Abstract Critical

Frank Stella

Written by Robert Linsley

On the occasion of a major Frank Stella retrospective at the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, abstract critical asked Robert Linsley for his personal response to Stella’s art. The exhibition runs until the 20thof January 2013.

I’ve enjoyed Frank Stella’s art since my own beginning as an artist, and the crucial thing has been the enjoyment. The intellectual or theoretical side was always evident—the literalness or factuality, the deliberate voiding of the subjective—and I never needed to take a course or read a tract to feel its necessity or reason, but overriding for me was the pleasure that accompanied the fact that I could also feel the artist behind the decisions. I had a particular affection for the Protractors, although it was many years before I saw one of the original Black Paintings in person, and felt how strongly emotional and romantic they are. I find myself thinking back to those early days in art because recently I’ve acquired a real love for Stella’s Moby Dick series [illustrated here by the Grand Armada and Measurement of the Whale’s Skeleton]. I’ve known about them since they were made, in the late eighties, and always thought they were an important group of works, but only very lately have I really seen them, with a return to feelings about art that perhaps one only has when young. Inspiration means an intake of breath—the breath of life, being whatever one needs and wants to find in art. For me, Picasso, Matisse, Cézanne, and intermittently many others, were truly inspiring—they filled me with a sense of the possibilities of  life. Emulation was the necessary beginning, but eventually I had to meet the challenge that was presented, to breath out and keep on breathing. In those days I drank in their work and always had a thirst for more, or, to return to the metaphor of inspiration, the fresh air of art brought every cell to life. Looking at art books was a daily pleasure that gave a perspective on the ordinary dullness of life; visits to museums were transformative. Every contact with art sent me back to the studio. I never had a “disinterested” response to beauty, for me it was always about what could be done—what had been done and what I could do, and every historical achievement was another possible path forward. This practical, achievement oriented attitude is why I like Stella’s writing, which is exactly that way, but I never expected to have such strong feelings about his work. Today I just want to stand beside the Moby Dick reliefs and feel the energy. It’s the unexpectedness of this response that, for me, proves its truth. What I mean by that is that what follows in this essay will be a description of those aspects of his work that explain my reactions, but the reactions are the proof that I am right to single them out. An assessment of Stella’s importance, present and future, will have to arise, for me, out of my own work—necessarily from where it differs from his of course—but also from its own future, as I can feel it arriving.

Frank Stella, Ostropol III, 1973, Mixed media on cardboard, 234 x 268 x 43 cm, Sammlung Henkel. Photo: Jack Richmond, © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2012

Stella’s first period reaches an end and culmination with the Polish Villages [illustrated here by Ostropol III, 1973]. (i) In this period he never invented a form, but managed to contribute a lot to abstraction by devising configurations of straight lines and regular curves, elements that in themselves are inexpressive and empty in a way that at the time, for some people, was provocative and even polemical. Series such as the Irregular Polygons and Polish Villages brought a complexity that still seems productive—there is yet work to do to build on those. In his second period, from the early seventies to the mid eighties, problems seemed to arise. I saw a show of the Exotic Birds [illustrated here with Bonin Night Heron, 1976] in Vancouver in about 1978, and remember my bemusement. The “baroque” glitter and extravagance seemed to be a turn toward the worst part of the market. I could easily see that he was making an appeal to sensibility over formal intelligence, and could accept that as a legitimate move, but the works didn’t appeal to me—though I never felt that was sufficient reason to give up on them. I can also appreciate that an artist would value independence over deference to whatever discourse is making the rounds at any time, and that to achieve that might entail meeting the market halfway—an acceptable strategy when the stakes are as important as an artist’s self sufficiency and freedom, and in Stella’s case the limits on his freedom seemed to be partly at least a function of his own successful past and real achievements. When I saw him at the opening wearing paint spattered jeans and a dinner jacket, a cigar and a baseball cap, it was pretty clear that courting collectors was part of the job.

Frank Stella, Bonin Night Heron I , 1976, Acrylic on aluminium, 275 x 350 x 65 cm, Museum Ludwig, Cologne/Peter and Irene Ludwig Foundation, Photo: © Rheinisches Bildarchiv Cologne, rba_d031385 © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2012

Today I can see the Exotic and Indian Birds and the Circuits more clearly, and find that they are a lot more interesting than I thought then. But this change of perspective in me is owing to the third period, from Moby Dick onwards, which will be the main topic of this essay, but before getting to that it is important to notice the formal and technical problems that arose in the works of the seventies.

Instead of inventing configurations, Stella began, with the Exotic Birds, to make compositions of ready-made or found elements such as French curves, railroad curves and tools of geometry. (ii) He took up a repertoire of fixed shapes, and attempted an impossible task—to make successful arrangements without altering them to fit. Of course it’s not impossible, but it is extremely difficult, and the achievement is perhaps not so great. Stella had some hits and misses, and in the Indian Birds developed a system of complex interweaving of layers on curved mesh supports that perhaps did as much as could be done in that mode. Success meant simply complexity, a complexity that seemed to preclude or make unnecessary close reading of parts and their relationships. This is why I had my doubts about that work back in the day, because I was completely dedicated to modernist organicism, the way that in a picture by Matisse or Picasso or Cézanne every part is integrated into a whole that is more than an assemblage of disparate things. Modernist art may be full of disruptions, breaks and discontinuities, but the whole is always more strongly felt. Stella’s use of ready-made shapes put limits on what he could achieve, but now I appreciate that he is not really a modernist anyway, and that his close examination of the old masters is more significant that perhaps is generally realized. More about this further on, but for now it is also clear that during the seventies and early eighties he accomplished a lot that would pay off later. He learned how to make metal relief paintings, and how to hang them on the wall, how to paint them, and to work with fabricators on factory shop floors and with a studio team. He learned how to sustain more than one body of work over the necessarily long  production schedules. He started to etch the surfaces of the panels, to use the negative shapes left by cutting them out, and expanded his ability to paint decoratively and “all-over.” The capacities were there for great work of a new type, but the next step was in a way a conservative or traditional one, to invent his own shapes. It started in the Circuits series with the use of flexi-curves, which of course have to be manipulated, and then moved to shapes designed from scratch, the “waves” that would contribute to the Moby Dick series. And with the Italian Folktales and “Had Gadya” prints Stella took to linking his pieces to works of literature through the title. That the works are not illustrations but seem to want to participate in the meanings that literature can carry is interesting because it has to do with the unresolved question of how abstract art can signify, and the quality of that signification. But the important literature to discuss at this point is Stella’s own writing.

His book, Working Space, is one of the best things ever written by an artist. Apart from the ideas it contains, the greatest pleasure it offers is the artist’s voice. Stella says what he means directly, humorously and in a completely natural and idiosyncratic manner. You can hear him talking. It isn’t required of any artist that they should write, or give public talks. It isn’t even required that they understand what they are doing, never mind explain it or comment on other art, and in fact many find all of these things difficult. They are difficult. I don’t believe that Stella has a standard literary skill, or any glibness with the written word. I think he addressed the difficulty of his task by going straight to the point—whatever he had on his mind he tells us, in the simplest way. This is enough to give the book distinction, and set it in the company of such essential texts as Matisse’s “Notes of a Painter.” I believe that all writing about visual art has to be judged aesthetically, as writing in other words. Original and truthful insights will never be heard and acknowledged unless they are cleverly and pleasurably presented, there are simply too many good ideas available, and too many smart people with the ability to express them. As in the general economy, overproduction is an ongoing crisis. But it is also lucky for us that Stella’s thoughts are worth listening to. Who could fail to be enlightened, if not charmed, by his ruminations on Paulus Potter’s “Young Bull”? His assessment of Kandinsky, rounded out by a critique of museum policy, is challenging for any abstractionist today. Of course not everything is on the same level—most of what he says about Picasso is pithy but familiar, still enjoyable for that. But most provocative is the main topic, Caravaggio.

Caravaggio has no place in modernism, certainly not in the twentieth century. There is a distant memory of his work in some early Manet, transmitted by Velazquez, but Stella’s assertion that Picasso picked up a Caravaggesque feel in Naples is really surprising, almost absurd—yet, the way he presents it, convincing. John Richardson, in his exhaustive biography of Picasso, does not support this speculation. He makes no mention of Caravaggio in his Naples chapter, or anywhere else, and claims that Picasso was most affected by the Farnese Hercules. In fact, I have a dim memory of Helene Parmelin recounting that Picasso had a strong aversion to Caravaggio. But all of that doesn’t mean that Stella is wrong. The kind of art history that Stella practices comes out of and feeds into his work—it’s an imaginative creation, not a tabulation of “facts,” truer than the academic sort because it has a more compelling reason to exist.

Caravaggio must have inspired Stella, inspired him to want a pictorial space that moves all around and between depicted figures and objects and also projects forward into the viewer’s world. This can only be an illusion; it’s not the actual space we live in, which is passable enough up to the surface of the picture, but the space of art, meaning an illusion that pictorial space is more vivid and real than the space we are standing in and which we normally forget to see and feel as we make our way through it. But whatever he found in the churches of Rome, he used it to challenge the foundations of American abstraction. There is no point in rehearsing a very well known argument, but just consider how rare that gesture is. How many artists turn against the discourse that has sustained their career and enabled their success, not to take up a politically opposite position, but to help it overcome its own limitations? abstract critical is full of smart polemicists, with strong and particular views, but I submit that a strategy like Stella’s remains very rare, and valuable—to critique without denying the validity of any other position, to make the honest assessment of failure the basis for a new affirmation, to propose the boldest and least obvious solution. To take one side of any two-sided argument is pointless for an artist—a waste of time and ultimately destined to become just part of the noise of our civilization that makes it harder to realize anything. To expose the weaknesses of one’s own side as part of the battle for the future is something else, and it presupposes that one believes in a future for art. When Stella says of himself as a young artist that “It was not enough to worry that in the pursuit of art one might fail to catch up to it; in addition, one had to worry about doing part of the job to keep it running.” (iii) I think we should take him at his word, and accept that it is not an arrogant or ego-centric claim. It’s the love of art in action, the only way that such a love can really exist anyway, despite the testimony of connoisseurs and aesthetes.

In the event, Stella’s work, in the period of the Norton lectures, did not recapture the illusion of an enveloping space produced by chiaroscuro. In the Cones and Pillars series [illustrated here by Bene Come Il Sale, 1987] and the Italian Folktales, he didn’t shade and didn’t make illusory volumes. Instead, he tried to give his by then characteristic and distinctive works, the relief paintings, a new kind of space somewhere in-between pictorial illusion and literal space, and so keep faith with abstraction as it had developed. Parallel black lines of graded width running along the “pillars” and cones don’t so much give a feeling of volume as signify volume in a very reduced graphic way—the curved bases do much more of the work, and actually support the schematic hatching lines, because an ellipse reads very strongly and easily as a circle tipped at an angle. The jury is out on the success of these works—personally I like them more all the time—but they are certainly one of the more audacious attempts to give abstraction a vividness that it had lost in the seventies. Just after finishing the Moby Dick works, Stella described his prints as “Illusionism compromised by literalism. Literalism compromised by illusionism.” (iv) He goes on to say “…maybe we could end up with pictorial literalism.” (v) a remark that shows how tied he remains to the discourse of his own period, specifically to Michael Fried and his minimalist peers. But then everything that historical painting did, with tone, light, colour, composition, drawing, did arrive in the Moby Dick series, on a wave of pictorial ambition that carried the work higher up the beach, past any preoccupation with mere techniques such as modeling or shading. The point is not to imitate the art of the past but to equal it; he says “competition is better than imitation even if you fail.” (vi) And with this Stella accomplished the most amazing thing—to extend modernism by negating it’s own negation of historic European art and joining abstraction, of all things, with the past that it had left behind at its own origins.

In any assessment of the success of Stella’s efforts to get abstraction off the painterly surface and into a more compelling imaginative space it’s a good idea to remember that the relief paintings have always been accompanied by prints. The Moby Dick prints, in three or more series, depending on how you count them, have lots of depth, but it is the conventional space of modernist painting, made of overlapping planes that sometimes seem close up beside each other, sometimes farther apart. So the question that arises is whether the relief paintings are necessary, whether they offer any genuinely new spatial possibilities. If they are a kind of painted sculpture then the space involved is just the normal space of life; if all they do is add literal depth to the ordinary notional or imaginative depth produced by overlapping planes in a drawing, then they don’t add enough to be worth the trouble and cost of making them—might as well stick to canvas or paper, the results will be just as good, and Stella’s prints suggest something like that. Instead of an art historical advance in the conquest of space, the relief paintings may just be the highly individual manner of a particular artist, but as it happens, they do open up a new way of thinking about pictures, through an unexpected and apparently peripheral feature—their painted backs.

Frank Stella, The Grand Armada (IRS, No. 6, 1X) , 1989, Painted aluminum relief, 315 x 186.5 x 99 cm, Foundation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel, Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel, © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2012

He probably had nothing important in mind when he began to paint the supports and the backs of the shapes of the Indian Birds, beyond a felt need to include all visible parts in the picture, but in the event the painted backs of the Moby Dick works lighten the planes, almost dematerialize them, as absurd as that sounds. The surfaces of both front and back are as rough and tactile as one could wish—another aspect of Stella’s work that deserves further mention—but somehow the fact that both sides are painted brings out the phenomenal nature of paintings, their status as appearance, which I would nominate as the essence of the pictorial. The painted planes don’t appear as things, but as images, and so as illusions, no matter lacking the paraphernalia of illusionism, and the painted backs make them more so. In some cases the figures on the front seem to have penetrated and show through on the back differently coloured, as if the plane itself was like Alice’s looking-glass, a transformative medium.

In Working Space Stella was highly critical of how so much abstract painting has become bogged down in paint, stuck to a surface that had become a final resting place for modernist ambitions. Yet the planes of his relief paintings, up to Moby Dick, are just surfaces for decoration. When he starts to invent forms he then has the possibility of painting those same forms, and in fact draws and paints the same repertoire of cut out shapes of which the series is composed onto those very shapes. When the Moby Dick reliefs reach their peak, in the “C” and “D” series, the layering of shapes over shapes, sometimes jumping up or down a level, always interrupted  by other images that compose other layers, reaches a chaos of complexity. There is clearly nothing random anywhere, but the totality of what is going on cannot be caught in the glance so typical of modern looking, always searching for the concept or the recognizable category. Stella wants us to slow down and look, but then to speed up with the work and enter an all enveloping pictorial space. And that’s just from the front. When the sides and backs are taken in as well things actually get a little easier to grasp, as the relationship of the planes becomes more clear, but the actual painting on the back is often bewildering, sometimes looking like an enumeration of all the conventional manners of seventies abstraction. He puts so much work into making paintings that will rarely if ever be seen that one doesn’t know how to take them at first, but then one is further astonished by their enthusiastic badness, which becomes another kind of reward. Stella must have realized that there was no escape from the sludge of surface bound abstraction except to embrace it. He clearly rejects the canonical strategies of emptying, clearing, purifying and clarifying. The first and obvious interpretation is that abstraction can keep its surfaces but they must be lifted onto planes suspended in space, so the relief painting is a solution that doesn’t really change anything, but I think there is a more profound recognition—namely that there is nothing wrong in principle with the materiality of paint, it just needs imagination and energy to froth it up into something real, and, as Picasso showed so well, the way to make art better is to find out how bad it already is, start there and head down. In other words, the important distinctions are qualitative, not theoretical or art-historical. This may strike some as obvious, but it’s also much more difficult and risky to realize than any abstract or theoretical program. It may strike others as deeply conservative, but then that argument is just an alibi for the need to explain everything, itself an avoidance of the difficulty of making a great work of art.

Stella has become a master of both colour and touch, and the extreme variety of his surfaces—in the front view—proves that easily enough. Every kind of painting, scraping, wiping, drawing and piling up are used with virtuosity, not to mention the texture of the metal, sometimes corroded or etched, which fits right in. But the backs—and note that they often have a different character than the fronts, and can use very different painterly languages—take the whole effort over the top. Inclusion becomes the strongest form of critique, which indeed it is, because it proves that the artist is not hampered by anyone else’s failure in this collective adventure of painting, that he or she doesn’t have to recognize any historical determinism. But I think that their greatest importance lies in how the fact that both sides of a plane are painted dissolves away the plane itself, ensuring that a relief painting is really a painting and not a sculpture. And this happens even as the work is obviously and unqualifiedly material. They are not necessarily heavy, like a Serra, because aluminum and magnesium are relatively light. They are heavily painted, yet imaginatively and creatively light.

Frank Stella, Measurement of the Whale’s Skeleton, 1988, Mixed media on aluminum., 426 x 485 x 47 cm, SCHAUWERK Sindelfingen, © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2012

The crux of the Moby Dick series, and of all the greater and lesser works that have come since, is that Stella is a montage artist. His works are assemblages of self-contained parts and his art is to dissolve them into a new whole. Like many other practices with the same principle it is a matter of taste and judgment to what extent the differences between the elements remain and to what extent their links to each other grow stronger and more apparent. So it was when he started to make relief paintings, but the evolution of the work has been not only toward greater unity and wholeness, but toward the recognition that the old masters were all montage artists as well. Preliminary sketches, Iife drawings, landscape sketches, photographs, quotations from other works and sources outside art—those have been the given elements melted down to make large scale unified works, whether in Renaissance Italy or Baroque Spain or 19th. Century France. The great tradition of European painting is a tradition of assemblage and montage, but the modern period proposed a narrower concept of unity and organic wholeness. The central modern tradition, rooted most strongly in Cézanne, imagines the parts of a picture as growing out of each other, not as brought from outside and assembled together. The great modern pictorial metaphor, figured in the arabesques of Matisse, is the plant. One may object that it hardly matters how one gets to such an appearance, and that it takes a lot of work, a lot of fussing and fiddling, cutting and stitching, to turn Frankenstein’s monster into a fair simulacrum of a living body, but the history of modern painting does present us with a distinction between works that are more or less constructed and works which are more or less organically grown. As I said, Cézanne is the ancestral figure, and the visible corrections, changes and rethinkings in his pictures are not to draw attention to the artwork as a conscious construction but to show how the forms grew over time. At least that’s how it feels, perhaps because he never let geometry take over. The temporal aspect is up front, and that’s what Matisse took for his guide and inspiration. Later abstractionists radicalized this move—Pollock, Frankenthaler and Louis being the canonical figures. This work is so strongly temporal that no corrections are possible, only addition. The result has been a new source of energy and many great initiatives, accompanied by necessary limitations. Stella’s drive is to overcome limitations, and his own limits were the early works in which the organic unity of modernism had become concept as much as felt reality. They didn’t grow into their form, they were invented whole, not an untypical thing post Abstract Expressionism.

Stella never turned his back on his own past, he just tried to expand the range of what he did, and so it has become clear that he was never an organicist. The most surprising thing is the quality of an ambition that makes the relevant comparison not with Matisse or Cézanne, but with Rubens or Caravaggio, both montage artists, though that may be hard to see immediately in the latter case. The proof is found in the way that time is sedimented into the work. Caravaggio could not have painted his big pictures in one session. For all that they depict a single moment with more vividness than had been seen till then, he must have returned to his models on subsequent days, and the energy of the work is in the will exerted to realize a singular time and place over many days of labour. Stella’s strong response to Caravaggio is then revealing—it is wonder at how the finished work doesn’t show any joints, even though we know they are there. The penetrating, projecting and enveloping space that Stella talks about is a unified substance magically produced from many parts, and more importantly many moments. But the relevant context is a modern art that has diminished the temporal range of the studio, in two ways. Firstly, through increased conceptuality, which means that the work exists as an idea before it is made, so there is no work to be done, only execution. This is a description of Stella’s early groups, as it is of most of what today could be called global conceptualism. Secondly through the collapsing together of conception and execution in the strong organicist mode, a good example of which might be the more than 600 drawings of Robert Motherwell’s Lyric Suite. Since every moment is another gesture and another work, it’s even hard to imagine how to value one over another, and so art achieves an insurmountable minor status. The minor and the lyrical are limits on abstraction in its bodily, improvised, gestural mode. So this is what Stella means by “working space”—a working time in which every joint in the work, or every join, is another opportunity to reflect, alter, adjust and change toward a major achievement. It shouldn’t be too hard nowadays to accept that time is a dimension of space. That the work emerges from the making, from building with the hands, counters conceptuality and keeps everything material and tactile. The necessarily long production schedules demanded by the integration of factory and studio overcome the temporal restrictions of organicism and gives mental space to clogged painterly surfaces. This is how his painting of supports and backs, which in principle is just filling in, acquires distance and perspective—and gives pleasure.

To see how the Moby Dick reliefs accomplish their canceling of the central organicist tradition of modernism as they reach back to the studios of Rubens and Caravaggio, Piazzetta and Tiepolo, (vii) Delaroche and Courbet, one has to identify the factory made shapes invented by Stella and used in different combinations from work to work, where they are cut, bent, fragmented, doubled, painted on and over, etched and corroded, used as stencils for negative shapes and finally linked by association and repetition with Melville’s original. This is not easy to do—it entails close acquaintance with many works and many acts of comparison. For this, Robert Wallace’s book on the series is invaluable. (viii)

Stella’s work poses a problem for my own, the motivation behind this essay. My work is in the strong organic mode, and though I have found a way to cancel the limitations entailed, there is a further distance to go. The Moby Dick series gives me so much pleasure, but I was never content to be a consumer of art—great art demands an answer in work, not just words, so here I must leave off. But I want to include one more quote from Working Space: “…life is more wonderful than the imagination and recall of the people who live it. What saves painting is that a totality of experience drives it, lifting it above the pettiness of encounters between artist and critic.” (ix) Stella’s assertion that life is better than we remember it is exactly the opposite of the conventional view, supported by daily experience, namely that we prefer to remember things as better than they were. But how can we participate in this better life, which seems to be always passing us by? What he means is that life is always unsatisfying, but work makes it better; that our collective arrangements will always be inadequate but when an artist exceeds him or herself it’s a gift to us all—a building forward that proves that it’s not art as the image of a better world that gives hope, but as the record of human capacities realized in work.

Robert Linsley, Kitchener 2012


(i) I am neglecting the Brazilian series

(ii) Obviously a protractor is a tool of geometry, but I think my distinction still holds, since protractors don’t appear as protractors, as three dimensional forms, until later.

(iii) Working Space, Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1986 p. 158

(iv) quoted in “Melrose Ave.” The Writings of Frank Stella, Jena 2001 p. 219

(v) ibid.

(vi) quoted by Robert Wallace in Frank Stella’s Moby-Dick: Words and Shapes, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press 2000, p.7 The book is out of print and difficult to get, but Wallace himself has copies for sale. 

(vii) I had to stick in some of my own favourites.

(viii) see note 4

(ix) Working Space,  p. 153

  1. Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe said…

    What continues to be great about this essay is that it’s stirred up so much comment.
    (On another note would the editor please contact me as I seem unable to reach him by email….?)

  2. Noela Bewry said…

    I don’t think there is antagonism between sculptors and painters, but if something has a label it is fair enough to discuss what that label means.
    I don’t see the Stella pieces illustrated here as paintings, they are, surely, cut outs that have been painted!
    I know the trend is that anything can be called anything nowadays , but it is much more interesting to be specific.
    Stella’s pieces seem to tap a different mindset from the one a painting might engage with.

    • Robert Linsley said…

      I’m in two minds. “Sculpture” and”painting” are abstract categories, and there really is no reason to try and understand what anyone means when they say these things. They simply are not real, only the objects are real and need to be dealt with in their concreteness, not treated as occasions for argument about categories. Here I’m putting in a plug for the conversation with Richard Shiff, which doesn’t seem to have attracted as much attention as it should, considering the importance of Shiff’s views on this very matter.

      On the other hand it is important to talk about the differences between painting and sculpture because in fact there are important concrete differences. So I guess I’m talking in circles – foolish me.

      It seems that a painting calls for a planar, frontal address. Also important is that the plane blocks off what’s behind it, it’s not transparent – if it is literally transparent then it blocks vision in some metaphorical way. This planar base condition entails illusionism – a particular kind of pictorial magic not found on every plane, but has to do with the deep nature of art.

      The Stellas – http://www.flickr.com/photos/40275289@N06/3701949372/in/photostream/ – are not painted, but they have variously coloured metal. They are held up by metal posts he calls an “easel,” and clearly meant to be seen from the front, the side with the added shapes. This front plane is not flat, but curved in a complex way, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

      I’m beginning to understand what he means by 2.5 dimensions. The layered on cut-out shape has a literal depth of maybe 1/4 inch, don’t know exactly, but it has an extra illusionistic kick because the context is painting. It has an illusionistic depth because our habits of viewing art make it so – because we want to spin stories around the shape and want to see it in relation to others, as an animated, moving thing – with an extra literal kick because we can see the edge of the shape and the shadow it casts. So between real and imaginary. Maybe that just makes a traditional relief, not sure, but there it is.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Frank will be putting in his order for a two-and-a-half dimensional printer then? Join the queue… Caro’s ahead of him… I think you are contextualising furiously, Robert.

        For a few more thoughts on the differences between, see my comment on David Sweet’s new article.

      • Noela Bewry said…

        Thank you for plugging your conversation with Richard Shiff. It is really interesting. There have been many discussions about abstract / representational on this site and it is illuminating that Shiff thinks it is a nonsensical consideration as far as De Kooning is concerned.
        What De Kooning does , feels like painting [even though he calls some of it drawing], what Stella does , doesn’t feel like painting.
        It’s about a different kind of engagement , indecision , adjustment, revisiting.[Who was it that said they talk to their painting every morning before working on it?]
        Maybe the work does reflect the kind of person the artist is.

      • Sam said…

        The 2 1/2 printer comment is a little too easy isn’t it? By contextualising furiously do you mean actively thinking something through? I would have thought that was to be encouraged. To my mind, even if such as thing as Stella’s work or relief in general had never existed, Robert’s uncertain understanding of painting and sculpture as both abstract concepts and as concrete things seems to be an honest one: individual paintings are not simply concrete instances of an abstract concept that precedes them; the idea that painting can be pushed in new directions depends on the relation being dynamic, does it not?

        Does your 2 1/2 D printer comment imply that this sort of work does not exist? That it is always the same? Or that it can never be satisfying?

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        My comment implies that it does not exist. 2.5D is not real.

        These Stella reliefs on ‘easles’ are without doubt 3D, but in an entirely literal way, which has nothing to do with sculpture. They are just dumb objects that have a crazy relief attached to one (or both?) sides. They have absolutely nothing to say of intelligence about the three-dimensions that they exist in, which is what one should expect from sculpture.

        I’m not really interested in the category either, only in what they are doing – or in this case, not doing. But dodging between categories just evades the problems of addressing either painting or sculpture properly. This is what Stella does.

        So Robert, Sam: talk to me about what this relief in the link is doing… Or find another good one that you want to discuss???

      • Robert Linsley said…

        Somewhere in the second MoMA catalogue Stella says something about wanting to work between 2 and 3 dimensions, he may not have used the term 2.5 exactly – I’ll look it up. But it’s just a metaphor anyway. Maybe Robin is right and what we can find between illusion and literalness is only relief in the traditional sense. But it’s not hard to see that a modern artist might feel a pleasant shock when he or she interrupts a pictorial illusion with a bit of real stuff – or in Stella’s case the reverse, when he adds illusion to his literal work – and thereby thinks they’ve come up with something new which needs new metaphors to describe.

        As for the pieces we are talking about, commonly called sculptures but for Stella actually paintings – I don’t know if they are any good or not. I know the Moby Dick works are great, and I’m getting closer to the Kleist series, and my thoughts on these are coming out on the blog, but I really don’t know about these. Formally they make sense, but that doesn’t guarantee anything.

        We have a plane, as usual in painting. It is warped and bent – so far so good. Then a flat cut-out is applied. Then the plane is cut open and bent back in one place to give another tilted plane a bit further back, and to that is attached a three dimensional form (smoke ring) that sprawls out into our space. The piece is in a logical progression from Stella’s earlier work but quality depends on whether we can feel anything in the forms.

    • John Bunker said…

      Might that different ‘mindset’ have something to do with Picasso’s constructions in cardboard of guitars around 1912?Was it also Picasso who said collage is modernism’s great invention but also it’s great undoing (sorry for dreadful paraphrasing)? Here’s Greenberg being so eloquent about collages importance to modern sculpture:

      The picture had now attained to the full and declared three- dimensionality we automatically attribute to the notion “object”‘ and painting was being transformed, in the course of a strictly coherent process with a logic all of its own, into a new kind of sculpture. Thus we see that without collage there would have been no Pevsner, Gonzales, or Giacometti, no Calder or David Smith.

      The synthetic phase of cubism begins to melt the categories of painting and sculpture with the heat of a new and exciting visual logic and in so doing gives new energy and dynamism to both. I guess that’s why Stella still excites me as this history permeates his work.

      I’m also thinking here about the show Marcus Harvey curated last year called ’2 and a half dimensions’ a term his teacher Harry Thubron used to describe his own relief constructions. (Theres a piece on it on this site-articles from all time)An interesting, if somewhat cluttered show in which I would have loved to have seen a good Stella as it might have blown everything else out of the water.

      • Noela Bewry said…

        I think we just have more categories, thanks to the, ‘heat of a new and exciting visual logic’, rather than a melting or fusing of painting and sculpture.
        The notion of a 2.5 dimension seems to describe reliefs/cutouts quite well.

  3. Brian said…

    Frank Stella: The only artist that started as a genius and went on to become a student

    • Robert Linsley said…

      an inspiration to us all

      • John Bunker said…

        Brian, stop being so smug! Stella: A sculpture is just a painting cut out and stood up somewhere.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Just the sort of stupid thing a student would say.

      • John Bunker said…

        Stella is awful- but I do like him! He’s bound to tread on sculptors toes isn’t he? Such audacity! A vital attribute of the modern spirit, I’d say.
        Heyana Stomp made everything else in the Indiscipline of Painting show look decidedly ‘no fun’ and academic. Although the Haunch show was pretty shabby Shark Massacre made a lot of contemporary abstraction look pale and sentimental.

        Not stupid: “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.”

  4. Robin Greenwood said…

    On the subject of unity or wholeness in art, I was yesterday made to think about this during a visit to ‘Renaissance to Goya; Prints and drawings made in Spain’ at the British Museum, where it seemed to me that Goya had pretty much taken out a monopoly in it. Just about everything of his in the show, which comprises about a third of all the exhibits, seemed to have a sense of wholeness, no matter what kind of organisation comprised the work; whereas very little else in the show achieved it. For example, Goya seems able to thrust all his figures and activity into one corner of an etching and still make the whole thing alive and participating in the whole. How and why, I know not.

    Passing a bookshop near the BM, I spotted a second–hand copy of the book Richard refers to: Moby-Dick: Words and Shapes. I didn’t buy it (though checking it out on Amazon, it would have been an absolute bargain), but I did have a pretty good browse. I noticed what seemed to be a diagram setting out different shapes used over and again in the Moby Dick series of compositions, with names like ‘Whale’, ‘Wave’, ‘Whale and wave’ etc. (I can’t remember any others). I guess these are what you are referring to, Robert, in the second-to-last paragraph of your essay. It seems to me a singularly naff way of going about ‘composing’ (I use the term pejoratively) an ‘abstract’ painting (though I don’t really think there is anything very abstract about them), to get these shapes mass-produced as cut-outs, assemble them in different ways, then decorate them.

    Despite the fact that many (Robert and Sam, perhaps?) would say that this method of working is a liberating way of getting beyond the bog-standard-issue arrangement of rectangles-in-another-rectangle belonging to abstract formalism, and into some new stuff (maybe even into ‘exploding’ painting?), which I wouldn’t deny is what we all want, I’m just continually struck by the obvious limiting factors that must always be at work during the making of these pieces; those things that in the end will absolutely not allow you to go all out for wholeness, because of the conceptual compromise made at the beginning of the process (i.e. we’re going to make ‘shapes’ resembling the outlines of figurative things). You would never be able, so long as you kept intact these items that linked you to a literary conceit and a non-visual concept, to discover anything of true abstract/visual value. For me, in real abstract art, everything but everything is potentially up for grabs and subject to throwing out if it becomes redundant to the coherent activity you are striving towards. So it’s no surprise to me that all these works fail, despite all the concomitant optimism. They are pre-programmed to fail.

    I would say that similar limitations apply to the semi-3D work of Richard Smith. There just is no potential left, once you have made one ‘kite’ painting; you just have to make a series, all doing a variation on the same literal thing. I think too, Robert, since you have brought up the topic of your own work, that I would apply this concern to your process of pouring paint onto canvas and rolling it about into shapes. How do you then get into the business-end of painting, where you make radical decisions and changes to things because of how they look and what they are doing/not doing visually, if you are forever in hock to the inviolability of this process? Despite you saying (somewhere?) that you think the future of abstract art is in the denial of the conceptual, this seems quite a conceptual and formulaic position to have adopted for each and every one of your paintings.

    I think that this suspect business of doing literal variations on a theme is linked to the issue of overproduction that I find so offensive in Stella and many other big names. It sets a terrible example to young artists, and generally devalues abstract art by making it seem easy and generic; whereas, in reality, it is rather difficult and very particular.

    • Robert Linsley said…

      I thought I took pains to be clear that I share exactly the same reservations about Stella’s “ready-made” cut out shapes as you have just laid out. However, even if his method seems hobbled at the start, the results are still good because he alters them considerably in the process, and his alterations testify to an understanding of how colour, shape etc. should work in modernist painting. The lesson seems to be that my reservations, and yours, are more theoretical than artistic. Despite what you have been saying, the pictures are self-evidently good, so my own organicism can go hang, I’m not wedded to it to the extent I will let it deny experience.

      As for my work, you are right that it is limited at the start and the limitations get tighter as the piece proceeds – that’s my method. I like it and I don’t. It works and it doesn’t. It works better than almost any “bog-standard-issue” middle of the road abstraction I see around because 1) it has a feeling of freshness 2) it has a feeling of objectivity and necessity 3) it has a feeling of freedom, which can only exist within limitations – and so it feels right, no concepts needed, though the works do think and have offered me some concepts to consider, many of which are on my blog.

      My works paint themselves, I don’t paint them. This is not 70s “process” art, which is too conceptual for me. This is a kind of organicism that might be difficult to appreciate because it lies somewhere in between or outside the existing positions.

      Finally back to Stella, he has written well about how he doubts that unity and wholeness are really functional for art today. I don’t think he wants those things, though any work of art will have them anyway, just by virtue of its physical limits. The question today might be – is the arrangement of the work dictated by concepts (as in Richter say) or by feeling and experience. If the latter it can’t help but be novel. It seems that Stella’s career is a progressive working out of and away from concepts and into art, and the Moby Dick series shows the traces of that move.

    • Robert Linsley said…

      We agree about “variations on a theme.” That’s why my work is not that, each piece is “particular,” as you say. The “business end” is the beginning middle and end of the pour – it’s all work – there are no dead spots, nothing is random, nothing is unworked, and nothing is “in hock” to a concept.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        It seems like you make the perfect painting every time. Do none of them fail or partially fail? That does sound a little formulaic. Not sure I understand the idea that your paintings ‘paint themselves’. That surely is a concept?

      • Robert Linsley said…

        It is a concept when I explain it, but it didn’t start that way. The mischief of concepts is to rule the work. I never had these kind of ideas until the work taught them to me, so it’s a stance or attitude rather than a finished achievement. Some artists work out their idea then carry it out – whatever ideas I have came to me from the work. That may not sound unusual because I’m sure every genuine artist does something like, but as far as I see so far no one else is doing what I’m doing. Would like to know if they were.

        Of course I have failures, but success and failure is very difficult to decide if I don’t want to impose my own ideas. “The work makes itself” could be called a metaphor for the new – we can never find the new if it only comes out of our good ideas. (By the way, I’d love to see the results of your own investigations – and I’m sure other abcrit correspondents would too.) The difficulty of recognizing the new is the same for every artist, and concepts are an easy way to dodge the problem. If you want to be a complete rationalist then you could say I’m just talking metaphors, but they don’t feel like metaphors in the studio.

        I like the metaphor of artist as gardener – a gardener can make a lot of choices about the eventual plant, but the one thing he or she cannot do at all is make the plant grow. It grows by its own energy according to its own plan. That’s my concept of the artwork, which I would call a strong organicism, but believe me, I had no idea when I started that I would come to this. Concepts can’t be avoided, but they should not be allowed to precede or rule the work.

  5. Terry Ryall said…

    Sam, I agree with Robin that relief is what lies between painting and sculpture. Once the notion of doing something beyond the rectangle takes hold there seems little point in making anything other than a free-standing object. What was (for me) not ‘do-able’ on a flat surface was, if you like, only partly “do-able’ with something that was destined to be hung on a wall. I’m there to be persuaded by the idea of an exploded painting as long as it’s not emasculated by being hung on a wall. Apologies if all that sounds like I’m ‘anti-painting’. I’m certainly not.

  6. Robin Greenwood said…

    This is a very nice piece of writing, Robert, very eloquent and persuasive, but as you well know from our email exchanges, I’m not to be persuaded about Stella. You’ve prompted me to look at him again, but it’s had a detrimental effect; I dislike him even more.

    For example, how could anyone look at the two images here http://mocanomi.org/1999/12/frank-stella/ and think we are looking at an artist who is contributing intelligently to either painting or sculpture. You gotta be crazy to think this is good!

    You see, the thing that gets me about Stella is his sheer egocentric overproduction, gone into hyperdrive. Whilst he’s by no means alone in this – Caro, for example, is guilty too, as we will shortly find out at Gagosian, following directly in Moore’s great lumpen footsteps –Stella is one of the worst. His massively inflated oeuvre sits in the stomach of the artworld like a great big indigestible lumpen thing. Such grossness from a single individual skews the scales of a balanced judgement of what we have so far achieved in abstract art. It singularly fails to offer insight into how the problems of making abstract art right now might be met head on with a proportionately disinterested ambition for the discipline itself.

    Stella’s work in general – even the early stuff, I see now – has very few real abstract qualities about it. I see now (thanks Robert!) that the random elements he ‘montages’, to use your term, in the more recent and complicated works have as little to do with each other in a pictorial (or sculptural) sense as the stripes in his early and simple work did; they just on the whole happen to literally sit next to each other. If his early breakthrough work had some kind of default ‘organic’ unity because of a formulaic modernist simplicity, then it is a doubtful unity, too easily won. I cannot see how the later work has any unity at all, or even attempts it; even a little glimpse of an attempt at coherence would be welcome; but no, on he ploughs relentlessly; there is surely no merit in just throwing more and more stuff at the problem.

    And just look at this stuff! http://www.flickr.com/photos/40275289@N06/3701949372/in/photostream/ Garbage. What are we supposed to do with it all? How do we assimilate it? How does he assimilate it? What’s the point of it? It’s horrid and meaningless.

    Stella has the clout, financial and critical, on the back of his early successes, to do whatever he likes; what he apparently likes is to grab at any old thing in the moment, and call it his own; then he has the temerity to justify his ridiculous indulgencies by invoking Caravaggio. Well, Caravaggio is quite a way down my list of favourite painters, but Stella in comparison is as nothing. There is an obvious lesson to be learnt from Rubens here – from a truly great painter, one of the very greatest; even he couldn’t get assistants to churn out masterpieces one after the other. The quality of his work fell away in direct proportion to the lack of his own intimacy with it. It’s so bleedin’ obvious.

    • Emyr WIlliams said…

      nail, the, bullseye.., head, hit, on – montage that

      • Sam said…

        I’m not sure I agree re nails, targets etc. Pretty much all Robin seem to have done is point to some (admittedly very bad) Stellas, though not ones which Robert actually discusses, and again says he doesn’t like – even is disgusted by – Stella, but at greater length this time. I find Robert’s suggestion that within certain aspects of Stella’s work – which does not exclude the rather obvious point that there is excess, indulgence and over-production there as well – there may be some interesting things for abstract art to consider much more productive.

    • Robert Linsley said…

      I have no problem with your disgust. Minor art doesn’t irritate anyone. What stands out for me are these words:
      “the random elements he ‘montages’, to use your term, in the more recent and complicated works have as little to do with each other in a pictorial (or sculptural) sense as the stripes in his early and simple work did; they just on the whole happen to literally sit next to each other. If his early breakthrough work had some kind of default ‘organic’ unity because of a formulaic modernist simplicity, then it is a doubtful unity, too easily won.”
      This would be my answer to Sam further down the page, that the distinction between organic and inorganic doesn’t stand up to close examination of anyone’s work – including Cezanne’s – but it is a qualitative distinction, not a theoretical one. Robin evidently feels it as strongly as anyone, and like many, feels it as an imperative. He wants organic unity. It wouldn’t be wrong to say the parts of any artwork all just sit beside each other. The impression that they are unified into one whole thing is a beautiful illusion, and one that many of us like, and want. There’s many ways to get there, and it seems to me that Stella is using one canonical way. But, like any American artist, he’s skeptical of all that and wants his unity to be at the edge of arbitrariness, which makes it difficult to see.

    • Emyr WIlliams said…

      “Lack of insight into how the problems of making abstract art….itself ”
      “Very few real abstract qualities about it”
      “Little to do with each other in a pictorial….each other.”
      lack of unity or attempt at coherence
      “even Rubens – assistants to churn out – quality fell away – lack of intimacy” and so on

      All these points are very rich in specifics.

      Plus I actually think less of the early striped and shaped ones. (Again) – “doubtful unity”.

      If anyone sees clues and gets something that they can use in their work – then that is perfectly understandable – Robert is persuasively upbeat about it, but he’s not going to run off and make Stellas for sure. I have no issues with finding interesting things to respond to in any place. In fact I don’t have any major issues with Stella really as I’m not sure there’s enough “Art” in them to provoke much at all- they kind of wash over me (though that is a slightly uncomfortable analogy ). As I said I’m just glad to get out of there. They are impressive in the way that an edgy bit of internal “architecture” of a trendy shop can be – they do have a – wilfully- fashion shoot backdrop feel at times, as Noela said. Visual muzak for post apocalyptic urban film sets. They seems to want to intimidate and be sexy in some way. All this posturing can be a little boorish. (I always remember an old painting tutor of mine once chuckling about them though, “it does make you think what the heck am I doing when I reach for a bit of A3 paper?”)

      If an artist has not learnt something through their discoveries then why should there be an expectation that a viewer will? They seem to offer little in the way of this. Frankly, I don’t enjoy knocking Stella’s work – good luck to him and his whole industry – he’s hardly one of the bad guys… though those racehorses – maybe he knows people?! If you put me on the spot …I couldn’t eat a whole one.

    • Robert Linsley said…

      I don’t know what’s the point of worrying whether a given work should be called painting or sculpture, or why there has to be antagonism between artists who call themselves sculptors and those who claim to be painters. But having said that I still find it amusing that the pieces Robin finds horrid are in fact supposed to be paintings. As sculpture they seem undistinguished, as paintings kind of interesting.

  7. David Sweet said…

    In a conversation I had with him some time ago, Stella described the options facing his generation as either making ‘art or Pop art’. His admiration for Abstract Expressionism was a way of guaranteeing the quality of his own work and its claim to be serious art. But his career trajectory suggests that somewhere along the way he became much more like a pop artist, a highly organised one, admittedly.

    The drift may have started with the ‘Irregular Polygons’, the subject of Michael Fried’s essay ‘Shape as Form’ of 1966. Although Fried praised this series, Stella told me the paintings ‘were quite tremendously unpopular’ and that people who had formerly supported him thought he had reached ‘the end of the line’. The ‘real’ illusionist effects in some of the polygons have parallels with passages in later works that break out into the actual third dimension, but the high visibility palette, repeated in the ‘Protractors’ group, has a deliberately lowbrow, pop feel.

    Talking of Caravaggio is one way of explaining Stella’s development, and more rhapsodic than comparing him to Rosenquist, Lichtenstein, or late Johns and Rauschenberg. But pop art is more subversive in terms of modernist sensibility, and slightly more relevant in a New York City context, than the work of an Italian painter from the early 17th century. Pop relied heavily on construction and montage techniques, producing inorganic results, with sudden shifts of colour and scale. Also, pop was where the big money went, towards Castelli and away from Emmerich, which must have been a consideration for Stella with his worldly interest in fast cars and horses.

    What late Stella does have in common with Caravaggio is vulgarity, in the older sense of the word. But pop is vulgar in the same way. The difference between the two artists is that the corporate foyer has replaced the Roman basilica. Both spaces are of course associated with institutions wielding supreme power, which might be a coincidence.

    • Robert Linsley said…

      Very astute comments. I’m sure you are right about Pop. I didn’t twig until very recently that the Black Paintings are a response to Johns, though it’s hardly a secret. But I also think that he increasingly left New York behind, or tried to give that impression, and that he really is very interested in historic painting. Some echoes of graffiti and of 80′s neo-expressionism come up in Moby Dick, but they seem to be drawn from below, not adaptations of an artist struggling to maintain his position.

    • Sam said…

      I think you are right about the link to Pop art. But do we need to distinguish more clearly between a Pop artist and ‘like a Pop artist’? The lack of direct cultural quotation in Stella’s work is important isn’t it, even if they fit into the same urban context as Pop? From a certain angle Caro, Noland could be said to do the same, though of course minus the vulgarity.

      • John Bunker said…

        Oooh! I’d love to be in Vogue! Jackson Pollock’s very fine abstract paintings were in a fashion shoot. TJ Clark gets really excited about this social context to the ‘vulgarity’ of Abstract Expressionism.
        Many abstract paintings containing high levels of visual intelligence hang on the walls of corporate hospitality lounges in the most respected/reviled of international financial institutions. Way to go Frank!
        I think Stella’s work asks some important questions about abstract art’s ‘relevance’ to contemporary culture. The first question being- Is there any? I think it is too easy to see directness as vulgarity. There’s nothing wrong with being ‘worldly’. Sam, I think I read that you would like to see a more ambitious, committed, dramatic and forceful abstract art? Surely Stella continues to tick a couple of boxes on your list?

      • Sam said…

        Hi John, I’m not all against vulgarity, and I certainly think that Stella ticks those boxes (at least in theory: I was disappointed by the recent Haunch of Vension show, though it was badly hung, and seems to have a much poorer selection than the Wolfsburg show). What I was trying to get at was David’s intimation that Stella’s closeness to Pop cuts him off from the concerns of abstraction, or disqualifies him from consideration in some more general way. On the contrary I think this closeness to Pop (or at least to the types of vision and experience which Pop often draws on) is perhaps one of the factors which makes Stella’s work exciting.

      • Robert Linsley said…

        Sam, I’m eager to hear what you saw on the backs of the reliefs in Wolfsburg. My comments on the backs were based on the experience of three pieces, and even those had three different treatments. One of them had a very seventies-ish messy blobby filling in with tacky colours, and I had the strong sense that this is not unusual for him, but no certain proof of it. There are no reproductions of the backs, anywhere that I know of, except a couple of hard to make out photos in Wallace’s book, so this is something that you really have to go on a pilgrimage to see.

      • Sam said…

        Hi Robert, I haven’t gone yet – tickets booked for early January… Sam

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        If its to be a toss up between late Stella and Pop Art, I’ll take a Warhol ‘disaster’ over a Stella DISASTER any day. And I don’t even like Warhol.

      • Robert Linsley said…

        no accounting for taste

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        True enough. I just can’t be doing with the abstract Manga style…

      • Robert Linsley said…

        If anyone is following this thread anymore, I just want to say that the article raises other points more interesting than Stella’s relation to Pop or corporate patronage. For myself, I’m only just beginning to get a grip on what’s happening in the later series, and I find a lot there.

        David Sweet mentions the Irregular Polygons. If they contain illusions that were later made literal, in other words canceled as illusions, in the Polish Villages and other series, yet more illusions appeared there. So if one wants to make art more abstract, literalism is not the way to do it. Illusion will not die. What is the “abstract,” anyway, that we want to extend it, give it more possibilities? I’ve made a few proposals on my blog, and am making more, in the context of a discussion of Stella.

        It’s not the literal, and it can’t be the non-figurative or non-representational, since that comes under illusion. It’s not the non-literary either, as I’ve also discussed on the blog. Geometry is an idealist wash out. It could be the non-conceptual. Stella encourages my tendency to think it’s the free, uninhibited combination of forms, without conceptual or other alibi. But it’s not the gestural index of a body, although that is fine in itself. Any ideas?

    • Sam Cornish said…

      Hi Robert, I hadn’t given up on it, just finding some time. I think that the most interesting point you raise concerns the distinction between wholeness / modernist organicism & old master montage / geometry (to my mind the latter two are slightly awkwardly brought together in your comments on Cezanne).

      There is a lot that is interesting here, which I’m struggling slightly to deal with. So some slightly haphazard, disordered comments: I’m sorry if they seem overly disputative but hopefully they spark something…

      Firstly would it be worth distinguishing between modernist wholeness as a stress on the rectangle (I was in Paris earlier in the week and Delacroix’s Algerian Women & Manet’s Olympia do this in a very similar way) & a wholeness that stems from an organicism, a kind of growth on the canvas? I think there is a good case for Stella’s black paintings, and the sequentially shaped canvases which follow being a direct – and overly reductive – combination of the two modes (as are Pollock’s they stem from, though less reductively). It is the wholeness of the rectangle, more than that of organicism that Stella gets away from in the Moby Dick series (and why I am going to Germany to see his work).

      Secondly I struggle to see Cezanne as purely organicist. Surely this is – like Cezanne the Cubist – a backwards reading, through Pollock, Frankenthaler, Louis? The great still-life in the Louvre is made up of lots of conflicting impulses, rather than a single growth, and a density of construction that is miles away from, say, the Lyric Suite. Though he does not bring in parts and assemble them, surely Cezanne builds rather than ‘grows’ his canvases? Has your dark past (!) as an organicist blinded you to this? And Cezanne as a builder (whose brush-marks if not pre-formed are at least often stereotyped)
      surely has a lot to say for artists who want to construct with pre-assembled parts, and those who want to go beyond the rectangle.

      There is more, but I need to think it through, so I leave that for now…

      • Robert Linsley said…

        your distinction between the rectangle as a frame that guarantees unity and the notion of organic development that gives another kind of unity from within is worth following.

      • Terry Ryall said…

        No mystery here, those who want to go “beyond the rectangle” are called sculptors.

      • Sam said…

        Terry – I have some sympathy with that idea – in that modernist painting obviously got a lot from trying to investigate itself; and many contemporary approaches which define painting as pretty much anything are often at best unconvincing. But…. After seeing the Richard Smith show at Gimpel Fils I went into a show of abstract painting, and everything looked so sort of ‘rectangular’. Though Smith and Stella might both be problematic (and in some senses almost seem mirror images of each other), and maybe this is a topic for another tread, it wouldn’t it be interesting to see what someone really pushing something that was neither painting nor sculpture…?

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        That’ll be Stella then.

      • Sam said…

        But why is that – aside from success – a bad idea?

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Well, it isn’t an idea. What is it you are talking about? Relief? There is no other territory between painting and sculpture, is there? Or do you know something we don’t? I tend towards the feeling that the two will not be mixed together without losing all the positive qualities of either. Figurative relief always for me tends towards drawing, and maybe Stella tends this way too. In Stella’s case, it tends towards a very graphic style of drawing.

      • Sam said…

        But I don’t think Stella is adequately described as making reliefs, nor, in a very different way can Smith. Just because it hasn’t been named, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t, or at least can’t, exist. Though having said that I think by replying to Terry’s “if they are not painters they are sculptors” I muddied the waters a bit; I’m less interested in something which exists between painting and sculpture, and more in a kind of exploded painting…

      • Noela Bewry said…

        An excellent painting should be good enough not to have the viewer worrying about what shape it was painted on.
        The challenge is to get it right [ and possibly explosive] within the rectangle, or square etc.

      • Robert Linsley said…

        Continuing to find more to talk about in late Stella on my blog http://newabstraction.net
        Also continuing to work on the important problems raised.

  8. Emyr WIlliams said…

    You are correct Picasso did dislike Caravaggio “It’s a stage set”. (He also disliked Tintoretto too for similar reasons – in fact that is exactly how he made them with casts in a box and candles creating dramatic dark/ lights), and he found Rubens generalised. You have to give it to the fella he had a great eye!
    I’m afraid I have never seen a Stella work that I enjoyed. The protractor ones look like coloured-in designs and the baroque stuff , of which I have seen quite a bit, are bombastic and mildly hysterical. I disagree that he is a master of colour. His black and white prints are a bit less offensive, though fractious still. To paraphrase Churchill – never in the field of artistic endeavour has so little been achieved by someone doing so much.

    • Robert Linsley said…

      I’m glad you said that. A lot of people don’t like Stella, but at least that’s a feeling and not a theory.

      Picasso is wrong about Rubens, he doesn’t generalize, but particularizes and articulates. Or let’s say he generalizes in one way and Picasso generalizes in another. I vividly remember a hunting scene — every hair on the animals was painted. Of course Landseer did that too, but not with the same energy. Rubens has a drive to articulate that is real pictorial energy. A modernist might have the same energy but would put it somewhere else, say into formal invention rather than elaboration of details. Stella has that same drive but in abstraction it appears as constant elaboration of forms.

      But isn’t it interesting that an artist who technically and formally owes everything to Picasso is actually closer in spirit to Rubens? That’s either the death of modernism or a very interesting perspectival shift within modern art – I guess only time will tell.

      I used to share your lack of interest in the overloaded, busy busy aspect, but now I’m more tolerant. Look at it this way: everything in the world is adjacent to some other thing, and likewise every discrete entity is surrounded by a more or less “empty” space. You, like me, might prefer a more spacious, open arrangement, with breathing room between the objects, but that’s only a question of scale, of where you stand. Move back or zoom in and either way more clutter will appear. Keep moving and the spaciousness might come back. In principle I can’t knock Stella’s compulsion to add, and add too much — it’s a matter of taste, and your taste is as good as anyone’s. Personally, I want to broaden my taste, because I see a connection between that and an improvement in my work.

      Where there might be a real problem is in the way that he, apparently, sometimes fails to integrate the details. In my work, everything fits together, and I can only work with so much incident or lose track of what I’m doing. But there is an arbitrariness typical of American art, a desire to let things be as they are and not art them up. It seems to be based in a faith that in the future, maybe for other viewers, all the relationships will make sense, so the important thing is to make the work and not worry overmuch about making it final. I think that’s worth pondering, and I wouldn’t be too quick to reject it — it really hits on deep aesthetic problems.

      Finally, you are wrong about Stella’s colour. He uses the full range — prismatic colours, earth colours, black and white — with great variety and decorative flair. The more time I spend with it the more attractive the colour gets. And even better, in the Moby Dick series he also works with tone, and that’s something that’s not handled well in a lot of abstraction.

      • Emyr Williams said…

        We are going to have to disagree on this then. His decisions about colour are much the same as a fashion designer’s – he can make nice colours “go together” much in the same way as a good haute-couturist would. They are arted up to borrow your phrase. In fact they look like arty objects – no wonder they have been so readily embraced by corporations worldwide. They really took off in the eighties banking boom – like an elaborate floral display in a foyer. His logical deconstructions of his own practice and his leaning on old master art to justify his approach is more a cop out than a valid raison-d’etre. I do prefer them to a lot of stuff – they’re a sort of interesting waste of time – yet they still leave me empty and have done so for twenty years or more- they are knowing and a bit lazy in their colour. I have no preferences for how art gets made either: busy, spare, thick, thin, in relief , carved out, scraped or chucked – I’ll applaud anything good. Put it this way – I’m quite pleased to see them but glad when I get out of there.
        It is very difficult to make a great use of colour and to control surface, and name checking a wide range of colours is not a guarantee of anything. I think he has found a relatively undemanding way to make art and banged them out accordingly (technically complex doesn’t equate to being difficult to make). They have the whiff of graffiti art or even – strangely- tattoo parlours in their aesthetic – decadent but in a sort of sordid way. Also the French curve dynamic that is consciously prevalent is so ‘wristy’ in its reach – they are very un-balletic in rhythm (another give away to their lack of spine). I’m not sure Picasso was wrong about Rubens either – I went to the Louvre this time last year and saw a huge number of them. They are amazing tour de forces of painting. I spent a while making copies of his drawings upon return – humbling really, but I noticed something fascinating about this – if you are a bit out in the line – a couple of mil here or there, the copy still hangs together – now try copying a Michelangelo drawing and get a hair’s breadth out and the whole drawing falls apart. Michelangelo’s drawings articulate space. Ruben’s occupy it. I would put all Stellas in the space occupier category and as such, are linked as you suggest. They propose wonderful spatial complexities (at least through the gallery window) yet when you really look at them, they close in, not out and look tired not fresh (maybe that is why they photograph well and look nice behind glass? Prophylactic art maybe? Its like watching a chess player kick his opponent under the table when he’s run out of ideas. He knows there’s a problem but unfortunately can’t find the solution so just lashes out and hopes for the best. Once again though those prints are not too bad – fractious but okay….just.

      • Robert Linsley said…

        Your comments on Rubens’ drawing – space articulation versus space occupation – are really interesting. As for colour in Stella, we have to disagree. On Stella in general, all I can say is that I used to have something closer to your position, so I can’t disagree. I understand – which may be worse!

      • Emyr Williams said…

        I will keep an open mind and look again for sure.

    • Noela Bewry said…

      I agree with you Emyr, whilst I find these pieces by Stella very attractive and appealing they do have a Vogue magazine type feel to them. You can imagine them in a fashion shoot.

  9. jenny meehan said…

    What a lovely read, thank you. You’ve tweaked a curiosity to investigate the man and his work I didn’t previously have…and to read his writing, which sounds very likeable!

  10. John Bunker said…

    Articulates brilliantly what I fumbled with last year at the Stella show at Haunch of Venison. Many thanks for such thought provoking optimism!

    • Robert Linsley said…

      sorry I missed it. Tried to find it just now but the link didn’t work.

      • John Bunker said…

        Robert just go to articles from all time- it’s in there somewhere- but you’ve picked me up on loads of things in what you’ve seen is Stella. Especially about the nature of construction. I love the way you talk about Caravaggio as a constructor. I’m someone who primarily works in collage, it’s a really good to hear about ‘great painting’ talked about in a different way.

  11. John Holland said…

    Fantastic-thanks. It’s helped me look at a body of work I always found difficult.