New York

Frank Stella

The question has been “what will Stella do next” for so long that, lately, getting over disappointed expectations delays entertaining the possibility that Stella, at least, may have changed the question to “what has Stella done?”. If the flashy French-curve reliefs that so disturbed the peace in 1976 seemed, at the time anyway, to break with what came before, and were among the first Stella pieces to signify as individual entities independent of serial context, the newest work apparently aims to reinsert all the reliefs back into that series. The pieces are a coda, in a way, a formal autobiography.

Retrospective synthesis isn’t new for Stella, and although that synthesis has mainly been concerned with the major art movements of the 20th century (Art Deco, Orphism, Cubism, Abstract Expressionism, Constructivism, and, in two of the constructions here, Bauhaus), he has never been shy about alluding to his own contributions. The recurring corrugations sandwiched between planes in the metal reliefs, for example, regardless of their practical functions, serve as memorials to a past habit of inserting unseen layers of cardboard between stretcher bars and surface. But never before has the reminiscence been on the scale it is now; nearly every possible Stella trademark is taken up—polygons, stripes, French curves, protractors, chevron meshes. The yet greater massiveness and more outrageous thrust of these latest productions suggests the accumulated baggage of a lifetime, balanced precariously a moment before toppling over. Once sniffed, the air of summary pervades.

The old macaronic scribblings, for instance, are seen in full when viewed from the sides of Western Driefontein; from the front they shrink to a glimpse of color in a desert of aluminum sheen, a glimpse that functions as a palimpsest or a flashback. In Western Deep this order is reversed, but the point is that both works effect a conflict between nostalgia and growth. In order to move on, to comprehend more of the piece, or to move back into fully recaptured memory, something must be sacrificed. Further, one has the choice of standing still and getting a stable but partial picture, or moving, letting go of one stable unit to press on to another which must in turn be relinquished. All this has been a bit of a cliché ever since Robert Morris explained the distinction between timeless, holistic sculpture and disjunctive sculpture, like Stella’s, which exists in time because it doesn’t coalesce simultaneously, can only be remembered, as a procession of views. Still, the temporal is a particularly apt approach here. (Coincidentally, a recent development is the great, muscular convexities and concavities, a pertinent curvature for a space/time continuum in our Einsteinian universe.) There’s little color overall, and the icy expanse of metallic surface, far from the hot tropical hues of exotic birds, feels like a dying fall into a winter’s tale.

What look like the largest departures, and so possible hints of future direction, are Playskool Yard and Playskool Gym, two wooden constructions which make more than an overture to the past by virtue of their resemblance to toys. Though formally complex they express a retreat to ground zero, not only in their emotional evocation of childhood but also in their imagery. With their conspicuous pegs they are a sort of primer of building techniques—Playskool Gym especially, since it arranges itself as a network of oversized nuts and hooks and is traversed by what looks like a large, rudimentary pair of pliers. Both the reference to functionalism and the slight push urging the viewer to react physically to the pieces (to climb on them maybe), along with the clean lines and wood, make the Bauhaus appropriation. The irony is that the tastefulness of Bauhaus conflicts with Stella’s enduring flirtation with kitsch, ranging from the kind of paint used in the protractor canvases to the gaudiness of the glitter applications. At the moment, in these clunky wooden inventions, Stella seems to be tackling the shibboleth of “cute” art. But his authority makes for instant classics; his bad taste is converted almost immediately into accepted taste.

That’s the problem—that authority, the completeness of Stella’s success. In a way he is a victim of his own achievement, for in helping to explode the norm of an acceptable style, as his reliefs did, he also made it very difficult to create a frisson by ringing only stylistic changes. Although a sense of rounding off is acute, these are robust tours de force; there’s no intimation that Stella is losing his grip. Rather it may be that the only innovation that could surprise now would be an emotional one, a plumbing of depths similar to that of a Louise Bourgeois or a Philip Guston. Maybe Stella has to find a way to transform retrospective into introspective. Then he could keep himself—and us—occupied working that into the canon.

Jeanne Silverthorne