New York

Frank Stella

Jacobson Howard

For some time now Frank Stella has been on a quasi-expressionist kick. His series “The Marquise of O,” 1998–2000—marvelous formally if not necessarily in terms of its response to Heinrich von Kleist’s novella—carries it to new heights. In the press release, Kleist is described as an “isolated genius,” but he wasn’t exactly isolated so much as mentally disturbed. An army officer for seven “lost” years, as he called them, and disillusioned with reason after reading Kant, he put his faith in emotion. Sadly, it was misplaced: After a miserable life, he committed suicide in 1811 at the age of 34.

One of the first Romantic poets and playwrights, Kleist has come to be regarded as the prototypical expressionist and existentialist, not to say mad modern genius, that is, an artist whose works resonate with unresolved conflicts—especially between restrained reason and unrepressed emotion. What makes Kleist’s Marquise von O particularly significant is its “extraordinary economy, power, and vividness of expression and a tragic subject matter in which men are driven to the limits of their endurance,” to quote scholar Alexander Gillies. Do the works in Stella’s series have a similar economy and subject matter? I think not. But they do have a similar power and vividness suggestive of a certain—formal—conflict. They are ironically “expressionist.” It is as though aesthetic excitement has displaced emotional excitement, suggesting that the artist is unable or reluctant to integrate the two however hard he may try. In other words, Stella’s works are all dramatic surface with no serious depth, or, at best, with a sort of simulated dynamic unconscious.

Stella has been fascinated with German culture since the beginning of his career, as Die Fahne Hoch!, 1959, suggests (the title comes from the Nazi marching song Horst Wessel Lied), and with the conflict between reason and emotion, as The Marriage of Reason and Squalor (First Version) and The Marriage of Reason and Squalor (Second Version), both 1959, indicate. Those iconic black paintings were relatively reserved, and, despite their eccentric and subtly agitated patterns of white lines, their formal conflict seemed successfully resolved. But Stella’s later quasi-sculptural relief works showed that this tension was never fully suspended. Over the years, the drama has become more and more explosive, and Stella has become more obviously “literary,” as though deliberately breaking the Greenbergian taboo in search of deeper—experiential—meaning. His “Moby Dick” series (1985–97), as well as the series dealing with the wooden synagogues torched by the Nazis in Poland, indicate as much. But in all these, Stella so completely transforms the drama into formal terms that it no longer seems particularly tragic. There is a plane or two of black in every work of “The Marquise of O,” as though in token remembrance of tragedy, but the works are, for the most part, bright and colorful and dazzlingly intricate. All sense of emotional conflict has been banished into formal playfulness.

There is something profoundly artificial about “The Marquise of O,” suggesting a paucity of the natural emotion on display in Kleist’s novella. Their expressionism is virtual, and is in fact beside their operatic aesthetic point. They are theatrical Gesamtkunstwerke: Like a kind of stage set, the seven panels may be exhibited independently or together. They epitomize the varieties of modernist form and texture as well as the modernist ideal of dynamic equilibrium. If one disregards their literary allusion, they are appreciable as tours de force of postmodern abstraction. That is, though they lack the Sturm und Drang of authentic expressionism and the ideological underpinnings of traditional constructivism, they successfully integrate the twin poles of Modern Art as defined by Adorno: construction and expression.

Donald Kuspit