New York

Frank Stella

Knoedler & Company

Art-historically retardataire in its extravagant acknowledgment of junk sculpture and assemblage, Frank Stella’s series “New Work: Projects and Sculpture,” 1992, nevertheless represents an “advance” in terms of Stella’s own oeuvre: a continuation of his violent dismemberment of the flat painting constructions that originally made his reputation. The seemingly infinite play of textures in the new works is hypnotic, creating a chillingly brittle sensuality—as “manufactured” and subliminally macabre as that of the early painting constructions. It is as though each sculpture were a damaged, discarded, obsolete robot in an industrial graveyard—its decaying, suppurating flesh establishing a contrast to his earlier, smoothly functioning mechanical abstractions. But Stella’s self-deconstruction and self-overturning fail to eradicate the aura of ironic impersonality created by the austere asymmetry of the earlier painting constructions—fail. that is, to make a “personal statement.”

Stella is now faced with the problem of moving beyond his initial heroic innovation, as was Pablo Picasso after Cubism. Picasso solved this dilemma in part by using Cubism for “autobiographical” purposes, exaggerating the Cubist articulation of spatial discontinuity, so that it seemed to bespeak the absurdity of the self. But Stella has never been theatrically open about himself, however much the titles of his works suggest a certain attitude—here they, allude to declining French mining towns; the color discontinuities, spatial flaws, and ironies of his early painting con-structions seem to simplify and stylize absurdity. Certainly Stella’s move away from bright, often flashy color to a virtually colorless, if at times silvery sobriety suggests a change in attitude. It is as though Stella were highlighting the contrast—one that changed in nature from the first to the final versions of the Düsseldorf Proposal, 1992—between the three grim works (models for sculptures) and the thinly, almost comically colored model of the exhibition hall that contains them.

This change was already evident in the series “Polish Villages,” 1970–73—a series of works dealing with destroyed Polish synagogues—which made the architectonic aspect of Stella’s painting constructions explicit. The change is not simply from construction to “deconstruction,” but to a destructive and self-destructive attitude. A work like Etang d’Ambach, 1992, which can be understood as a shredded painting construction—aluminum ribbons three-dimensionalize its bands and deny their color—makes this transparently clear. So does the Dresden Project; 1992, which in effect, turns a deconstructed painting construction into the layout of a park in a way that maintains the scale of the original piece while bringing out its latent tendency to grandeur.

Stella’s new works recognize the collapse of “construction,” struggling to make a new “expression” from it. They are perhaps most important for the way they skirt the idea of the figure while establishing an oblique and manic sense of corporeality. Indeed, they seem to show us the questionableness of the body in the post-Modern world, without denying the possibility of immanent bodily experience. One could liken the change from Stella’s early to late work to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s shift from the systematicness of the Tractatus Logico-philosophicus, 1921, to the openness of the Philosophical Investigations, 1953, but that would be to ignore the fact that for Wittgenstein every language game represents new possibilities, a new configuration of life, while Stella’s visual language games reimagine death.

Donald Kuspit