Abstract Critical

A Note on Frank Stella

Written by Robert Linsley

Frank Stella, Boxers (Anecdote No. 5), 1999, Mixed media on cast aluminum
134.62 x 138.43 x 101.6 cms (53 x 54 1/2 x 40 ins). Courtesy of Bernard Jacobson Gallery

Readers of AbCrit will know that I am an admirer of the work of Frank Stella, and this is evidently a minority position, at least as judging from the comments of the more vocal followers of the web site. The question that then arises is “How can so many intelligent observers and experienced artists be so wrong?” The best answer I can offer is that I myself don’t find Stella’s work easy to take, but have found that if I rise to the difficulty there are surprising rewards. The topic has been important on my blog since late last summer, and I think I’ve made some progress in appreciation. Mr. Cornish has asked me to write a brief introduction to the blog posts, which, since they are threaded through with other topics, don’t immediately appear to offer a coherent argument.

If one goes to my blog and clicks on the tag ‘Frank Stella,’ three pages of links will come up. For convenience sake I will refer to the titles of the posts, which should be easy to find on the pages of links. In the lists below, if two posts on the same subject are adjacent on the blog I only link the first.

Stella went through a major development some time in the mid-eighties, and the work he’s made since then has lifted his career to a new level. I discuss this in the post called “Unremarkable.” For me, what is most remarkable is that he has positioned himself not in relation to modernism but in relation to the great art of the past. A string of six posts discuss this, beginning with “Relational Composition.” The late paintings, of the “Kleist” series, are difficult to look at and difficult to appreciate. Anyone looking for the painterliness typical of modernist abstraction will probably be repelled, but composition in the old master sense provides a good entry point. These late works also innovate in a kind of “abstract” subject matter—they introduce figuration in a way that keeps it abstract. Three posts starting with “Breath” discuss this, and another called “Reading Abstraction.” Throughout the posts on the first two pages of links there runs a series of comparisons, with Richter (The Series, Artists and Academics, Pompiers and Firetenders, Critique as Mourning), Hofmann (Hofmann, Biomorphic), Picasso (Another Correction, Picasso’s Tricks), Vedova (Emilio Vedova, Plurimi) and Klee (Modernist Method). Throughout I have also tried to come to terms with his frenetic and overloaded manner, maybe the most difficult aspect of the work (Complexity and Simplification, All at Once, After Poussin, Definition of Abstraction, Juam).

For me, the high point of Stella’s late career is the Moby Dick series. My comments on these works are mostly found on the second page of links and start in earnest with ten posts beginning with “The Life of Forms”. Two recent posts that talk about the painted backs are “The Facts”, and “Slightly Overwhelming”. A string of six posts beginning with Profile discuss some technical aspects of these works. This intense involvement with late Stella had a kind of prelude during the summer last year, four posts starting with “Stella’s Ecstasy”, and another called “Time and the Work”.

I have a lot more to say about Stella, as he is still making me think. I’m also feeling a challenge to my own work, which is having an effect as I write. My aesthetic is fundamentally different from his, but I can’t deny that his work strikes me deeply. I think there is a lot to see in the late paintings, if one can get past their overcrowdedness. Repetition, inversion, mirroring, small patterns nested inside larger ones, linkages of forms—the works have so much intricacy and richness. Today we have little interest in the distinction between figuration and abstraction, and Stella takes that for granted and builds on it without sacrificing a belief in the future of abstract painting. He has also managed to make a literary art that remains abstract. I hope that the readers of AbCrit will find something to think and talk about in these blog posts, and, as always, comments are welcome.

  1. Martin Mugar said…

    Found your reply on a russian search engine.I am sorry not to have replied earlier.I guess I should not have used the word decorative.I think I meant additive.In the end there are few artists who can match his seriousness and inventiveness.It is easy to project ones own issues on to another artist and in so doing miss out on the artists unique properties.

  2. Robert Linsley said…

    I like all of it. You’re right that Caravaggio’s space is illusionist space, and Stella knows that too, and that’s really what interests him. That’s why he goes back and forth between the picture plane and the space in front of it, and why the planes of his reliefs also bear illusions of space. Is it necessary to build the reliefs? I don’t know, but it’s just his manner. I stick to the plane in my own work and don’t feel the need to build out, but I don’t think it’s wrong headed to do so. It’s kind of arbitrary. I’m still writing blog posts about this, trying to sort it out, and they will come in the future, but I don’t think that most observers appreciate how much Stella wants to make paintings just like all the old paintings – but of course to make them new. You should look at the Kleist canvases.

    You seem to agree with Emyr Williams about Stella’s colour. Personally, I don’t think that decorative is “just decorative.” Decorative is beautiful and satisfying and inspiring. I might also disagree with your assessment that his colour doesn’t create space or light, on a case by case basis.

    • Emyr Williams said…

      Robert, I am not at all sure I have ever used the word decorative to describe Stella’s work. I think I used the phrase they look coloured in, in relation to the protractor series. I have no “issues” with Stella or literalism for that matter as you seem to think. I enjoy art that attempts to do something through colour or form other than simply present itself – even if that presentation is impressive.. Stella’s work clearly does this for you.

      • Robert Linsley said…

        You said the following:

        “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.”

        I think that’s close to what Martin is saying in his comment. But it’s not something to split hairs over.

  3. Martin Mugar said…

    Dear Robert,
    I feel the best work that Stella did is the minimalist work.It draws its strength in its connection to minimalism in other domains such as music.HIs later work which is thought out in “Working Space” favors the deep sculptural space of Caravaggio that he feels has been neglected by Modernism.He forgets that the deep space of Carvaggio is an optical illusion as is all reality for that matter and tries to create the deep space by sculpting it off and away from the flat surface.The color also,instead of having an integral role in creating light and space ,is just decorative.

    The later work is ambitious but wrong headed.Creating flatness still offers some interesting territory to explore.I remember talking with Al Held about the will to flatness that we observed in Matisse’s portait of his wife.He generates energies hidden within nature in the way a cyclotron liberates previously unknown particles of atoms.