New York

Frank Stella

Paul Kasmin Gallery (511)

Frank Stella’s recent exhibition consisted of sixteen new works in various, purposely indistinct media. There were some paintings—we know they are paintings because they are flat surfaces covered with paint. There was one rickety collage—pieces of paper covered in colored forms and rudely stapled together. There were sculptures. This remains the trickiest category, because (1) as we know, Stella became famous in the early ’60s for his use of shaped canvases, initially attracting the approval of the Greenbergian establishment and its successive avatars as well as that of Donald “Specific Objects” Judd; and (2) while these new pieces have been described elsewhere in the press as “painted reliefs,” their Incredible Hulk brawn would seem to stretch conventional notions of relief sculpture. One particularly striking work is a suspended agglomeration of what looks like aluminum ducting—either it’s sculpture or it’s the latest in ventilation. The ultraraw mise-en-scène of the former garage adjacent to Kasmin’s regular exhibition space pumped up the volume of arty dereliction.

These works have enjoyed mixed critical response, but the artist is no stranger to controversy; indeed, he seems to bask in its effulgence. There is no questioning the artist's importance, though the success or failure of his recent work is up for grabs, regardless of how many pieces find their, uh, niches in the sprawling plazas of museums at home and abroad. “Well, I don’t know exactly what the hell Frank is up to,” a savant might remark of these new objects and surfaces, “but he’s a genius, and he’s tapping into what the visual culture of our time demands. This is the real art of today, no matter what it looks like.” An artist of Stella's reputation will never lack admirers, though many of them will at least whisper the sentence every artist comes to hate: “I prefer the early work.”

What does the new stuff look like? On more than one occasion, Stella’s adventures in overwhelming three-dimensional forms thickly impastoed—is that even the right word?—with gobs upon gobs of electric acrylic paint have been likened to outer-space debris: the ruins of Cold War satellites, perhaps, or maybe unconventional-looking visitors from distant nebulae. After the manner of Star Trek: The Next Generation, we might assay this elaboration of the space-junk analogy: Captain Stella’s fleet of ships was sucked into a wormhole, instantly transporting them through time and space to . . . the Piezo Electric Gallery, East Village circa 1984.

There are two plausible and not incompatible readings of this corpus. Since his debut in the late ’50s, Stella has worked in series. The tension between painted surface and three-dimensional form was implicit from the very beginning, in the incomparable “Black Paintings.” Since the “Polish Village” series of the early ’70s, more and more elements of the “pictorial” sphere have been jumping out of the picture plane, becoming relieflike, sculptural, even quasi-architectural. The new works devour and regurgitate elements familiar from several Stella series: “Exotic Birds,” “Shards,” “South African Mines,” “Cones,” and “Pillars.” As such, they participate in something that is routinely praised: development. Yes, the artist is certainly doing new—or at least newish—things, for example, taunting moments of figuration, as in computer-generated images of smoke rings. The other reading: These works are staggeringly hideous, and that’s a kind of interest unto itself.

David Rimanelli