New York

Frank Stella

Frank Stella’s new paintings continue to simplify and enlarge aspects of the protractor and compass series. They appear to reject an earlier “eccentricity” of format to favor regularly shaped rectangular supports or simple lunette-shaped canvases. Although the support may be of simpler configuration, the system whereby it was generated is perhaps not so simple as it may first appear, nor is it without complex side effects. The shape of the present support results from the play of circle and square interlockings and overlappings. This last feature is noteworthy in Stella’s evolution, as it supposes a spatial premise with regard to the circle or the square sections, either before or behind one another. The simple shape of the support results from the coincidence of the diameter of the protractor image with the perpendiculars of the edges of the canvas. The width of the bands of color are also wider.

The minute inclinations toward abstract illusionism are a striking feature of Stella’s new canvases, as this option must be seen in radical opposition to the committed two-dimensionality of the earlier work. Illusionist clues are visible, for example, in the slightly twisted interior rectangles described by visually linking the inner edges (more properly, the unpainted canvas “paths” between the colored bands), or in the tab-like centers of the doubled squares and circles of Tahkt-l-Sulayman, Variation I.

Oddest of all, perhaps, is that Stella’s color suddenly seems perplexing. The range of hue is wide, of a Gauguin-like diversity, and yet, despite this range, they remain curiously Jansenist, static and withholding. The color, perhaps because the bands are now so wide, and the image so strong, has very much the same “obtuse” feel of the color of Kandinsky’s Paris period. Stella’s color is flat and non-luminous and seems to run countercurrent to the surging dynamic principles by which the structures and configurations had been achieved. In this kind of willful, chastened sensuousness one must also think of the Matisse murals for the Barnes Foundation (which reject color) as a precedent. What I am trying to get at is that these famous murals on the theme of the Dance entirely reject the coloristic effusiveness which the huge Fauve canvases on the theme had first consciously exploited. Matisse, in 1931, suggests a model against which Stella, nearly 40 years later, may be measuring himself. Like the Matisse of the Barnes Foundation murals, his work is also heroic and muralizing, also predicated on sharpened principles derived from earlier achievements of pure pleasure and comparative lyricism. Through a severer application of these qualities Stella may be transforming his work toward a new, majestically decorative vision.

Robert Pincus-Witten