New York

Frank Stella

FRANK STELLA IS TOO MUCH. His art and career have always been outsize in every sense, from the less-than-zero “Black Paintings” of 1959–60 to the giant, Day-Glo late-’60s “Protractor” series and wild relief paintings of the ’70s and ’80s. Each time he realizes a personal breakthrough in his work, he expects to pull the world along with him, to effect a paradigm shift in modernism. Such audacity has bagged him no less than two full-scale MOMA retrospectives, but the work has met with diminishing returns and increasing skepticism. By his third retrospective, the take-no-prisoners rubric under which he and curator Bonnie Clearwater classed his new output—“Changing the Rules”—may have amounted to a folie à deux.

This was a really big show: forty-foot paintings, giant hunk-of-metal sculptures, a large-scale model for a forthcoming bandshell in downtown Miami; even the smaller sculptures doubled as potential architecturally scaled works. Like the Abstract Expressionists and Minimalists, throughout his career Stella has confronted the problem of how not to make easel pictures or bread box–size “objects.” His ambition has always demanded more space and size—the mural, the relief—even when he tried to define the limits of painting.

This exhibition comprised many variations on the theme of expanding painting. The most straightforward were the reliefs titled . . . an den Ufern der Aar ( . . . on the banks of the Aar), 1998, in which brightly colored aluminum forms twist out from painted rectangular panels. The strangest was Severambia, 1996, a curving, freestanding fiberglass wall painting that looks like Tilted Arc after a thorough graffiti hit; Kenny Scharf comes to mind as much as Fabian Marcaccio. In this piece, as in the huge paintings on canvas (his first since the ’70s) like Das Erdbeben in Chili (Earthquake in Chile), 1999, Stella uses an elaborate technique to get the paint on. First, he amasses a certain amount of printed material, much of it produced by master printer Ken Tyler. Some of these abstractions are computer generated, often deriving from organic forms like smoke rings (a new signature) and soap bubbles. With these materials Stella then creates roughly half-scale collages that are photographed and projected onto a surface. Finally, scenery painters meticulously reproduce the projections, but even that’s not simple: While some of the dots, lines, and splotches are painted directly, others are cast in acrylic and laminated onto the final work. Severambia shifts uneasily between illusion and 3-D reality.

Echoing this tension, the large aluminum and steel sculptures were relatively flat, suggesting tables (Peach Bottom, 1991) or walls (the “Chatal Huyuk” series, 1999). Stella refers to the latter, mounted on large metal stands, as “Easel Paintings”; with cast and found metal tracing comparatively delicate lines against an imposingly solid backdrop, they have the pictorial quality of an early David Smith. Their bullying, macho rawness initially repels, but the overall form and proportion is surprisingly pleasing.

Perhaps the strangest development here was that of a kind of para-architecture. This included small metal sculptures like Zimming, 1992, which can only be described as ugly. Stella envisions them as potentially huge public projects. These creations—I’m tempted to call them creatures—would threaten public safety and sensibility at any size. The one successful example of Stella’s foray into the realm of architectural scale was his twelve-foot-high fiberglass model for a bandshell currently being built at Miami’s American Airlines Arena. Spiraling cut-out forms slice and twirl through space; the white surface reflects the environment even as the negative spaces frame it. Stella claims a folding Brazilian beach hat as his inspiration, but the fantastical phenomenology also recalls Alice Aycock and Frank Gehry.

The cumulative effect of the show was overwhelming, bewildering. Painting, sculpture, architecture, printing—none of the media discrete; industrial rawness, computer-generated slickness; every kind of mark, rip, cut, splotch, dribble, line you could imagine. Walking around, a little dazed, you might have found this to be the antithesis of the first exhibition of the “Black Paintings” forty years ago. Their starkly literal simplicity was framed by Michael Fried as deductive reasoning, the surface design easily inferred from the shape of the canvas. Here, not surprisingly, Stella has turned from logic to chaos theory, mutating forms without any controlling order.

But there’s a common thread between these apparent opposites, one suggested by Stella’s interest in the short stories of Heinrich von Kleist, after which many of the current works here are titled. Clearwater’s catalogue essay ascribes the artist’s affinity for the early-nineteenth-century German author (and Kafka favorite) to the twisting unpredictability of his writing. There may be a more direct link, for Kleist also explored the nature of the mechanical, which he neither condemned nor celebrated.

Modern artists from Cézanne to Gary Hume have been accused of being somehow inhuman. In the ’60s, critics frequently called Stella’s paintings “mechanical,” both in their handling and in the perceived lack of subjectivity. This sense of someone missing is very strong in his current work as well (despite the obvious presence of a healthy ego). In the riot of representation at MOCA one felt the absence of a discriminating, decision-making artist. Everything is included, nothing left out—most obviously in terms of color, which runs the spectrum. There seemed to be no coherent taste or preference, no one making deliberate choices; it is as if the works were randomly generated, a quality reinforced by the many computer-produced grids and lines. If Stella’s early works were so minimal and inexpressive as to appear mechanical, the final impression here, for better or worse, was of objects so big and chaotic that they seemed, well, mechanical—but also monstrous.