Abstract Critical

‘What you see is… a mess, Frank’

Written by Robin Greenwood

Frank Stella at Haunch of Venison.

As a certain London art dealer once said, ‘Frank Stella is the only artist who started out a genius and went on to become a student’. This is the accepted wisdom; that after the brilliance of his work from the Sixties it all went from bad to worse. Well, having seen the not-to-be-described-as-a-retrospective retrospective at Haunch of Venison, I don’t intend to buck that trend. It’s blindingly obvious that the early stuff is the best stuff. What this show does do – must do, now – is to question just how good he was in the first place. Genius? Mmm…

BASRA GATE I 1968 Magna on canvas 304.8 × 609.6 × 10.2 cm Collection of the artist © ARS, NY and DACS, London Photo: John Bodkin

I would have liked to have seen a few variations on the multiple ‘protractor’ series, which I’ve always considered the high-point of his work; we have just one in this show, a big single concentric semi-circle, ‘Basra Gate’ I, 1968, which has none of the spatial interfolding and interlocking of the more complex works from this series, but is nevertheless a satisfying painting with good colour. So too is ‘Les Indes Gallants’ 1962, a sister-painting to the Tate’s ‘Hyena Stomp’, which has a wonderful little ‘winding-up’ to its centre which, in concert with the free-floating yellow stripe up the right-hand side, declares a certain spatial and almost painterly animation in defiance of the rigours of its geometry. A little bit of magic, then.

LES INDES GALANTES 1962 Alkyd on canvas 181.6 × 181.6 cm Greenwich Fine Arts © ARS, NY and DACS, London Photo: John Bodkin

I always did like Stella’s sixties dictum “What you see is what you see”, and I always thought abstract art should be an “Art of the Real” (as per the 1969 Tate show he was in), whatever that might mean. I can also empathise with his post-sixties desire to re-complexify his art. But not this way, Frank, not this way.

There is an interesting work about halfway round this show, ‘Leblon II’, 1975, which I guess is one of the earliest reliefs painted on aluminium, where you sense it could all have been very different – if he’d only looked at what he was doing! If only he’d looked at the pictorial space he was creating a little harder; if only he’d not got carried away with the literalness of using three-dimensions (and all that ‘gubbins’ of aluminium honeycomb, which already here is intrusive). If only, because as the planes of this painting push in and pull out (literally), shadows are cast which modify the spatial relations of the colours (illusionistically). It starts to do something way more interesting than the shaped and interlocked reliefs in mixed media from a couple of years previous, which are shown next to it, and which exhibit the early signs of a brain-numbing indifference to any kind of sense of purpose, an almost total absorption in the superficial aesthetics of shape and texture. ‘What you see’ is already a lost cause, a resolve no longer acted upon.

LA PENNA DI HU 1985 Mixed media on etched magnesium, aluminum and fiberglass 237.1 × 304.8 × 167 cm Private collection, courtesy Lio Malca © ARS, NY and DACS, London Photo: John Bodkin

It gets worse. Step next door, into a whole roomful of the ‘La penna di hu’ series, where a duplicated multi-image is put through a mindboggling array of different but equally tortuous treatments, and you really do wonder if the artist hasn’t lost his mind. The awfulness of this series is compounded by the fact that as they proceed, one to another, they get no better and no worse. They are all pretty much equally nasty to look at. Why do a whole big series when they don’t get better?

Er… then the penny drops. That’s what Stella always did; a whole goddam shed-load of variations on each series. Did he ever exercise discretion? When things were simple, he occasionally (perhaps one might say frequently) hit lucky: when things got complex, he just got into a mess, over and over. That’s being simplistic, and too irreverent of his undoubted talent for colour and innovation in the best of the sixties work.

K.37 (LATTICE VARIATION) PROTOGEN RPT (FULL SIZE) 2008 Protogen RPT with stainless steel tubing 365.8 × 411.5 × 228.6 cm Collection of the artist Image courtesy Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York © ARS, NY and DACS, London Photo: John Bodkin

And yet the mess of Stella’s art is now seemingly endless. His attempts to side-step pictorial decision-making (was that the reason for those endless variations on a ‘format’?) by commencing a dalliance and then an outright engagement with three-dimensions has led him into the super-difficult world of abstract sculpture. Here he has even less chance than in painting, collage or relief of ever sorting things out. You don’t escape the problems of abstract painting by becoming three-dimensional, oh no you don’t! If anything, you compound them; or rather, swap them for a whole load of even tougher ones.

Check out the two sculptures in the exhibition foyer, and you can almost smell Stella’s desperation to be conqueror of complex three-dimensionality, to throw everything including the veritable and literal stainless steel kitchen sink at the problem, to be the man who overturns his own dead-end minimalism with an art of maximum content. But the visual structure of these works is non-existent; the one on the floor does not engage physically or spatially; the one hanging off the wall is nothing more than a big flouncy kebab, skewered to the wall through its own hollow heart. There is next to nothing on offer here for the future of abstract art – and I’m sorry about that, Frank.


  1. Andy Parkinson said…

    I can remember when Frank Stella was a genius and yes his status as a genius seems questionable now. Is it largely to do with the wider context? In the seventies it would have been difficult NOT to see him as a genius, but now that the context has changed we think differently about his work. And not just Stella, what about Noland and Olitski? It’s hard to imagine now that Clement Greenberg referred to Olitski as “the greatest painter alive”. I saw one of his paintings fairly recently, and though I really knew that it was no longer in fashion, it still did pack a punch. Genius may seem an overstatement now, but for me, the early Stellas do still pack a punch.

  2. Julia Cooper said…

    I create work that is unsatisfactory and a mess in retrospect but serves the purpose of an enquired search. The search for combinations of space/colour/materials will keep me going forever I think. I study everybody else’s attempts including Stella who you say shows good and indifferent, all important viewing for comparisons and mind stimulation.