New York

Frank Stella

Gagosian Gallery (21)

Though Frank Stella’s work has sometimes been attacked as a sham extension of Modernist logic, in recent years it has evinced the wild diversity, energy, and inventiveness that comes only from someone who follows his own whims. At this point in his career, it seems that Stella will try anything that promises to come out looking like a Stella—and by now, almost anything will. His new paintings, most of them huge, look a bit like steam rolled versions of his familiar painted relief constructions, but they relate more closely to his technically ambitious prints. Like prints, they are essentially reproductions, deriving from elaborate collages which are then blown up and painstakingly copied. The effect of looking at absurdly magnified reproductions is heightened in the paintings—such as Fladrine, Polombe, and Zinglantz (all works 1994)—in which Stella’s multicolored cacophony of abstract imagery is partially contained within a rectangle so that bare canvas shows around the edges. In others, such as the triptych Hooloomooloo 1, 2, 3 and Hooloomooloo 4, the edge of the rectangle intersects with the picture plane to more conventional effect. The titles, by the way, are all entries from a Dictionary of Imaginary Places but “Hooloomooloo” (taken from Mardi, 1849) reaffirms Stella’s obsession with Herman Melville.

The materials used in the collages from which the paintings spring—one such collage was exhibited along with its amazingly accurate painted version, Vemish, 1995—do not derive primarily from found elements but from Stella’s studio activity and can include such oddities as fragmented computer analyses of the smoke rings emanating from the artist’s beloved cigars. The immediate precedent for Stella’s method here would be the trompe l’oeil murals he produced in 1993 for the Princess of Wales Theater, Toronto, which were also blowups of “debris d’atelier,” as Stella titled some of the mixed-media constructions from which the murals derived. Much of that work, however, was executed in computer-controlled photo-pixel paint, whereas the new paintings are handmade, with extremely diverse, sometimes quite heavily impastoed, surface textures.

When history repeats itself, does farce return as tragedy? Though the ’70s movement known as "abstract illusionism”—its great invention was brushstrokes that cast shadows—definitely qualifies as one of art history’s absurdities, its current revival in Stella’s as well as David Reed’s work succeeds in giving this ultramannerist enterprise new dignity (without exactly elevating it to tragic grandeur). In Stella’s case, the brilliance with which extremely complex interactions of color, pattern, shape, and texture are managed without loss of control conceals neither a sense of emptiness nor does it forestall the question of just what, beyond an undeniable impressiveness, has been gained by remaking some excellent collages on this vast scale.

Barry Schwabsky