New York

Frank Stella

Almost as if he deliberately set out to infuriate the people who found his aluminum relief paintings last year some of the best modernist painting ever, Frank Stella’s new work makes that anticipation about “what he’d do next” just plain stupid. These new “paintings” are also constructed out of aluminum, and really are no longer just “reliefs”; they ignore the wall and come out so far into the room (almost two feet) that they might almost be free-standing sculpture. (That one is dedicated to Noguchi is revealing.) Most of the work is so large that it obliterates our orientation to the wall by being as big as the wall (and these are huge walls). There are large gaps of space between parts, unlike the paintings last year—space that remains dead and empty because Stella has not seen fit to deal with it. The main structure is a large frame with randomly distributed smaller rectangles and even more randomly placed French curves, painted equally at random. The drawing that fills in the planes is also done at random, and it usually occurs over a layer of glitter mixed with acrylic. Anyone who has seen tract house ceilings in Los Angeles will immediately recognize the look.

It was once a big thing to speak of the “ambition” of modernist painting, comparing new work to the greatest achievements of the past. Stella’s work from the middle ’60s on seemed to be going after Art Deco and Orphism, and the ambition he set himself up for got less and less “great.” Could it be that Stella is now trying to compete with Renoir, not as a visual model, but in order to answer the question: exactly how many out-and-out bad paintings can a “master” paint and still be a master, or at least interesting? The difference is that Renoir was bad on a fairly small scale. Stella creates monuments to his badness.

Other than “ambition,” it might be possible to approach this work as some kind of “risk” or challenge to accepted taste. But glitter and decadently baroque French curves aren’t a challenge to anything. The paintings aren’t just esthetically empty; they’re morally despondent. Since the reliefs last year were Stella’s first paintings where the individual work had meaning irrespective of its place within a series, where painting was discovered rather than preplanned, blueprinted or positioned, it is obvious that Stella has misunderstood what it was that made them worth doing, in other words, what made them good to look at. For an artist whose work is paradigmatically self-conscious, this is something of a shock. He has not been able to sustain inspiration from the implications of his best work.

Peter Plagens once remarked that the “Protractor” series wasn’t old enough to be camp—it was just department-store decoration. This time Stella has not painted works that are future candidates for camp, he has created instant camp—works so bad that they might be seen perversely as great, tacky, prefab hotel lobby ornamentation.

Jeff Perrone