New York

Frank Stella

65 Thompson Street

Frank Stella is a virtual art-historical institution—the last great dinosaur to be consigned a permanent place in the Museum of Modern Art. Supporters as well as detractors treat him as if he were already dead, and the relative lack of development in Stella’s art since the “Polish Village” and “Brazilian” painted relief series of the early to mid ’70s, which initiated his “second career,” confirms the impression of stagnation and closure.

On the evidence of these huge and seriously unpretty new works, Stella may have embarked on career two-and-a-half. Supported by massive steel buttresses, these works give the impression of an explosion in the artist’s studio, one yielding a jagged, chaotic, and distinctly sculptural mess. Though these works are predominantly unpainted—the balance of the painting/sculpture dichotomy that has long animated Stella’s practice seems tipped here toward the latter term—painterly aspects are still apparent. Close observation reveals occasional scribbled flourishes of the kind that have recurred in his work since the “Exotic Bird” series, 1977, and, throughout these pieces, the seemingly liquescent metallic agglutinations suggest oozy dribblings of paint.

The received wisdom on Stella tells us that his art has no extrapictorial meaning, yet these latest works force the issue of content. Titles have always played a strange role in Stella’s work. Though often catchy or striking, both the artist and his most prominent institutional apologist, William Rubin, have insisted that they are no more than empty tag lines devoid of hermeneutical import. Their assertions remain unconvincing, however, for while Stella proclaimed that, “what you see is what you see,” in looking at his black paintings, with their sometimes ominous titles (Die Fahne hock! [Raise the flag!, 1959], The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, 1967, etc.), it isn’t really so farfetched to see a darkness that is as much affective or symbolic as it is literal. The ironic abstraction of the ’80s inculcated a distrust for the imperious disinterestedness affected by artists like Stella and Donald Judd; their materialism, no less than their avowed faith in “pure form,” were shown to be riven with psychological and political subtext. And so, for example, Stella’s pinstripes could be subjected to a psycho-social rereading as prison bars. The titles function as liminal markers; like the return of the repressed, they indicate those poetic or representational meanings that the paintings’ insistent formalism tries so hard to squeeze out of the picture.

The titles of these most recent works refer to monuments of Romantic or proto-Romantic painting: John Singleton Copley’s Brook Watson and the Shark, 1778, and Théodore Géricault’s Raft of the “Medusa”, 1818–19. Like these titular precursors, which frame images of chaos, violence, dehumanization, and survival, Stella’s sprawling sculptural monstrosities suggest vistas of wreckage and disaster. While some have read these works as sci-fi visions of a dystopian future, they perhaps better recall the temper of mid-century American Romanticism—the angst, histrionics, splattered paint, and semiconscious randomness characteristic of Abstract Expressionism. Ironically, Stella has returned to precisely those impulses to which his early paintings took such coldly vehement exception.

David Rimanelli