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.