New York

Frank Stella

Knoedler Gallery

I’m having a drink with Peter Bömmels, a painter from Cologne, and he says, “Keith Haring is not a painter. He’s a designer.”

I say, “Well, I don’t know. You could say the same thing about Roy Lichtenstein then.”

“Yes,” says Bömmels, off and running to a position where Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol are the only stars in the sky.

Maybe it’s only painters who really care if someone is a painter or a designer. If Haring and Lichtenstein are designers, it doesn’t necessarily make them lesser artists to me.

In the ’60s and early ’70s you couldn’t have given me Frank Stella wallpaper. Not because I thought Stella paintings looked like wallpaper, though I did, but because they looked like the kind of wallpaper that went too far. Warhol’s wallpaper of the same period was suitable for framing. People would say that I didn’t know the context that made Stella great, or that made his art important. It’s true I wasn’t studying art when Stella was showing his black paintings, but I was running around baseball diamonds, driving on blacktop highways with white lines down the middle, looking at TV test patterns. Stella was not old enough to be my father.

I still think that ultimately the early Stella paintings were triumphs of design—paintings that subordinated themselves to the best of furniture. If I’d liked Stella’s black paintings, what I would have liked about them would have been what he himself said about them, words to the effect of “it’s for me to know and you to find out,” or “what you see is what you see.” Of course remarks like that are all a critic needs to set off an extraordinary hall-of-mirrors inner-meltdown effect.

I love some of the things Alexandre Iolas says in Laura de Coppet’s and Alan Jones’ The Art Dealers, published last year. “Geometry must remain more mysterious. Earlier in this century people tried to make geometrical art, and what happened? Finally a stupid man came along, named Mondrian, beating his head against the wall, trying so hard. You don’t go anyplace like that. Art is a vehicle that transports us, but do you arrive at paradise by a straight line? I think not.”

Today one of the chichi hotels in Beverly Hills is the Mondrian Hotel, which is black and white and red all over. And yellow and blue. Meanwhile, Stella’s latest show is quite flamboyant. It almost looks like penance for the Rubik’s arcs of yesteryear. Obviously Stella believes that you don’t get over on history of art alone. Any one of his new works would look fab next to an Olympic-size swimming pool.

These paintings are paneled constructions of canvas, etched magnesium, aluminum, fiberglass, and mixed pigments. Geometry is still important, but it’s a kitschy, imprecise, cutout geometry, some-times rather like Lichtenstein’s art deco. The geometry is mixed with very freehand scrawl in the hippest decorator and Hawaiian-shirt colors. Now you can see Stella’s hand at work, semifree and semiautomatic. The scrawls, wild colors, cutup schemes, and arbitrary line seem to debunk the geometric absolutism that was his everything. It’s as if he read William Blake on Egypt v. Gothic in art and went over to the other side. This is not freemasonic mysticism—this is the rape of the cone, the cylinder stripped bare. Giufà, la luna, i ladri eIe guardie (Giufà, the moon, the robbers and the cops, 1985) shows the crescent moon, bisected, looking like Jaws’ fin, its etched, gridded magnesium surface painted sloppily, like slapped-on tar.

These works are fun. They radiate a good feeling. They’re experienced but happy—a far cry from Stella’s gloomy, uptight beginnings. These are paintings.

Glenn O'Brien