Abstract Critical

Welcome To Inter-Stella-Space! – The Good, The Bad And The Baroque….

Written by John Bunker

When I entered the Haunch of Venison at the rear end of Burlington House, I was automatically drawn to the Stella sculptures loitering in an intimidating manner in the foyer. I bonded instantly with these rather brash and uncouth beasts – they seemed to echo my own slightly uncomfortable demeanor, surrounded as I was by the smiley ‘People Of The Haunch ‘.  Apart from, that is, the man in charge of the ‘bookshop’….  He kept giving me the ‘dirties’ while I carefully but relentlessly fingered his volumes….. I felt like saying … “Just looking mate!” It was then that I realised what my feelings of insecurity were really about… Is it possible to   just look at a Frank Stella show?

Frank Stella Tetuan 1, 1964 fluorescent Alkyd on canvas 195.6 x 196.2 cm Private Collection

This thought quickly turned into a kind of history lesson in received ideas based around the Stella, Fried and Andre love triangle….. With some serious cameos from Greenberg, Judd and Morris. It would make a great film with Scorsese directing and playing Stella, Kevin Spacey as Fried and Dustin Hoffman as Andre….

I want to tease out some of these received wisdoms so I might be able to look at Stella’s work afresh. But I’d like to start in 1983 when Frank Stella delivered his ‘Working Space’ lectures. Mr Stella could sense a ‘crisis’ in the future of abstraction…

“Broadly speaking, the present crisis can be defined by two major disappointments that twentieth century abstraction has experienced. One of them is the feeling that Mondrian’s example and accomplishments have gone to naught. The other is that, by 1970, it appeared that the most promising branch of post-war American painting – the successors of Barnett Newman, the Color Field abstractionists –  had turned to ashes.”1

Frank Stella The Shark Massacre, 1988 mixed media on etched magnesium and aluminium 153.7 x 243.2 x 69.5 cm Collection of the Artist

At least Stella was brave enough to lay down the gauntlet here! Or is he just saying what everyone had been thinking for a while…? It’s interesting to note how Stella’s ‘Working Space’ lectures got such a panning by Tim Hilton in the heady days of the The New Criterion of 1987 (2) –  that neo-conservative culture mag masquerading as the defender of High Modernist ideals. What seems to have got Hilton’s ‘goat’ is Stella’s free wheeling skit on pre-modern art – as the saviour of abstraction from the enervation of post painterly abstraction. But there is, in fact, something insightful about Stella’s attempt to assimilate  aspects of the pre-modern via Caravaggio…

St Matthew and the Angel 1602, S Luigi dei Francesi, Rome

“This gift of Caravaggio’s has a lot to say to emotion and psychology, but it also has a lot to say to painting today, especially to painterly abstraction. Caravaggio declares that pictorial drama is everything in art, and that drama must be played out with convincing illusionism. It is this lack of a convincing projective illusionism, the lack of a self-contained space, lost in a misguided search for colour (once called the primacy of colour) that makes most close-valued, shallow-surfaced paintings of the past fifteen years so excruciatingly dull.”3

In the 60s Fried positioned Stella with Noland and Olitsky. But Stella had hung out with his own generation- Andre and Judd. Judd could see no future for ‘painting’ per se and Andre’s concerns were essentially sculptural. Stella knows he has to free himself from Greenberg and Fried but everything about him is pictorial. Stella started his career by examining the architecture of a painting as object. He makes the image and the object one….This is a guy who knows what Modernism is with a capital M! He is not an artist of touch, of painterliness.  His career has been about how to find a truly modern space; it is abstract for sure, but it reflects us, refracts us- our desires, our alienated angst- just as Manet did in ‘A Bar at the Folies- Bergere’ one hundred and fifty years before.

It’s 2011. Art is a ‘space’ where power and it’s duplicitous machinations are played out for all to see. We look at Stella’s oeuvre as a bloody arena…. an art of disputed territories and unnerving no-man’s lands. But this is part of it’s appeal for me! Hilton wanted to know just who the hell Mr Stella thought he was in 1983! Was Stella really comparing himself to Caravaggio?  Like all deluded despots, was he trying to re-write history to suit his own ends….? But hold on! Isn’t that what The New Criterion does for a living day in, day out?

“Caravaggio declares that pictorial drama is everything in art……” More could have been made from dynamic juxtapositions in this show at The Haunch Of Venison because Stella’s trajectory isfracture – the ripping up and folding in of art history. Stella’s hope of  re-vitalising abstract art by embracing Baroque aesthetics has lead him to dissolve the categories of painting, sculpture and architecture- whether it be in the form of sports cars, architectural projects or decorating the vaulted  halls of our new cathedrals of capital.

Frank Stella Djaoek, 2004 Stainless steel tubing and carbon fibre 355 x 447 x 447 cm Collection of the Artist

Is it possible to say that ‘the Baroque’ must be seen as the historical precursor to what we live with now as the post-modern condition?

I’d like to finish with another lecture by an American abstract artist fascinated by the Baroque – but of another generation working in New York. This is an excerpt taken from a talk delivered by David Reed at Tate Modern in 2002.

David Reed: #402 (1997-2005) oil & alkyd on solid ground. Private Collection Switzerland

“Painting has possibilities now because it is impure. Painting is good at absorbing influences and had a grand symbiotic relationship with religion – especially Christianity. And now I think it can have just as rich relationship with the technologies of mechanical reproduction. Painting is the most corrupt and de-based form of art and that is its strength and its hope.”4

Stella has paved the way for this kind of fighting talk! For 50 years Stella’s work has ridden the waves of the cultural convulsions caused by the crisis in Modernist art. Welcome to inter- Stella- space! Can you feel it?



  1. P.1 Caravaggio. Working Space. Frank Stella. Harvard Uni Press 1986
  2. P.12 Caravaggio. Working Space. Frank Stella Harvard Uni Press 1986
  3. Frank Stella’s Crisis.The New Criterion Review of Books Feb 1987. Tim Hilton
  4. Tate Channel. Painting Present: David Reed. 29/10/02.

Frank Stella: Connections is at the Haunch of Venison Gallery , 6 Burlington Gardens until 19th November

  1. Ruth P said…

    Thank you John!
    I have been living joyfully in inter-Stella-space since visiting the show at Haunch of Venison! A fabulous direct hit of confident exuberance. My favourite is ‘Shark Attack’. It looks as if it was constructed using scraps left over from other works.
    Stella has lost none of his power. All other ‘artworks’ seen that day paled into insignificance.