New York

Frank Stella

Leo Castelli Gallery Downtown

In his new series of painted aluminum reliefs, Frank Stella extends ideas previously explored in his collage relief constructions of 1971–74. But he now tries to force an even greater number of formal issues and contradictions to coexist in the same work. As before, Stella creates a hard-edged version of Abstract Expressionist dynamism with deliberate manipulations of form and color that have no metaphorical intent. The reliefs are therefore intense without being expressive. Though their logic is devilish, these are rational works. Stella upsets the conventions of harmony, balance and unity while managing to make the aluminum reliefs work as, of all things, paintings.

The reliefs are built of differently colored sheets of aluminum bolted together to form a single multifaceted surface. Long triangular and rectangular planes tilt slightly forward or back in relation to a dominant plane. Some of the edges of this plane form part of the silhouette of the whole relief and are parallel or perpendicular to the floor—an allusion to painting’s once-rectangular format. Though these sobering horizontals and verticals set off the reliefs’ wildly eccentric profiles, they can barely contain the Baroque energies of jutting and abutting forms.

Stella’s canvases of the 1960s introduced illusions of depth. His reliefs obviously make such illusions literal. Subverting formalist usage, Stella first applied collage materials to a wooden structure that was not flat. Now he applies paint to a metal structure that is in itself a sculpture. The shaped surfaces of the reliefs are a log- ical extension of the shaped canvas idea. In addition, the idea of the painting as an object that Stella stressed by using thick stretchers for his canvases is now made concrete by relief that sometimes projects nearly a foot from the wall. Going further than the paintings could, the collaged and the painted aluminum reliefs also mix real and illusory depth. As spatial clues, color, value and shape reinforce or contradict each other. For example, the converging edges of an elongated triangle should suggest recession, but Stella negates this effect by tilting the acute end outward into the viewer’s space. Similarly, a black aluminum band that might look like a shadow-filled void is, in fact, the relief’s front-most plane.

The sedate color of the previous collage reliefs now gives way to a jarring melange of exposed aluminum, bathroom tile pastels, lurid chartreuse or bougainvillea red. Surfaces also range widely: some are matte and opaque; in others, the texture of brushed aluminum shines through transparent color; still others are covered with mock-Abstract-Expressionist scribbling. Pushing toward new levels of disjunctive complexity, Stella consistently refuses to limit himself to a single overriding scheme.

The compositions, tor all their unpredictable and seemingly arbitrary qualities, actually turn painting conventions inside out. Design is neither hierarchical nor holistic; structure is not deductive, but the framing edge is partly determined by the component parts. Oddly, the apparent randomness of design grants the viewer no sensation of freedom. In many of the aluminum reliefs, diagonally aligned strips and wedges converge on each other as if they had been yanked into place by a magnet. Dynamism is petrified into a compacted field of multiple and hyperactive pictorial tensions which are never resolved or released. Rather than succumb to these clashing tensions, the viewer might well attempt to gain intellectual distance—to retreat, that is, to an examination of Stella’s pictorial decisions. Whatever satisfaction such an activity affords, it also raises an inevitable question: what will Stella do next?

Hayden Herrera