New York

Frank Stella

Gagosian Gallery (21)

Having seen Frank Stella’s black and metallic paintings reproduced a thousand times, we rarely encounter the authentic works. When we do, we notice every crooked line, broken seam, and tarnished inch of surface. Each imperfection, raised brushstroke, and uneven passage of paint burns into retinal permanence. What photographic reproductions never reveal, we commit to memory. Photographs obscure both their handmade quality and the fact that the paintings have changed over time. Once presumably seamless, now the hard edges are cracked, nicked, and eroded. The fresh bloom of metallic pigments has oxidized, and surfaces are mottled with passages of light and dark. The chilly mechanical anticolors have become vibrant, softly luminous, and surprisingly lush. Or was it always that way?

The discourse around these paintings is among the most codified of the 20th century; we know well not to look for anything that is not manifestly there and to accept everything that is on a purely phenomenological level. As Stella put it: “What you see is what you see.” But what about those sides bound in aluminum and copper painted stripping? Abrasions have rubbed them raw in places. What about the white interstices between stripes, not bare at all but filled with pencil lines and accidental flecks of color caught in the toothy grain of the canvas? Inch by inch, edge by edge, we rediscover the pleasures of connoisseurship as the sum total of these imperfections.

When these paintings were created, they epitomized austerity. Seen only as essential facts, as irreducible, ascetic objects, the vicissitudes of painting by hand and approximated geometry were simply edited out. All that Ab-Ex weary eyes could see was uncompromising logic (or emptiness). Attempts at focusing gave way to a new mode of dedifferentiated vision that no longer accomodated subtle irregularities. Stella’s paintings existed in theory only. These were impenetrable icons, strong, silent types, the formulation of which signaled a new pragmatic materialism. Their inchoate rectilinearism, mechanical evenness, and reductive self-sufficiency heralded at the time as a release from content, today adumbrates a social dimension cloaked in the early ’60s ethos of “better living through technology.”

What words would be used to describe these paintings if they were brand new, circa 1990? Would they absolve painting of its crisis and halt attempts to restore its primal urgency? Would they defeat efforts to reinstate symbolism, or would they be described as metaphors of the body? These very thoughts are tantamount to heresy, but the shape of Luis Miguel Dominguin, 1960, could too easily be seen today as anthropomorphic. The hollow core and seductive, shimmering orchid surface of Ileana Sonnabend, 1963, might not escape gender identification. Worse yet, what if a politicized content were ascribed to Gezira, 1960, and its rhythmic black and white striations were interpreted as an appropriation of African art or as a critique of neocolonialism? No matter—they are safe in their historical niche and we in our musings as to the way it was when painting resolutely stood its ground requiring only the authority of its own bounded support.

Jan Avgikos