work and as a negation of one aspect of that very production. That is to say, Stella’s new paintings address themselves in part to the problem raised by the increasingly complex and convincing illusion of the picture’s surface as literally folded and sectioned—an illusion which finally in the last of the striped paintings came perilously near to suggesting that the picture was really an object that billowed away from the wall and lifted itself, or parts of its surface, literally into the viewer’s space. The extension of sections of the canvas into an actual, sculptural event which occurs in real space has been the object of various artists recently, among them Lee Bontecou, Richard Smith and Charles Hinman. This is a move which Stella very obviously finds unmeaningful and which his present work ultimately criticizes.

The present show contains seven of the eleven shapes which Stella has developed over the past year. Almost all of the shapes develop from a normal picture rectangle, that is, include three or more sides which meet at right-angles to each other. But the rectangular shape is never allowed to complete itself; instead the stretcher is bent out from the partially closed rectangle at a series of angles to make the total surface a highly irregular polygon. The fields which develop within the resulting complex shape are flat areas of either epoxy or Day-glo paint, delineated and bounded by a stripe of considerably contrasting value, a stripe which is about eight inches wide. The planes which result within the picture are deduced in part by the painting’s literal shape but in turn influence the structure in the interior of the picture field. For example, Conway I is composed from a near rectangular shape broken by a 30°-60° parallelogram which develops downward from the work’s lower edge. A magenta stripe moves along the left side of the canvas, then across the entire lower edge, binding the rectangle and parallelogram together. Inside, the vertical magenta stripe and light grey band follows its descent down the left side of the painting, but then bends away to form the upper half of the parallelogram implied by the shape of the canvas edge but not given by it or rather not totally given by it. There is a mutual response then, between the stripes, developed from the edge, which define the interior divisions and the shapes of those same interior divisions which, also based on the edge, determine the path of the bands within the interior field of the painting.

The shapes developed in this way continue both the rigor and the import of the deductive structure of the earlier striped paintings. The interlocking of colored bands and colored shapes is controlled by and occurs on the flat surface of the picture—a surface given new coloristic resonance by the often muffled tones of the epoxy hues and the opulence of fluorescent alkyds or Day-glo colors. (Stella is able to thoroughly integrate these colors into his palette and for the first time to use them as color rather than as a kind of freakish event. They do not jump off the surface but remain completely imbedded within it and simply offer the eye a startlingly rich and peculiarly impalpable field of color.) But within the terms of this flatness is the development of an illusion similar to, but in one way less problematic than, that of the folded-plane effect of the late striped works. This is the illusion that the pictures are folding or buckling (alternately convexly or concavely along the same interior division) into three-dimensional objects—that is, the paintings offer once more the illusion of sculpture. It is an illusion that informs and is informed by the flatness of the picture and that opens up to the viewer a voluptuous and moving experience of color.

But most importantly the illusionistic character of these works is not confused by the literal quality of the late striped paintings. This literalness involved not simply a palpable change in value or in the shading of sides of implied folded planes, but an actual change as the viewer shifted his position in front of the work. Since the value differentiations were developed from changes in facture, a new vantage-point with regard to the work could create a new relationship between light and dark sides, and thus the picture operated with regard to the spectator’s moves almost as a full-blown sculpture would. Stella’s new works eliminate this literalness and instead address themselves to the adumbration and hence the illusiveness of vision—a vision which wishes to know the objects presented to it, from experiences of touch as well as from sight, but which will always know them only piece-meal. The poignance of this wish is imbedded in Stella’s work which gives the painting to the viewer in terms of a sublimely present and intellectually graspable whole, but always retains the illusiveness and the illusion which we recognize from our experience with real things.

Rosalind Krauss