New York

Frank Stella

Frank Stella had nine relief paintings at Leo Castelli’s during January. These new works, all from 1972, grow out of the late irregularly shaped, juttingly angular—but flat—compositions, although developmentally they seem like forced mutations.

Stella is one of the masters of our time, which sometimes makes change as difficult for us, the audience, as for him, the painter. He is under one obligation to remain satisfactorily himself and under another to keep moving. The question of in just what direction the resultant vector will pull always has a certain urgency. Also, his real achievements are so overwhelming that even disappointing work, in comparison with painting in general, is relatively thrilling.

The new works depend on their closest predecessors, which were thrusting and jagged yet planar, and they diverge severely from them by breaking into a Constructivistic play of disjunct planes. This relation is in itself highly characteristic of Stella, and suggests the game of dominoes, where the sequence of plays proceeds by matching a new “same” end against an old “different” one. Also thoroughly in character is the fact that, for all their ostentatious irregularity, the new paintings fall categorically into three types defined by the degree of disruption of planarity — distinctions which even seem registered in the titles. In Type I (Lipsko I, Bechhofen I) the primary plane is broken only by thin additive planes parallel to it, the modification being so slight as hardly to amount to relief. Type II (Mogielnica II, Glinne II) has a medium deep disposition in which the forms are independent and nonparallel planes. With Type III (Chyrow III, Nasielk III, Janow Sokolski III) we get deeply and almost recklessly thrusting planes. Significantly, only works of Type I retain the long established Stella motif of a thin band left unpainted between areas of color.

The systematic and categorical approach, which is central to Stella’s art, extends here to the individual works, in material if not so apparently in form and color. The entire group makes use of corrugated cardboard, Masonite, and various composition boards, with canvas, felt, flocked paper, and artboard cemented on. There is a tendency for one of the more constructional materials in each work to retain both natural texture and color; as if in analogy and opposition with the applied artificial textures and colors of the finished surfaces. The idea seems to be to change the factors while keeping the overall algebraic formula intact, with this generating system only subliminally evident.

Structurally, there are marked differences between the three types. Type I, with its decorousness and composure, is not far from the polite radicalism of 1930s abstraction, while Type III, with the aggressiveness of its sharp, ripsaw lurches, seems like hard-edge painting gone apeshit. Yet differences as severe as these are submerged by a loud and almost musically atonal clash of colors, textures, and forms — within the single work, between juxtaposed works, and throughout the group. To a certain extent the seeming frivolity of color compounds an outrageousness in the forms, since the result is an object wrenched in Expressionistic torque, but apparently lacking a driving (and therefore unifying) emotion. It is possible, however, that what we have is also a materialized abstract and theoretical idea. Consider that the thorough tonal disunity, especially in combination with the abruptness of form, makes such a work so different from the idea of painted, monochromatic sculpture as almost to be a retaliatory device. This, in turn, may help to explain why the works, despite their contortions, do not call into question the fact that they are paintings. They are not relief sculptures but exploded paintings, still demanding the pictorial perpendicular as the correct angle of approach. Ironically, the spatial ambiguity described by Rosalind Krauss (Artforum, December 1971) in Stella’s paintings of 1971, is eliminated from the new works by their real interplay with actual space. We are now locked even more in the perpendicular approach because of the feeling that the naked supporting structure is not meant to be seen.

Of course, even if the counter-sculptural idea is true, it does not altogether explain the startlingly jumbled character of these paintings, or the visual noisiness of their effect. Yet to the extent that this may be disappointing—when we think of Stella’s greatest masterpieces—it could also be tactically constructive. Here we sit wondering what Stella will do next, musing, maybe, on the fact that change dissociated from development retreats from style into fashion, partly anxious to see the “new model” and partly wishing that Stella’s development could have been arrested at what seemed to be its classic phase. What do we then discover? A decoy into which we can discharge our false expectations which, by its very self-evidence, preserves the larger achievement from compromise. These new works by Stella are in that special sense only a disappointment; but they respond, as well, in the three measured levels of intensity, to the uncouthness of the can-you-top-this attitude.

––Joseph Masheck