Frank Stella’s Whitney Museum Retrospective – Reviews, Images and Texts




Frank Stella’s decline: on the artist’s Whitney Museum retrospective

Critical conviction regarding Stella’s work has fallen with the quality of the art

by Pac Pobric  |  7 December 2015

Frank Stella’s decline: on the artist's Whitney Museum retrospective

Frank Stella painting in 1964. Photograph by Ugo Mulas

One measure of an artist’s worth is the writing he or she inspires. By that test, Frank Stella is no longer so worthy. Critics of his current retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York have treated him as everyone else has since the close of his early period (1958-1966), with high esteem and little critical rigor. There is much cognitive dissonance. The reviews are full of gushing admiration for an artist who is rightly considered foundational for the history of post-war art, but there is barely any exegesis. In the New York Times, Roberta Smith wrote that “the totality of the show can make the mind reel with ideas, insights and arguments,” but what those ideas, insights and arguments were was left unaccounted. It seems there is nothing new left to say.

For this, Stella is to blame. For the past 40 years his art has put little pressure on critics, making it easy to pass over without commentary. This was not always the case. His best pictures, fr om the pre-Black Paintings (1958) until the Irregular Polygon series (1965-66) motivated fierce polemics. “Carl Andre and I were fighting over his soul,” the critic Michael Fried remembered of the 1960s, because with Stella, back then, everything was at stake. His stripe pictures—which include the Black Paintings (1959-60), the Aluminum series (1960) and Copper series (1960-61), the Notched V series (1964-65) and Running V series (1964-65), which are each represented in the exhibition—led either to a new Gilded Age of painting, as Fried demanded, or opened into the expanded field of Minimalism with Andre and Donald Judd.

Frank Stella, Empress of India (1965). © 2015 Frank Stella/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY.

The debate, though often technical (Fried especially was perhaps too fine a formalist, too minute in his descriptions), was at bottom a question of tradition versus apostasy. For Fried, writing in 1963, nothing less than “the entire dialectic of modernist painting from Manet to the present” was at play in Stella’s work. Fried believed in divine continuity. The pictures carried forward a great tradition with renewed religious zeal. To not see the work this way was to not see the work at all. In the epigraph to Art and Objecthood, Fried’s 1967 attack on Minimalism, he quoted the American Theologian Jonathan Edwards to equate the longevity of painting with sacred vision: “We every moment see the same proof of a God as we should have seen if we had seen Him create the world at first.”

For Judd, this was lunacy. Stella had cut all ties. He was no painter, but the inventor of the Minimalist totem. “I thought of Frank’s aluminum paintings as slabs, in a way,” he told the radio DJ Bruce Glaser in 1964. Stella’s works were “specific objects”, in Judd’s phrasing, and they insisted on new vocabulary. There was nothing divine here, nothing that could be explained with reference to continuity: “We recognize that the world is 90% chance and accident,” he told Glaser, speaking on behalf of his Minimalist contemporaries.

Even critics who reviled Stella elevated their rhetoric. In a 1964 New York Times review of Stella’s show at Leo Castelli gallery, Brian O’Doherty wrote that the paintings “announce that a new kind of human animal is around, a new response to living life—one that is anti-emotion, anti-human, anti-art (by trangressing its limits of expression or non-expression) and that is even anti-anti.”

In the heady 1960s, arguments over Stella’s work were about first principles, the foundations on which everything else is built. What do we value? Tradition or revolution? Continuity or “chance and accident”? Humanism or structuralism? Fundamental questions lead to fundamental claims and the best pictures at the Whitney—Black Paintings like Die Fahne Hoch! and the Marriage of Reason and Squalor (both 1959), or the Running V picture De la nada vida a la nada muerte (1965)—are built on a solid formal foundation. In these works, one stripe determines the rest. They are just “one thing after another,” as Judd one wrote. Here is Stella’s conviction pure and clean: the knowledge that one move can have enormous implications.

Frank Stella, redjang (2009). © 2015 Frank Stella/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

For Michael Auping, the Whitney show’s curator, little has changed, conceptually, between 1959 and today. Although a work like redjang (2009) may look little like a stripe picture, Auping writes in the exhibition catalogue that the painter’s later bombast is “fundamentally not that far from Stella’s earliest visions of abstract painting.” He wants to draw a straight line through the work with space as the common denominator. Already in the Black Paintings, Auping sees “the illusion of a gentle vibration, like the strings of an instrument that have been plucked.” The pictures for him are not as flat as they seem. It is a slow evolution, not a break, that leads to physically invasive work like redjang. “There is an illusionism that a lot of people don’t see in the Black Paintings,” Auping told me when I interviewed him in September. “You’ll see that accelerated.”

The point extends throughout the installation. Although it is roughly chronological, there are moments wh ere radically different works stand together. We are meant to see correspondences between, for example, De la nada vida a la nada muerte and The Whiteness of the Whale (IRS-I, 2X) (1987) from the Moby Dick series (1986-97), which are hung across from one another in one gallery.

This is a tedious tinkering. Auping is a fine curator with impeccable taste and his loyalty to Stella is beyond doubt. But his narrative, in which one work justifies another in a long historical chain, is proof of how feverish arguments about tradition and revolution—about the revelation of God in painting, about the “new kind of animal” borne of Stella’s work—have cooled into simple explanation. Auing’s assertions cannot countenance histrionic work like Talladega (1980) from the Circuit series (1980-84), with its garish design. No justification will make this Rococo confection into a serious work of art. In a review of Stella’s 1987 Museum of Modern Art survey in New York, Arthur Danto wrote that three similar works were each “a furious razzle of dashing curves” which looked “as if they had been picked by Cyndi Lauper to knock your eyes out.”

Frank Stella, Gobba, zoppa e collotorto (1985). © 2015 Frank Stella/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Frank Stella, Gobba, zoppa e collotorto (1985). © 2015 Frank Stella/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Stella, at this point, could only inspire such ridiculous criticism. His art could no longer foster rigorous debate, let alone compel conviction. Talladega carries no principles. It makes no appeals. It is enough to write of it what Jason Farago in the Guardian recently wrote of another piece by Stella, that it is “a ghastly pileup of cast aluminum painted with wavy, tie-dye patterns”.

The artist got to Talladega because pictures like Die Fahne Hoch! are at the end of painting, both formally and conceptually. From there, unless Stella was to repeat himself, there was nothing left to do but begin putting back in everything he had taken out. The Minimal solution was unsustainable. Between 1959 and 1965, Stella drove the stripe paintings through every conceivable variation. Shape became a dimension with the Aluminum series after Stella’s friend, the painter Walter Darby Bannard, suggested he cut away the corners of his pictures. The V series put colour in focus, as with a work like Empress of India (1965). Movement became a factor with the Running V pictures. But then Stella ran out of options. Philip Leider, the founding editor of Artforum and one of Stella’s most vocal supporters, saw the problem clearly in 1978: “It is a matter of having taken things as far as possible, only to find oneself trapped in an outpost of art, with work threatening to come to a standstill, thin and uncreative.”

Frank Stella, Chocorua IV (1966). © 2015 Frank Stella/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Stella avoided the standstill with his Irregular Polygon pictures of 1965-66 but at tremendous cost. These paintings broke with his earlier work. Gone was simplicity, replaced by boisterous shape and ostentatious colour. First principles were jettisoned as was “one thing after another”. It is impossible, from the orange parallelogram of Effingham II (1966), to imagine the necessity of the rest of the work. The Irregular Polygons were no longer foundational. They added to the history of painting, but not at its bedrock. The pictures were creative, yes, but frivolously so. The work lowered the stakes. Hilton Kramer summarised it best in his 1966 review of these paintings: “It leaves me with too great a sense of all that has been lost from the universe of artistic discourse.”

Stella has made some agreeable pictures since then and some of them are included in the show. Gur I (1968) from the Protractor series (1967-71) is a handsome work, largely because the black outlines of certain shapes hold together the otherwise flashy colour. Gobba, zoppa e collotorto (1985) from the Cones and Pillars series (1984-87) is similarly kept in check by its cleaner lines. The Whiteness of the Whale (IRS-I, 2X) in particular has some raw, if uncoordinated, power. But it too is appetizing only because it has large, flat areas of unmediated colour.

At bottom, these works are undemanding. Agreeable, handsome, appetizing: these are gentle terms devoid of passion because the art inspires little. Still, it is not that Stella lost ambition. He was brave to leave behind the stripe pictures and risk his career, critically and financially, on radically new work. Nor did his imagination fail. Only an inventive, if eccentric, mind can picture work like The Whiteness of the Whale (IRS-I, 2X). The problem, instead, is structural. The bones of his work for the past 40 years have not been able to support any polemics.

Frank Stella in his studio in the mid-1960s. © Frank J. Thomas Archives.

Stella, to his credit, refuses to see so. He works with the wilful myopia any self-respecting artist must cultivate. “And like all artists, I believe what I’m doing now is the best,” he told the Telegraph in 2011. He does not make art for us anymore, but for himself and for the future. Jerry Saltz was right to say in his New York magazine review that this work is directed towards “the superorganism of art history.” Perhaps taste will expand in years to come and Stella’s later art will become more palatable. Yet that would be a small success. Critics to come may find pleasure in this work, but it is difficult to imagine them feeling that the art is necessary. That is true only of Stella before 1966. Today we look to that period simply for the preservation of whatever ideals we once fought over. It is those ideals we must find a way to fight over again.

Frank Stella, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, until 7 February 2016

the guardian london

Frank Stella at the Whitney – from impassive abstraction to riotous baroque

Whitney Museum, New York
One of the longest careers in American art has produced everything from tasteful nonagons to bombastically lurid steel sculptures – but collected into this epochal show, it all starts to make sense

Frank Stella: a career with more twists than the track at the Monaco Grand Prix
Frank Stella: a career with more twists than the track at the Monaco Grand Prix. Photograph: Justin Lane/EPA

You can wait your whole life for your paintings to win attention, and another life again before anyone calls them masterworks. Or, if you’re Frank Stella, it can happen to you at 23. In 1959, a year out of Princeton, he was included in Sixteen Americans – a landmark show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art that pulled the plug once and for all on abstract expressionism and set the stage for the multifarious art of the 1960s. Stella, young and unafraid, was the star, represented by four large paintings composed of nothing but taut, uniform black stripes.

Fifty-six years later, and in the home stretches of a career with more twists than the track at the Monaco Grand Prix, Stella has another epochal New York museum show, this one all his own. This weekend, the Whitney Museum of American Art opens the doors for Frank Stella: A Retrospective, the first showcase for a living artist in its admirable new riverside home. It comes at a decisive moment for abstract painting in the United States, booming again after years of false death notices. And it affords a valuable, at times vexing, but ultimately rewarding opportunity to map one of the longest careers in American art, one that has gyrated from impassive two-dimensional abstractions to riotously baroque reliefs and sculptures. (The show is organized along with the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, to which it will travel in 2016 before heading to the De Young in San Francisco.)

The show is, by necessity or choice, smaller than presupposed: just 120 works in the career of a frighteningly prolific artist. (A chronology of Stella’s exhibitions in this show’s catalogue runs to 67 pages.) But three of the four black paintings he showed in Sixteen Americans are here: The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, Arundel Castle, and Die Fahne Hoch, the last acidly titled after a Nazi anthem. (Titles are the only domain in which Stella gets expressive: paintings are named after his friends, or allude to authors, or get as obscure as Balinese anthropological jargon.) Stella painted the stripes with a housepainter’s brush, and instead of oil paint he turned to commercial enamel. Each one featured stripes running in a pattern derived from the shape of the canvas and the size of the brush, laid out in certain formats: a cross, a diamond, a series of concentric arches.

A viewer and one of Frank Stella’s paintings of concentric squares.
A viewer and one of Frank Stella’s paintings of concentric squares. Photograph: Justin Lane/EPA

The gestural expression of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning or Franz Kline still admitted flights into psychological or biographical interpretation. Stella slammed that door shut, in favor of rules, repetition, method. “What you see is what you see,” he notoriously declared in 1966. But what do you actually see in Stella’s black paintings? Not the exacting precision of later minimalism – a designation Stella always hated, and would flamboyantly rebel against soon enough – but a more irregular, more painterly surface. Stella’s stripes were made without the aid of masking tape, and often the black paint bleeds into the white gaps, or gets thicker and thinner as Stella applied differing pressure or various numbers of coats. They suck in space, but create space too. They’re unexpectedly tactile and full of depth. They are so much more than a philosophical argument about the nature of painting – they are paintings, basta, and damned good ones.

In 1960 Stella started introducing right angles into his stripes, but a funny thing happened: on a rectangular canvas, once you change the shape of the stripes, you’re left with a blank space. Stella’s ingenious solution was to cut away the leftover parts of the canvas, and to stretch the remainder on a shaped armature, with corners incised or a central hole evacuated. They were his first forays into a career-long obsession with diagonal, twisted, or otherwise irregular canvas shapes. Stella’s supports are as important as his surfaces. With his irregular polygons, the stripes were gone, replaced by angular expanses of hot pink and deep green on canvases in the shape of wonky nonagons. Then came curved canvases, in the form of his protractors: concentric arcs of the sort of solid colours found in posters for Woodstock, and which have graced decades of pages of Architectural Digest.

Stella’s sculptures are ‘a torrent of aluminum and steel’
Stella’s sculptures are ‘a torrent of aluminum and steel’. Photograph: Justin Lane/EPA

It was a strange development for an abstract painter at first derided for making nihilistic paintings-about-painting. Yet Stella was unfussed. As he told the MoMA curator William Rubin in 1969: “My main interest has been to make what is popularly called decorative painting” – decorative being the ultimate insult in western modernism, though no bad thing in other traditions – “truly viable in unequivocal abstract terms”. The protractors thus form a first salvo in the next, and not always loved, phase of Stella’s career, in which minimal impassivity gives way to an unruly, sometimes outrageous merging of painting, sculpture and even architecture. Often the results were extraordinary, especially in the true knockouts of this retrospective: his Polish Villages (1971–73) and Brazilian Birds (1974–75), which cunningly slot multiple geometric pieces into fitted arrangements. (One of the Polish Villages here is so rewardingly constructed that Stella didn’t paint it at all, and allowed us to see the untreated wood.)

Just as often, though, Stella’s move into painted reliefs went bust, as in his bracingly hideous Khar-pidda 5.5x (1978), featuring pretentious cutouts of French curves painted with rebarbative splotches. Later standalone sculptures are uneven, too, though he has improved in recent years. In the 1990s they often felt like wannabe paintings; a torrent of aluminum and steel, immodestly named Raft of the Medusa after Géricault’s giant painting, offers little reward from different angles. He does much better when the accepts medium’s three-dimensionality, as in two elegant starbursts on one of the Whitney’s many balconies, both from 2014 and among the most impressive works on view here.

Stella’s more minimalist work: ‘it’s OK if you don’t love both’
Stella’s more minimalist work: ‘It’s OK if you don’t love both.’ Photograph: Justin Lane/EPA

And what of the baroque, swooping, miles-over-the-top works of the 1980s and 1990s, above all the painted aluminum riffs on Moby-Dick? Reviled – I mean, reviled – in their day as mere adornments for corporate office lobbies, they have happily matured with age and now appear much more pugnacious, seething with rainbow stripes and graffiti-like markings that spill from the frontal panels on to the sides. (Always smarter about space than colour, Stella got his chromatic groove back here.) Even the clunkers, such as a ghastly pileup of cast aluminum painted with wavy, tie-dye patterns, exhibit prodigious, indeed Melvillian, ambition. They are the works of an artist unwilling, unable, to sit still.

It has become a commonplace that Stella peaked too early, and that the deep-thinking black paintings and other inexpressive canvases of the 1960s have more virtue than the hulking late works, whose swooping forms seem more pedestrian. Yet art history is not a one-way street. Wide-open gaps in the gallery walls of this important exhibition, which offer glimpses of future works from earlier bays and vice versa, allow us to conceive of Stella’s career as a single, unceasing effort to grapple with painting’s potential. So does the judicious hang, in which a few key works from Stella’s early days pop up in the later galleries; a 1962 painting of concentric rainbow squares hangs next to a colossal 2009 assemblage of fibreglass and steel. It’s OK if you don’t love both. No one could love every work from such a wildly inconstant artist. But it’s his boundless and commendable evolution, rather than some static mastery, that is the mark of Stella’s seriousness.

  • Frank Stella: A Retrospective, on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York until 7 February




October 30, 2015 9:15 a.m.

Toward a Unified Theory of Frank Stella


Chocorua by Frank Stella Photo: Courtesy of Whitney Museum of Art

Let the museum begin. With its brand-new fifth-floor-filling Frank Stella retrospective, the recently christened Whitney Museum of American Art jumps into the fray to see if and how its new rawish spaces will work for big surveys of contemporary art. Along with Jasper Johns and Ellsworth Kelly, Stella is among the last great living postwar foundational artists, one of the creators of Minimalism itself. Yet beginning with a Stella show is risky museum business. Even stalwart Stella aficionados find this axiomatic artist all over the place and hard to parse. While his early work is worshiped as among the clearest and most convincing in the Minimalist canon, many of the same people abhor his later paintings, which look like giant curving caramelized flying carpets or Jurassic triceratops heads jutting off walls. For many, Stella’s maximal art, his lapsed Minimalism, is seen as a betrayal of his canonical early geometric paintings. Few artists have ever seemed to execute such an about-face.

No matter. For 15 years this artist was as unstoppable as an icebreaker in his painterly progress, churning out series after series, building on and advancing not only his art but painting. Stella changed art history in those years; the first hard-core Minimalist painter, he set the table for all of the hard-edged and geometric painters and all those who’ve explored shaped or unbound painting ever since. He was among the first to deal as directly as possible with the perception of material, form, and color. Soon thereafter, no less, he expanded his terms so far and so fast that he also became a primary forerunner to the pluralistic, expansive, and unfixed Postminimalism that defined the late 1960s and 1970s.

That decade-and-a-half period began in 1958 — when this exhibition begins, too — with four muddy-colored, sodden strippy paintings that look like walls divided into fuzzy strata. You see him riffing on art history, using text and brush-y gesture. But you also see the Minimalism that is incipient. Then, from 1959 to his Diderot Series of 1974, Stella hits the equivalent of 15 years of almost all home runs. That’s a run longer than Cubism; and in between there, between 1971 and 1973, is my favorite of all of his paintings, the Polish Village Series, in which Stella breaks the flat surface of painting, begins working on constructed, shifting planar three-dimensional surfaces. Between 1970 and 1987 he’d had not one but two Museum of Modern Art retrospectives. Everyone had to deal with Stella; the theory crowd revered him, ditto curators, critics, decorators, architects, and museums.

But around 1977 Stella had gone off the optical-topological reservation, making art that made his critical support evaporate almost overnight. All of a sudden this most logical-looking, orderly, reasonable artist turned his work into what looked like willy-nilly expressionistic chaos to his critics. I think all of Stella’s work is of a piece; even when I don’t like them, the recent crazy-quilt contorting optical organisms of high-intensity color — these blistered fissures, furrows, and abstract flying buttresses — contain much of the protoplasmic concreting structure and clarity of the early work. But in those days there were wars over the canon, with critics lining up on one side or another of arguments; if you were for one thing, this necessarily pitted you against other things. Critics made careers championing artists and villainizing apostates. Stella, once the origin point of Minimalism, was now seen as a traitor to the faith. As critic Andrew Russeth recently pointed out, by 1981 bigwig theoretician and art historian Douglas Crimp used the words pure idiocy in connection to Stella. By now even those who admire him admit to being exhausted by his art. The most common joke about Stella is that many wish that his career had played out in reverse, ending up at the beginning so that everyone could understand him again.

I’m a Stella fan who can’t deny his importance but who also wouldn’t want to live with most of these things. From his gigantic, early fluorescent-colored Protractor Series ­— one at the Whitney is 50 feet long (!) — to the late tarantula-like psychedelic-colored hyperconstructions, Stella’s art doesn’t have human scale; it’s not really for people so much as the superorganism of art history. Or skyscraper lobbies, public spaces, the Vatican. And let’s face it: Due to his wild-style sense of color, pocked lava-flow surfaces, and cacophonous compositions that look like three-dimensional maps of Pangaea, Stella’s art can be really garish. So allow me to prepare Whitney viewers to be tested by this exhibition. You are going to have to deal with stringent high Minimalism and Swiftian compositional morphologies. Plus, the show is installed only quasi-chronologically, so it’s difficult to simply track his development. But this survey isn’t about linear progress so much as it’s about showing all the rhizome-like connections between everything Stella has done. The same ideas are almost always in play. Still, the later work will have many thinking that these things are only painted scrap metal, while the early, logical-looking hard-edged work will make many others wonder if they aren’t just geometric illustrations and diagrams that anyone could make. Just math. Finally, the show as a whole might also leave people wondering if anything abstract blown up this big and made this colorful might command momentary attention. My advice: Embrace the paradoxes, go with the flow, see if you can find the cosmic through line that allows you to see why Minimalism is so important and why the artist who helped fashion it went so far in a seemingly contradictory direction to pursue all of its implications.

Photo: Jerry Saltz

A pep talk to all viewers before they begin the show: Remember that all artists start by establishing a set of internal rules or structures that they can build on and work against but that they cannot predict. As conceptualist Sol LeWitt put it, “The idea becomes the machine that makes the art.” Stella is emphatically not a conceptual artist, but he worked similarly. He said, “I don’t make Conceptual Art. I need the physical thing to work with or against.” So, when considering the systems and strategies he established to produce his work, think physically, in surface and space, not just reflexively about ideas. And see color as a structural element, a material in itself.

Stella’s rudimentary rules immutably and immediately appear in the four Black Paintings from 1959 that begin this show. Stated simply: Stella follows the shape, plane, surfaces, and structures of the painting. Thus, these works are black enamel house paint on raw canvass, each consisting of concentric bans and blank areas that follow and repeat the outside shape of the painting, like two-dimensional nesting bowls: rectangles within rectangles, squares within squares, radiating diamonds, and the like. Each ban is the width of one paintbrush with a hair’s-breadth of raw canvas evident between the bans; this gives the paintings a misty atmospheric perspective. To me it also implies the art-historical perspective Stella is trying to extend: the flattening of space that takes place in painting from the mid-19th century through the Cubists, Mondrian, and Malevich to the shattering all-over nonhierarchical composition of Jackson Pollock. Stella was 23 years old, a graduate of Princeton, having just arrived in New York, when he seemed to breech this space further. Stella’s Black Paintings were so radical in their self-elaborating, just-the-facts structure that while they were instantaneously included in an important 1959 MoMA show called “Sixteen Americans,” the museum’s PR department refused to distribute photos of them to the international press, for fear, Stella said, of “embarrass[ing] the museum.” But contrary to claims that Stella was reacting against Abstract Expressionism, he says the Black Paintings were his “own version of Ab-Ex.” I think that they most closely resemble the big bang of Jasper Johns’s 1954-1955 Flag — its stripes, repetition, structure, concreteness, and direct way of painting — even down to the sense of the flat-footed careful way it’s painted. In a sense, much of Stella’s early works are really abstract flags.

Please do not get hung up on this touchstone series the way many historians have, fetishizing this work to the point where these works have not only been deemed “the last paintings,” but seen as Stella’s best work. It’s true that almost all perspectival armature and part-by-part composition fall away in these paintings. This is truly the “plain power” that Donald Judd championed in art. But in fact this was only the beginning of Stella’s thought; he rightfully calls this merely his “early work.” Instead, try and see the Black Paintings as essentially presenting the rules and structures that Stella will follow and work against through the rest of his career — and that are ever present in the rest of this crazed show. Within the borders and on these surfaces Stella is suggesting that composition is inherent before the painter makes any mark on it; that present in every painting is a geometry that the artist simply elaborates or works against — physical and planar conditions that are already there, that are, in a sense, self-creating. Think of cave paintings and how the artist is always in dialogue with surface contour. Or a tattoo artist. The revelation of this work is seeing a painting that has seemingly been determined by itself, commanded to be this way by universal laws of geometry. What gets really dicey is when the geometry and structures in his later works get so chaotic and convoluted that we begin to glean a kind of dark matter of mathematics, things that don’t fit the script but are there nevertheless.

In addition, there’s another plus to the Whitney’s semi-chronology that helps channel another big thing about art that is mostly unacknowledged and maybe a little embarrassing to the art world: Most artists can barely follow what they’re up to anyway and are mainly trying to just keep up — or not fizzle out or hit a dead end or fall into habit. Here, in just the first 15 years of his development, you see Stella unspool, using either notched, metallic, zigzag, irregularly shaped canvasses, polygons, chevrons smushed together or alone, broken-up protractors, sail shapes, and a whole atlas of approaches. In the Polish Village Stella goes for it, forsakes two-dimensional flatness, and breaks the plane into three dimensions, applying paint, felt, and other materials to surfaces that cut and slant into and out of eccentric shapes, elaborating internal geometries that you can barely keep track of. From here Stella just keeps following the forms, materials, colors, structures, techniques, spaces, and surfaces of his art — creating a schism and then burrowing as deep into it as he can. What’s interesting about the critical rejection of Stella that commences once he moves on from strict Minimalism is that when other early Minimalists, like Robert Morris, moved on, these same critics explained it by saying that Morris and others were working in the “expanded field of sculpture.” Cool. But Stella is simply working in the “expanded field” of painting.

To me this is where some of the later bodies of Stella’s work fit in. And why, even though he’s prone to cranking out a lot of work that looks like God-awful space junk, I always pay attention to this artist, from the transcendental undulations and pretty pulsating swoops of the Indian Bird Series (1977–79) and the Circuit Series (1980–84) to the mutating topologies and operatic geometry-in-a-wind-turbine of the Moby Dick Series (1986–89). Or maybe the Romantic in me can’t resist an artist who says he loves Melville’s epic “voyage around the world and battling God all the way.”

Even with all the fireworks, many will wonder, why do a Stella show now? In truth, I recoiled when it was announced that the Whitney’s maiden big retrospective was to be Frank Stella. What a pain, I thought. Stella is always having big gallery shows; his off-and-on-again art is always available. And the arguments around it have grown annoying and rote. The thought of performing all of this at the new Whitney seemed awry, at best. It also rubbed me the wrong way that this first gigantic retrospective was co-curated by Whitney director Adam Weinberg. “He should get out of his curator’s ways,” I groused.

It turns out, however, that as with many decisions made on Weinberg’s watch, this Stella show stirs up interesting issues. First, Weinberg began as a curator, and his obsessive hands-on experience of working with tricky living artists serves this show well; he reins in Stella’s all-over tendencies just enough. (Although there will still be many who rue the chronological laxness.)

More important, it’s impossible not to consider Stella in this time of abstract painting and sculpture. Stella is the artist who launched 10,000 careers; artists as varied as Peter Halley, Sarah Morris, Ugo Rondinone, Matthew Ritchie, and Thomas Scheibitz, who have used Stella’s structures, compositional strategies, and specific colors, to Isa Genzken, Mark Grotjahn, Jessica Stockholder, Katharina Grosse, Steven Parrino, and countless others who’ve followed Stella into the expanded fields of painting. Not to mention dozens of Zombie Formalists who owe Stella lots.

And beyond that, this show is an interesting declaration from the Whitney itself, saying, “Move over, other big New York museums — while we’re delving into American art history and drilling into current art, we’ve also now got this new space to do the big-gun shows big.” Indeed, the Whitney’s former Breuer home would never have been able to house this show on one floor. Perhaps this Whitney retrospective is also a way of laying a greater claim to Minimalism in general and more specifically Stella, who has long been thought to have a more natural home at MoMA. Or maybe it’s that he doesn’t fit neatly anymore into the Modernist party line now that he’s a lapsed Minimalist. Or MoMA is saying that two surveys of one artist not named Picasso or Matisse is more than enough for one institution. Whatever you think, go to the Whitney’s Stella-verse; see when you have to bail on him. It’ll tell you a lot about yourself.


The Art World November 9, 2015 Issue
Big Ideas
A Frank Stella retrospective.
By Peter Schjeldahl



“Effingham II” (1966). Stella’s swagger made him a god of the sixties art world. Credit Courtesy The Glass House / Ars, NY

The Frank Stella retrospective at the Whitney Museum will likely provoke varied opinions, on a scale from great to god-awful. The crowded installation of huge abstract paintings, reliefs, sculptures, and painting-sculpture hybrids, augmented by works on paper, tracks the New York artist’s fifty-seven-year career. At the start is the deathly glamour of Stella’s Black Paintings—bands in matte enamel, separated by fuzzy pinstripes of nearly bare canvas—which shocked everyone with their dour simplicity when they appeared in a show at the Museum of Modern Art, in 1959. Those works, which Stella began making when he was a senior at Princeton, amounted to tombstones for Abstract Expressionism and heralds of minimalism. The new show ends with one crazy-looking mode after another, mostly in the form of wall-hung constructions, created since the early nineteen-seventies. In between are too few of the swaggering compositions—of target-like concentric stripes, designs based on compasses and protractors, and shaped canvases that echo the shapes painted on them—that made Stella a god of the sixties art world, exalting tastes for reductive form, daunting scale, and florid artificial color. His impact on abstract art was something like Dylan’s on music and Warhol’s on more or less everything.

Nothing that Stella has made since exercises such authority. His last works to cause much critical stir, dating from the early seventies, extend the lexicon of his shaped canvases to reliefs of angled planes, made from wood and covered with colored paper, corrugated cardboard, and felt. The surfaces are seductive, seen close up, and the configurations are majestic, all but flying across the wall, when beheld from a distance. The works suggest a racy rebirth of Cubism, but trends in post-minimalism and conceptualism were taking center stage in the art world at that time, and Stella’s ripostes were strained. In the mid-seventies, he opened up his painting to actual space by fragmenting it into floating cutout metal shapes that he slathered with paint and sometimes glitter: disco modernism, you could call the work, but it’s more strenuous than ecstatic. There followed ever more aggressive free-form assemblies of jutting planes, twisted pipes, cones and cylinders, and hectic brushwork, the effect of which was like very loud music that has neither tune nor tone.

In “Working Space,” a book derived from a series of lectures that Stella delivered at Harvard in the early eighties, he framed his new work as an answer to a crisis in abstract painting. He saw a precedent in Caravaggio’s invention, in around 1600, of Baroque spatial illusion, in which the space in a picture appears continuous with the space outside it. But Stella’s theory proved more gripping than his practice. Caravaggio, in service to the militant piety of the Counter-Reformation, devoted his dramatic style to fervently envisioned religious content, such as the appearance of the risen Christ at Emmaus. The story told and the manner of its telling conjoin in Caravaggio’s work. Stella’s fealty to abstract art as a cause and an ideal—the only content that his art allows—can seem remarkably frail by comparison. It led him into willful eccentricities that may raise unkind questions about the cogency of his early triumphs.

Stella was precocious and exceedingly well schooled, qualities that are now the norm but which were rare among earlier generations of American modern artists, whose routes to fame tended to be serpentine. He was born in 1936 and grew up in Malden, Massachusetts. His father was a gynecologist, his mother a housewife who had attended design school. They both liked to paint. Stella graduated from Phillips Academy, Andover, where his classmates included Carl Andre, whose sculpture later came to define minimalism. Stella immersed himself in art history and was inspired by sophisticated elders, including Bartlett H. Hayes, Jr., a painter who was the director of the nearby Addison Gallery of American Art. Hayes promoted the art of two German-American painters who were also pedagogues: the proto-Abstract Expressionist Hans Hofmann, who had his own school in New York, and the Bauhaus-nurtured color theorist Josef Albers, at Yale. Stella absorbed a bias for painting as a systematic and even calculated enterprise. His good fortune in mentors followed him to Princeton, where he was encouraged by Stephen Greene, a minor painter and legendary teacher. A visit to New York in 1958 introduced him to Jasper Johns’s sensationally phlegmatic paintings of flags and targets, a model that he tentatively adapted to large-scale abstraction. Then came the Black Paintings, which, besides rocketing him to fame, promulgated a new idea of what art can do and, more to the point, what it can do without.

The idea—of painting limited to its essential means—was powerfully espoused by the critic Clement Greenberg, and was further refined by Michael Fried, an art historian and critic who was Stella’s classmate at Princeton. Fried championed Stella and other artists, notably Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski, who hewed to Greenberg’s doctrine of modernist painting as progressive art for art’s sake. “Frank Stella’s new paintings investigate the viability of shape as such,” Fried wrote in an influential essay, “Shape as Form,” in 1966. Such thumping rhetoric, here with a faintly bizarre metaphor of paintings performing like a team of detectives, typifies the confidence of what came to be called “formalist” art and thought. The issues involved, which led Fried to attack the bluntness of most minimalist art as vulgarly “theatrical,” were esoteric but, for those in the know, galvanizing. In those days, serious critics could still at least seem to exert real worldly power. Leo Castelli, whose Olympian gallery Stella joined in 1959, took careful note of their tendencies, even as he began to eclipse them as the pilot of a soaring art market that didn’t trouble itself with theoretical distinctions.

Stella’s cynosure then, and perhaps his problem now, was a coolness beyond cool. In a telling passage from “Working Space,” he recounts a youthful misgiving about the grand masters of Abstract Expressionism, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, whom he revered. He writes, “I sensed a hesitancy, a doubt of some vague dimension which made their work touching, but to me somehow too vulnerable.” The older artists had established New York as the imperial court of artistic innovation. It was time for their heirs to start behaving with an impunity befitting emperors. The stars of Pop and minimal art did so, though in most cases with some degree of irony. Warhol’s Factory poked fun at itself as a cottage-industry miniature of commercial mass culture. Minimal art related itself to new forms of public space—corporate lobbies and plazas, airports, malls, and freeways, synopsized in white-box galleries—which seemed to render obsolete the contemplation of discrete pictures and sculptures. But Stella wanted to maintain the grandeur of post-Renaissance Western painting, updated through the elimination of the muss and fuss of religion, politics, psychology, and other all-too-human weaknesses.

I don’t know what to make of Stella’s later works. His most famous apothegm—“What you see is what you see”—is no help, if seeing is supposed to imply comprehending. Looking is futile except as an inspection of the wizardly ways in which Stella made the works, with welds, flanges, castings, and, increasingly, computer-generated patterns. Always, there are self-consciously poetic titles, a habit of Stella’s since he gave the Black Paintings names like “Die Fahne Hoch!” (“The Flag on High!,” from a Nazi anthem) and “The Marriage of Reason and Squalor II.” In the eighties and nineties, he made works referencing the hundred and thirty-five chapters of “Moby-Dick.” The titles function as apostrophes of meaning. Meaning exists. It’s just not “what you see,” except through tortuous efforts of association.

Stella made a permanent difference in art history. He is extraordinarily intelligent and extravagantly skilled. But his example is cautionary. Even groundbreaking ideas have life spans, and Stella’s belief in inherent values of abstract art has long since ceased to be shared by younger artists. His ambition rolls on, unalloyed with self-questioning or humor. The most effective installations of Stella’s later works that I have seen are in corporate settings, where they can seem to function as symbols of team spirit. Rather than savoring his work now, you endorse it, or not. ♦

‘Frank Stella: A Retrospective’ Review

A retrospective of Frank Stella’s work at the Whitney traces the winding career of an artist who solves problems at every turn.

Photo: Frank Stella/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY/Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, NY

New York

As the first artist to receive a one-person retrospective at the new Whitney Museum of American Art, Frank Stella is an odd choice. Closely associated with the Museum of Modern Art, where he has had two retrospectives, one when he was only 34, the 79-year-old artist could hardly be more different from Jeff Koons, whose bright and shiny Pop was the subject of the final retrospective in the uptown Whitney. Mr. Stella’s abstract paintings and sculptures are fiercely self-involved, bristling with hard or jagged edges, and so lacking in sentimentality and cute jokes that they dare to be unlovable.

Frank Stella: A Retrospective

Whitney Museum of American Art

Through Feb. 7, 2016

This honor, however, accomplishes two strategic goals. It recommits the museum to the High Modernism of Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism that the apotheosis of Mr. Koons had cast in doubt. And this tightly edited presentation of about 100 works in its light-filled rooms and on one of its open-air terraces allows the museum to brag to its rivals: Anything you can do, we can do better.

Guest curator Michael Auping advances the Whitney’s case with his cogent decisions. Given the task of comprehending one of the most analyzed artists alive—the list of previous exhibitions and articles in the catalog runs 30 pages—he has presented Mr. Stella as a relentless worrier, arguing with himself for more than 50 years about how best to represent or mold space.

The two canvases that face the elevator as you enter—the square, labyrinthine, black-hearted “Pratfall” (1974) and the panoramic hurricane of candy-colored whorls and reticulated blobs “Das Erdbeben in Chili, N#3” (1999)—set up a dialectic that runs around the floor: between closed and open forms, rigorous geometry and brash improvisation, the optical and the material, two and three dimensions, material fact and pictorial illusion, flat and curved, painting and sculpture.

The show is chronological, punctuated by out-of-sequence works that suggest that the past is never really past for Mr. Stella. The many turns in his career, while unpredictable, are seen as the logical outcome of problems he has wrestled with and never pinned to the mat.

As Mr. Auping writes in the catalog: “Everything about Stella’s art is physical—a process of building things up, tearing them down, and reworking them.”

The first surprise for those who know the work mainly through reproductions is how brushy his early canvases are up close. His black, so-called Pinstripe Paintings in the late ’50s and those that followed in aluminum, copper and purple made him famous. Like the targets and numbers of Jasper Johns, they were hailed by some as rebukes to the mystical rhetoric and grandiosity of Pollock, Newman, and Rothko.

Mr. Auping believes otherwise—that Mr. Stella built upon the abstract vocabulary of the New York School. “The Black Paintings are as much Rothko as Johns in their moody and ambiguous depth,” he writes.

The shaped canvases of the 1960s and ’70s, with their cheerier hues, made Mr. Stella’s art safe for the corporate boardroom. The scale of his work ballooned in these years. “Damascus Gate, Stretch Variation III” (1970) is 50 feet long and 10 feet tall. At the same time his paintings were pushing away from or gouging into the wall, as in “Kamionka Strumilowa IV” (1972).

Photo: Frank Stella/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

The series from the late ’80s based on chapters from “Moby-Dick” brought forth some of his most exuberant works, such as “The Whiteness of the Whale” and “The Grand Armada.” But his reliance on narrative and geographic meanings, when by choosing abstraction he has sacrificed them, can suggest insecurity as well as ambition.

His most quoted maxim, “What you see is what you see,” is as plain a declaration of Yankee pragmatism as you can find. And yet, perhaps no American artist of his stature has drawn more from European and Russian art. The enthusiasm for Caravaggio expressed in his 1986 book, “Working Space,” caught many off-guard.

Growing older has made him even more responsive to his times. In work from the ’70s and ’80s, one sees the glitter of disco and the aggressive spatterings of subway graffiti. In the past two decades he has generated bent shapes with aid from computer programs.

The next-to-last room features a group of pieces as silvery gray as the Hudson River, visible through the windows. “K. 459” (2012), a bundle of Plexiglas and steel pipe, is coyly perched with two thin legs on the floor; “Raft of the Medusa (Part I)” (1990) needs a steel armature to hold up the coruscation of shredded aluminum. (It could be the remains of a jet engine reconstructed by the NTSB after a midair disaster.)

After years of denying that his wall protrusions were sculpture, the artist has finally admitted as much. The museum’s third-floor terrace has two examples from 2014. Both are stars. One is solid, armored in black carbon-fiber plates, half matte, half shiny. The other is a lattice of wood. One is warlike, a death star; the other lets the city breathe through its open spaces.

Whether seen as just another set of formal oppositions or as something more, they’re further evidence that Mr. Stella continues to move forward by contraries.

Mr. Woodward is an arts critic in New York.

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