“Frank Stella 1958”

“FRANK STELLA 1958” is a prequel. It extracts twenty-one works, some rarely or never before exhibited, from the genetic soup of a remarkable evolution. Your degree of interest may hinge on how invested you are in the outcome: 1959, the “Black Paintings.” Viewing Stella’s brightly striped canvases from 1958, it’s hard to avoid mental comparison with the absent dark ones. But life doesn’t conform to the calendar, and Stella was making “Black Paintings” toward the end of his evolutionary year of color. It remains a matter of discrimination, both aesthetic and critical, as to what’s black (the pigment) and what’s “Black” (intended to appear achromatic). Depending on your visual sensitivity to chroma, as well as the rigidity or looseness of your intellectual categories, you will find at least one “Black,” Morro Castle, perhaps a second, Delta, and maybe a third, Criss Cross, among the works presented by curators Harry Cooper and Megan R. Luke at the Sackler.

Morro Castle has a subdued, quirky pattern, an asymmetrical maze of right-angled lines left partially unpainted between broad black bands; this blackness is the purest in the gallery, a suitable finale to the exhibition. Even now, Stella’s use of black escapes cliché; Morro Castle looks fresh, especially when isolated, as here on its own wall. Its placement may nevertheless seem predictable, rehearsing a lesson in strategies of reduction (from many colors, to few, to one, to black). Yet the lack of symmetry distances Morro Castle from Stella’s destination, considering the course he was on. Arbeit Macht Frei—of late 1958, but not in the exhibition—has not only the blackness, but also the thorough regularity of the classic works to follow. Visualized beside it, Morro Castle’s maze is a whim.

I should not imply that Stella in 1958 had but one telling moment, whether signaled by Morro Castle (a candidate for inaugural “Black Painting”) or Arbeit Macht Frei (indisputably “Black”). Other events were occurring, even if Stella, a painter in a hurry, didn’t linger. Coney Island harmonizes its three off-primary colors with a degree of finesse that the artist may not have consciously sought, but there it is. Its exhibition pendant, Grape Island, is far less resolved, yet its odd triad of hues, at once muted and bold, drew my attention equally, because coarseness can be worked to advantage. Perhaps this allowed me to sense the refinement of Coney Island despite the irregularity of its pattern, where horizontal stripes drift off axis, failing to keep in line. Here Stella may have painted intuitively for color’s sake, not pattern’s, though this becomes indeterminate after the fact. I suppose that Delta, revealing unruly shreds of red and green, is to Morro Castle as Grape Island is to Coney Island: Delta is a color painting well on its way toward “Black,” but resisting all the same, with coarseness.

Viewing such closely related works, a significant percentage of a single year’s production from a very fast painter, we have at least two choices. We can let certain pairs reveal one another’s qualities, helter-skelter: Blue Horizon and, opposite the corner from it, Astoria suppress, even as they capitalize on, a conflict of vertical and horizontal stroking. Or we can follow the larger logic Stella laid out in his Pratt Institute lecture notes of early 1960; it guides the curators’ overall presentation, as it has guided other Stella scholars, from Coney Island to Astoria to Morro Castle, and then, imaginatively beyond, to an absent Arbeit Macht Frei. The compactness of this exhibition, in part a product of the architectural limitations of the Sackler, allows the visitor to play artist, reconfiguring works into alternative sequences. Retrospectively, as he assessed 1958 a year or so later, Stella took a linear view. The Sackler is too tight for linearity, so the display encourages less orderliness than any verbal account, whether from Stella or Stellaphiles. “1958” retains evolution’s originary soupiness.

All this may be beside the point with regard to the artist’s motivation and what his peers were about to learn from him in 1959. It helps to notice 1957. As Stella entered his senior year at Princeton, he was making the kind of painting one might expect from an adventurous student of that era—dynamically asymmetrical abstractions with “expressive,” gestural brushwork. Unmistakably, this was “art.” His Pratt notes indicate the process that began some months later. He accentuated repetition with his stripe, developed symmetry with his pattern, integrated the plane with his reduction to a single color. All the while, the signs of gesture—loaded brushstrokes, drips, muddied mixes of color (wet into wet)—tended to weaken, growing faint like a Stella pinstripe. As much as anything else, this lack of “liberating” gesture made other young painters take notice, because for them expressive liberation had become a romantic burden. Robert Mangold saw in Stella the advantage of paint applied to look as if it belonged less on the canvas, more on the walls of the loft.

Stella wanted no part of art’s habitual fantasies. A set of negatives motivated him. He eliminated the brushwork of 1957: too artsy-fartsy. He rejected über-intellectualism as well—every variation on -istic, -ality, and -icity. If, during 1958, his painting became recognizably literal, tautological, and materialistic (an -istic, sorry), these were neutral by-products, neither promoted nor troublesome. In Machine in the Studio: Constructing the Postwar American Artist (1996), Caroline A. Jones catches the significance of Stella’s attitude. She estimates that during a three-month period in 1958, he completed a work every three days, all the while supporting himself as a housepainter. Both activities were jobs. He was a fast, eminently efficient worker. It’s likely that the mismatched stripes and the drips and splashes of both Mary Lou Loves Frank and Delta come from neither intellectual strategy nor emotional spontaneity but from speed.

Before Stella spoke for himself in 1960, Carl Andre spoke for him in 1959: “[He] is not interested in expression or sensitivity. He is interested in the necessities of painting.” Elaborately hierarchical composition was no necessity, and the most efficient, speediest technique was the housepainter’s. Stella’s two jobs converged. In the words of his Pratt notes, Arbeit Macht Frei, with its macabre allusion to Auschwitz, represented “the final solution.” This title (loosely, “work will set you free”) applies to Stella himself, since work, not art, was his liberation—not an uncommon notion, actually, among his generation of workaholic painters.

Richard Shiff is Effie Marie Cain Regents Chair in Art and director of the Center for the Study of Modernism at the University of Texas at Austin.

“Frank Stella 1958” is on view at the Menil Collection, Houston, May 25–Aug. 20, and the Wexner Center for the Arts, Ohio State University, Columbus, Sept. 9–Dec. 31.