New York

Frank Stella

Leo Castelli Gallery

Surprisingly or not, Frank Stella provided the most direct contrast to Minimal leanings. His new works are an overwhelming circus of materials. Never mind the meaning of his bizarre new direction, or the impulse behind the radical profusion of elements—Stella has left refinement so far behind as to render it forever dead. The new works cross almost every line there is, between painting and sculpture, assemblage and montage, hard-edge, color field and punk. Perhaps he just enjoys wreaking havoc with critical definitions.

Hints of his intentions have surfaced before. Works from 1976, featuring cutout protractors, scribbled and painted and placed in relief on metal backings with sprinklings of glitter, provided the raw materials. These pieces throw caution to the wind, cast away the back plane (the canvas-remnant) and replace it with an open grid of steel rod. Protractors, fleurs-de-lys, swirling shapes in all sizes are mounted on the grids, layers deep. Though the works are still strictly frontal, in that the grid is a backing mounted to the wall, they create deep, multiplaned spaces crossed and complicated by the projecting forms. Painted and overpainted in gaudy combined colors, heavily dusted with glitter, the effect is startling and cathartic, and overwhelmingly three-dimensional.

When painting began to lose its identity in the ’60s and sculpture became the mode for experimentation, colorists retreated to careful studies and bare-boned arrangements. Stella’s geometry was no exception. Painting exclusively onto the surface, they were as far from sculpture as painting could be. Having worked out relational color problems, he then lifted the painted elements themselves out of context to produce his first flat reliefs. These latest works are culminations of the two influences. While Mangold proceeds with carefully thought-out caution, Stella actually plunges implied space into the work, creating a new brand of cross breed. It tips its hat to California funk, steals gestural freedom from 1970s mark-makers, perverts color field and geometry into physical entities.

The pieces themselves are named after Indian birds—Jungli Kowwa, Maha-lat, Râmgangra—and the influence of India’s prolific colors and metallic glitter could not be more strong. As exotic as rare birds, each of these pieces reinforces the possibilities of color as physical locations in space. Completely contrasting to Mangold’s recessive color planes, Stella’s various cut-outs eject their color out into space; the heavy glitter, actively reflecting light, stresses the action.

It is still possible, however, to wonder just what it is that Stella is doing. After all, his pieces are still confined to painters’ concepts of hanging off the wall, from one flat plane. Sculptural as the layers of protrusions may be, what would happen if they did eventually stand on their own? Would we have an onslaught of Red Grooms-Calder-Dubuffet half-breeds? There are elements of each in these pieces—Dubuffet’s painted planes revisited, Red Grooms’ raucous color and grotesque shapes, even a quality of Calder’s free-floating metal planes. But perhaps total synthesis is not Stella’s goal. Perhaps he just feels the need to shake the complacency out of creating—and viewing. Certainly these pieces are risk-taking, but there is a hint that the risk itself was an intrinsic part of the work, not meant to be a lasting direction. How long these pieces can endure remains a valid question. Tied as they are to current fashion (the crude, primitive, the punk) there is a lingering feeling that the act of nonconformity is itself more crucial than the form it has taken.

Deborah Perlberg