New York

Frank Stella

Knoedler Contemporary Art

Frank Stella continues to make paintings that involve a literal equivalent for modernism’s shallow pictorial space. As with his other work of the last couple of years, the new paintings employ a variety of materials, in particular masonite, cardboard, felt, and wood.

To begin with the support, I find it intriguing that during the period in which he’s been making his work in this way, Stella has consistently inserted three layers of corrugated cardboard between the stretcher bars and the surface. The sort of alternation between hard and soft that occurs across the front of these pieces is built into them at the start. Stella’s work has always had to do with the material condition of painting, which is why I bring this up. I mean that Stella has always been ambivalent not only about whether one should perceive painting as an object or an abstraction, but also about the status of painting as a cultural object. Stella, for example, has never used oil paint, and this has always—I think—been understood to be a deliberate choice. (Outside of the period when he couldn’t afford to.) His protractor paintings used a type of paint that caused the dread word “kitsch” to be muttered in some quarters, and the more recent ones seem committed to Bing the colors that are customarily associated with store-bought felt.

Joseph Masheck, in a definitive review of Stella’s last show (Artforum, April, 1973) drew attention to the tendency of his recent work to resemble “the polite radicalism of 1930s abstraction.” The new paintings go even further in this direction. To an extent, the format has been simplified—planes tend not to be broken up within themselves—and the reliance on the vertical axiality that was formerly the case with some of the paintings is now typical of all of them. Even more than previously, these paintings bear a resemblance to the Art Déco-meets-Constructivism look of old cinemas. But unlike the brass sculpture of Roy Lichtenstein which they momentarily suggest, Stella’s paintings don’t remain in the ambience they conjure up.

Conjuring it up in order to overcome it does of course seem to be the point. Stella suggests the tawdry as a means by which to communicate an idea about painting that is, in a sense, the opposite of the automatic access provided by oil paint. Now, Stella’s work suggests, to get at Velázquez through the medium of metallic paint would be too easy. A more insistent banality must be made to intercede between the painting and its viewer, because co-presence with Stella’s art must involve an ever more comprehensive introspection about the assumptions and potentialities of pictorialism. Stella’s enterprise is increasingly revealed as an explicitly moral one, and his identity as an artist consists therefore in the scope of his unparalleled ambivalence.

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe