New York

Frank Stella

Frank Stella began what has been called his “second career” when he started making relief paintings in 1970, the year the Museum of Modern Art gave him his first retrospective. In the current exhibition, which begins where that show left off, we see every stage in the evolution of this virtuoso body of work, from the comparatively sober “Polish Village” paintings (1970–73) and “Diderot” series (1974) to his most recent (and most elaborate) constructions. Throughout this period Stella has demonstrated startling gusto and persistence, with each series seeming to trump the previous one in projective complexity and vertiginous exuberance. There is an emphasis in these works on improvisational release rather than restraint, and on his new calibration of the relationship between the surface of a painting and its spatial dynamics. The effect of this new pictorial space—a “spherical” space that would be “capable of dissolving its own perimeter and surface plane” (as Stella described it in his Harvard lectures on Caravaggio and issues of modern abstract art, 1983–84), and that would transcend the symbols of figural illusionism even as it incorporated them—was to give abstraction new muscle, saving it from its obsession with flatness and purity, which had become all too programmed. Style as ideology is style without personality. Stella struggles to have temperament—once thought to be an essential component of great art—and to recoup the “losses” of his early abstract paintings, or to release what was latent in them. His pursuit of this goal took him on a path of increasingly less rational structures and a serendipity of materials, textures, shapes, and planes, generating novel perspectival juxtapositions and odd vistas. The more abstract art seemed to settle into predictability, the more unpredictable Stella’s course became. For me, the stars of the exhibition are the works in the “Malta” series, where this Caravaggesque spherical-projective space is best realized, particularly Mellieha Bay, 1983. His new absurdist Baroque manner is both conceptually and perceptually successful. But what does this success tell us about him and about the condition of abstraction?

Stella has given us a veritable encyclopedia of Modernist modes of art making. His grand summary signifies the demise of Modernism through the reduction of its styles to a set of free-floating signifiers, available for “arbitrary” use but never signifying anything in particular. I call this cannibalization of styles with no clear and distinct signification “stylism,” which is perhaps the essence of post-Modernism, and I see it as a castrated visionaryism. Like post-Modernism in general, Stella’s art, for all its innovative look, preserves and monumentalizes the past, turning it into a statue in the pantheon of art-historically significant styles, and stripping it of inner necessity in the process. But just as we strip wheat of its nutrients and must artificially restore them to it, so Stella has restored to an overrefined abstraction the lost nutrients of sculpture and architecture (and stylistic variety) it once had. The result of all this restitutive activity still seems more artificial than natural. Stella appears to be suggesting that naturalness, with its connotation of organic spontaneity, is in fact a lost paradise, like the titular subjects of several of his series: his evocation, in the “Polish Village” series, of the destroyed Jewish synagogues of Poland, which were made of wood, one of the most traditional of natural materials, and his conjuring of tropical nature in the “Brazilian” (1974–75), “Exotic Bird” (1976–77), and “Indian Bird” (1978–79) series. He apparently longs to embody in his art, through abstraction, the feeling of vitality that he gets from racing cars and horses.

Stella stands on the shoulders of so many others that he appears as a giant. This is not a matter of influences transformed but of entire modes of making appropriated, as well as a calculated undermining and reversal of previous assumptions about abstract painting—especially the transformation of its aim, from the purification of painting by eliminating the influence of sculpture and architecture to its reassimilation of them on a freshly elevated plane of abstraction. But his temperament seems predictable in its unpredictability, the customary signs of which are energy and complexity. These he has in depersonalized abundance, with a generosity of means and almost uncontrollably intense expressivity that signals something genuinely subjective. William Rubin, in his catalogue essay, compares the relief paintings to Jackson Pollock’s work, and, indeed, both have a strong tendency toward extravagance, spill, disintegration, and chaos—symptoms of breakdown. What we see here is the breakdown of the defenses that Stella established in his early works. The crisis of abstraction that Stella tries to deal with in his post-’70s relief paintings is not resolved but rather “described” by them. They represent what has been called the deepest and most indescribable fear—the fear of annihilation. Stella feared the annihilation of abstraction, and with it the raison d’être for his own art. His achievement is to have ventured into this state of chaos, articulated it brilliantly, and made it into a new kind of wholeness.

The original breakdown in our time was the annihilation of the Jews in Poland and elsewhere in Europe. It is no accident that Stella’s second career begins with a consideration of this experience of collective suffering in the “Polish Village” paintings, played off against the Enlightenment-oriented rationalism of the “Concentric Squares.” The Holocaust has been understood by Adorno as the historical event in which the Enlightenment broke down, yet realized its implicit goal of total, efficient administrative control of what is perceived as alien nature.

Stella’s paintings, for all their all-American Day-Glo look and stylized exuberance, are really about the violence of suffering, which always pulls one apart, and which pulls his works apart. Violence and fragmentation have been understood as having a disintegrating effect on the self—and in Stella’s case, we witness their effect on his collective art-self as well as on his person. It is this sense of their pulling and falling apart that is the key to the relief paintings. Each of them is really a Samson ready to bring down the temple of the Philistines who think they are so enlightened about art as well as about other people, especially those (whether art or people) they unconsciously conceive as inherently alien. “Enlightenment” supposedly represents a mature outlook on life, but it doesn’t take into account the experience of suffering. The cultural and theoretical implications of Stella’s practice are more profound than many of the positivist/estheticist defenders of his style care to acknowledge. His “Tower of Babel” of art-language games ingeniously integrates modern esthetic practice and social reality. Stella has created a profound subjective abstraction, which is the only kind genuinely possible today. He is more visionary than he knows.

Donald Kuspit