The first thing to say is that this is an impressive exhibition, well hung in a large, light exhibition space. The comparison with the flat, lifeless show at Haunch of Venison in 2011 is marked, and I think can be fairly certainly put down to an unanswerable combination of better works, a better space, and more confident curation (Stella arranged it himself). The space is a large cube with a mezzanine level over about a fifth or sixth of its area – there is not a room in any of the Tates that competes. And this is essentially, you have to remind yourself, a provincial museum – thank you VW! It is divided by partitions into smaller spaces that flow into each other and open up into a series of vistas. The chronology of Stella’s work is very loosely followed, though with many zoomings back and forth and a general encouragement to criss-cross the work and make visual connections across time. We begin with the paintings of the late fifties, in an area under the mezzanine, and then move onwards into a fuller sense of the gallery’s scale: the contrast between the hand-made geometries and rectangular containment of a painting of the late fifties (however much it may push against this containment) and the zig-zagging energy of a Running V painting from 1964 is underscored by the shift in scale and the increase in light. My attention was grabbed; here it begins. If nothing else, Stella’s art is one of eye-drawing and impressive statements.
Within the central space Stella’s over-sized scale, his expansiveness, his largesse had room to breathe. The clean, light filled space activated his clean, bright colour; and the contrast with the gloomy if equally over-sized Kiefer in a dark room off the mezzanine was all in Stella’s favour.* The first few laps around the exhibition were an uplifting experience, and wandering around – as the hang encouraged – continued to be enjoyable across my two visits. The problem came when I stopped looking at the works as an ever-shifting panorama, stopped feeling their size, scale and colour out of the corner of my eye, as a generalised adjunct to the architecture, or an interruption or activator of it. When I tried to take full account of a particular painting – to engage with its specifics – the results were often disappointing to say the least.
All paintings exert an influence over the space or room they exist in; however ‘autonomous’, or however concerned with opening their surfaces up into illusions of depth, all paintings project into literal space, charge the space between them and the viewer, and draw this space into their structures (could we say the depth in a painting ‘feeds off’ the space of the room in which it is hung? Or, and this might be too blandly obvious, or just wandering into the realms of empty theorising, that the traditional plane of painting is a resolution between interior and exterior, a projection backward and one forward?). The progression of Stella’s art, the shift of his paintings, as one of the introductory captions has it, from ‘Minimalism to Maximialism’, is obviously rooted in an emphasis on painting as a physical thing (‘object’ is too inert). First in his movement beyond the orthogonals of the canvas, and then in his projection of shapes off the wall, so that they literally occupy some of space between surface and viewer that painting had in general been content to ‘charge’ at a distance, from behind the relative safety, the ostensible isolation of the flat surface. Though I don’t quite think it can be called the content of Stella’s work, an exploration of painting as a physical thing is obviously – to the extent it almost doesn’t need saying – its underlying intellectual drive. A few commentators on this site have suggested Stella is a Pop artist, and though I certainly think this is in some ways justifiable, this judgment would seem to be qualified by his concern with the physical qualities of painting at the expense of its ability to carry images; where Pop is based around the multiplication of detachable, weightless images, Stella makes images whose full character depends on our direct contact with them, our presence in the room in which they are displayed.
For me the most completely successful works in the show were the three large works from the Irregular Polygon series, though those from the slightly later Protractor series came a close second. In the Irregular Polygons we see Stella pushing the energy of the earlier shapes canvases back into something more pictorial. Where the Running Vs rely on rhythm and repetition (like a piece of unleashed mutant architectural decoration), the Irregular Polygons revolve around a plane, one which faces the viewer and which contains depth, and which, to repeat what I said above, brokers a resolution between interior and exterior, even as it heavily emphasises the latter. Tightly tying together ambiguities between figure and ground, between perspectival lines and flat shape, and between a clearly stressed boundary and an implicit breaching or truncation of this boundary, they were lucid, tough (and put work such as Wyatt Kahn’s, which I favourably reviewed last year and still have time for, very much in the shade). As well as allowing a resolution between interior and exterior, their pictorial illusion, however reductive, gave (or at least accompanied) a sense of purpose, a logic, a feeling that the parts within an individual work were actively involved with each other. Instead of just being eye-catching, this coherence sustained my attention.
In the works which follow the Irregular Polygons (skipping the Protractor series) a sense of purpose gradually dissipates. In the Polish Village and Brazilian series Stella begins to works in relief, with his parts built away from the surface, or literally cut into it. Yet he seems unable to find a way to really bring these parts into coherence, to find a form of illusion which functions without the pressure created by depth pressing against or withdrawing from a single surface. In its absence this single surface shows itself as providing a point of reference, a limit across which the different depths a painting contains can be measured against each other. Without this pressurised surface, or without something which convincingly replaces it, Stella’s parts seemed as if they were simply next to each other, floating or purposeless. Rather than an ambiguity that is resolved into or held within structure, too often they are just ambiguous.The works in the Polish Village series are a little like architectural models turned through 90 degrees; the different parts project outward within a certain range, and beyond a loose patterning (and some clever plays with sequentially fading colour and different textures) the different extents to which they project has little relation to the structure they create against the plane of the wall. In the Brazilian series Stella abandons the irregular outline and integration of the shaped canvases and returns to the conventional rectangle, and a conventional play of figure against ground (not quite disguised by his literal cutting the figure into the ground). In the Exotic Birds series the return to the rectangle and to a figure ground relationship are complete: rather than appearing radical, if anything projecting shapes away from the wall emphasises how conventional the works are; the purposelessness, the lack of tension grows: the pair of Exotic Birds are one of the show’s low points.** Harena from the Indian Bird series is a cacophony of shapes jammed on top of each other. It was so bad, so chaotic, so gaudy, I almost warmed to it; and the glitter strewn across it suggests that Stella didn’t take it too seriously himself. In its cacophony, and in its detachment of surface colour from underlying structure, Harena provides a model for much of Stella’s work which follows.
A large problem with Stella’s work post 1975 is that they depend on a single view to a much greater extent than any of the earlier work. The non-pictorial energy of a Running V can be understood at pretty much any angle; the Protractors, with their basis in decorative wall-painting worked likewise, and though the Irregular Polygons are predominately frontal, they make sense from angles away from a dead-on frontal view, and at times their controlled ambiguities – particularly in terms of the relation of flat shape to perspectival line – seemed to coherently respond as I moved around them. In contrast, though you can explore the sides of the post-1975 paintings (or even check out their backs), it is only when you reach the front that all the parts slot into some kind of position. This is not to say that this position is necessarily coherent or satisfying, but just that before it is reached the effect is almost always cluttered, characterised by a nagging sense of incompleteness. After you shift to find the ‘correct’ position a sense of the projecting shapes as three-dimensional is pretty much lost, and when I tried to focus in on a particular part to part relation in isolation from the total configuration the result was invariably unsatisfying. This is true even of the three works from the Moby Dick series (Memory of the Whale’s Skeleton, 1988; Ahab and the Carpenter, 1989 and The Grand Armada, 1990) which are all such clear images in photographs and which were the works I was most looking forward to seeing. Unfortunately, though their scale was striking, they more or less look like they do in photographs.*** The irony of paintings projecting in three-dimensions (I think Stella calls it 2.7) being photogenic or looking best from the front is heightened in the free-standing Broken Jug, which as far as I could tell had no good views.
There were some exceptions to these problems: the way the large curving ribbon in Bene come il Sale (from the Cones and Pillars series) hit the candy-striped and unfurled cone meant they felt connected through the whole 180 degrees (though the rest of the piece was a let-down); and there were interesting, if disconnected, profiles in Lo sciocco senza paura, also from Cones and Pillars. Marsamxett Harbour (1983, the Malta series) was one of more modest later works, and though perhaps slightly light-weight, one of the most successful. It used an enclosing frame (with echoes of David Smith) to give some coherence to the irregular shapes which made up the central ‘action’ but was able – crucially – to open up the frame from the sides with some coherence, and, to an extent, to integrate the frame and its contents (so partly avoiding the floating figure ground ambiguity of the Exotic Birds and suggesting a way that the tension of the Irregular Polygons could be opened outward, without being completely lost). As with the ribbon-cone combination in Bene come il Sale, Marsamxett Harbour approached success because its parts felt constructed, more or less certainly fixed together, so that they could cohere without the need to find the ‘correct’ viewpoint around which the work configured itself. It is a shame that it was one of the least eye-catching works: how good it would have been if it were a dominant part of the exhibition’s panorama, and then on closer inspection had revealed its success! Yet its (relative) simplicity and its near monochrome drew attention to the fact that though during the sixties Stella was clearly daring and buzzing with ideas, until the mid-seventies his work progressed fairly steadily, with colour and complexity gradually added. In contrast in the post-1976 works he appears to have jumped in at the deep-end, and flailed about near drowning, though I’m sure to him it feels like a happy splashing.
I stand by most of what I’ve said above, but I feel slightly disappointed with myself for plumping for the Irregular Polygons. They were not really what I had gone to see and it is apparent why Stella would have quickly become quite dissatisfied with them – how depressing his career would have been had he decided that having achieved that success he should just make variations on it! Their resolved structures have very little of the downright weirdness which precedes and follows them – perhaps I am just too conventional? And all this talk of a pressuried surface has also been done (though I’m not keen on jettisoning complexity, coherence and the rest). Walking around the London Art Fair last week I saw some pretty good Modern British abstract paintings, many by artists I like and have written about; a little William Gear sticks in my mind. But good as some of it was (and so much better, as I always find, than any of the contemporary work at the LAF) it was also safe and seemed completely done. Perhaps abstract painting needs some weirdness, some unsolvable complexity. Above I described the disappointment which followed my initial excitement in terms of a gap between the activation of the whole space of the gallery and the success of the individual works. But the vistas the exhibition opened up were not just phenomenological; they were also hints of possibilities, suggestions of what abstract art could do. Perhaps these things are worth throwing out there even if they turn out to be mirages? Because what is abstract art if it is not the discovery of worlds which do not exist?
* Though who wouldn’t come out of that comparison looking good?
** There is some stiff competition from some small relatively recent works hung in some unlit and auxiliary feeling space at the end of the exhibition. They were from Heinrich von Kleist series, the Maastricht series, the Scarlatti Sonata Kirkpatrick series, and last, and very much least, a piece of sci-fi prop debris called Etymology from the Moby Dick series. Though their location is accounted for by chronology and by size, there is also a sense they have been hidden away, a slight embarrassment.
*** For more on this series see Robert Linsley’s essay. Of course if you running a quasi-production line for an international clientele then producing photogenic work is of prime importance. More interestingly we could think about them not just being photogenic, but in some way corresponding to a photographic (and so contemporary) mode of vision. Though this is not enough to rescue them it is also interesting that they also have a quasi-gestural organisation: it would be hard to unpick but it might be interesting to try and see what the links are between gestural painting and photography. Beyond a capturing of a single moment , both also make uneasy claims about the relation between truth, authenticity and artifice.