Frank Stella: Delivering Abstract Art to You in 3-D

New York City Tribune, Nov. 16, 1987, pp. 14, 10.

“Frank Stella: Delivering Abstract Art to You in 3-D”

[Review of MoMA exhibition, “Frank Stella:  Works from 1970 to 1987”]

By Jason Edward Kaufman

For the museumgoer expecting to face the laborious task of interpreting the subtle descriptive cues of a Cubist still life, or the intellectual nuance of a Minimalist canvas, Frank Stella’s recent works offer a completely liberating form of entertainment.  Drenched in physicality and decked out in flashy-colored, mod paisleys, there is nothing “to get.”  The “art experience” is as effortless as a 3-D movie — the space literally “jumps out at you.”  This is new.  This is wild.  This is “disco modernism.”

Picking up where his last museum retrospective left off, the exhibition “Frank Stella:  Works from 1970 to 1987,” organized by the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, and now on view at the Contemporary Art Museum, Houston, covers the artist’s production over the past seventeen years with a selection of thirty-eight works never before seen in Texas.  With their boldly-painted, graffiti-scribbled, curvilinear, metal components projecting as far as nine feet from their supporting walls, many of these monumental, high-relief constructions require quarter-ton counterweights for installation.  Celebrating their almost ostentatious materiality, Stella’s new works represent a novel form of 3-D abstraction that edges toward bridging the physical space between an artwork and its audience.

Delivering the Norton lectures at Harvard in 1986, Stella seized the opportunity to announce his addition of spatial depth to abstract painting.  The sense that painting should be dictated by its materials alone — the Minimalist credo — had been, according to Stella, “killing painting.”  By not arranging their materials in a meaningful design, artists such as the Minimalists (of which Stella, himself, was a seminal member) failed to elicit those responses characteristic of art.  He resolved to restore to painting some of the engaging depth that pictorial abstraction had drained from it.

Stella builds the substructure of his paintings out from the wall in an attempt to make the picture space accessible to the viewer.  He describes this innovation as parallel to the advance made by Baroque painters such as Caravaggio over their Renaissance predecessors.  Whereas Renaissance perspective had receded from the picture plane back toward a distant vanishing point, Baroque space penetrated the picture plane and projected outward, in front of the painting, into the viewer’s space, creating gripping, environmental effects.  For the first time, the spectator could feel as though he bodily joined the disciples sitting beside Christ at Emmaus, or as though he, too, stood in the royal chamber watching Velasquez paint his enormous canvas.  By actually extending into the viewer’s space, Stella’s relief paintings invite one into their pictorial drama.

As the artist claims to have applied Baroque features to modernist abstraction, the art historian Robert Rosenblum detects Baroque movement and figuration underlying Stella’s abstract vocabulary.  “In these works, abstract art suddenly seems to have a new kind of bone and flesh that muscles its way from two to three dimensions with the epic struggle we recognize from centuries of old-master figural compositions.”  Though one is hesitant to be too specific, some of the intersecting and abutting curves can conjure the twisting and sweeping space and figural arrangements of Baroque painting.

Stella’s “cast of characters” comprises “irregular curves” borrowed from the drafting tables of nautical and railway engineers.  With the templates of these shapes, he improvises a composition on graph paper, cuts it out, builds a three-dimensional maquette, then enlarges the model and sends it off to the factory where it is rendered in industrial materials such as aluminum or Foamcore.

Over this multi-layered, metal sea of shifting planes and interpenetrating shapes, Stella paints an eye-stunning array of bright yellows, hot pinks, electric torquoises, and lush greens and oranges that clash and clang with optical, nearly audible, zing.  He further individuates his characters by scribbling with more outlandish tones over the already charged ground, and occasionally sprinkles metal shavings for a glittery effect.

A background rectangle vestigially linked Stella’s reliefs with traditional painting until, with the “Indian Bird Series” (1977-79), he substituted a hemi-cylindrical, diamond-patterned grille to which the shapes and their extenders were moored, allowing the impression of forms floating free before the wall.  In this manner, Stella achieves a unique and engaging spatial effect whose visual energy is compounded by the blaring color scheme.

Stella’s eulogy of Baroque space has precipitated a debate as to the status of his reliefs.  Naturally, they evoke a 3-D spatial effect — they jut right out into the room.  He might try holography or architecture next!  But, are they true paintings?  Stella admits, “They’re not painting.  They’re painted relief….  They do the things that sculptures want to do but can’t in their own way.  [However,] the impulse that goes into them is pictorial, and they live or die on my pictorial abilities, not my abilities as a sculptor.”

In any event, Stella chooses to articulate his pictorial deliberations in a sculptural way.  Evidently, to express a particular sense of spatial coherence, Stella required a hybrid medium.

Pictorially, his work is indebted to that of Malevitch, Klee, Moholy-Nagy, Kandinsky, and even Picasso, while with their projecting “sculptural” elements they recall the constructions of Picasso, the space-frame sculptures of Gabo and Pevesner, the steel assemblages of David Smith, and the mobiles of Calder.  What unites the work of these artists is an active investigation of the limits and possibilities of pictorial and sculptural form.

Stella’s works are pure abstractions, and what is most important when dealing with such non-figurative work is the quality of compositional energies.  For Stella, the choice of abstraction was implicit.  “You can’t get pictorial drama today in the form of illustration.  You can’t play it out through traditional illusionism because illusionism is gone now.  It’s just gone.  It’s used up.  I can’t help it.”  He believes the modern audience will not be moved by conventional realism, hence his non-figurative style.

The question of how his relief paintings fare in comparison with their twentieth-century antecedents becomes one of the relative virtues of abstraction as a mode of artmaking.  Abstraction has sought to give definition to ordinarily inexpressive forms (geometric shapes, colors, gestures, etc.), and abstract compositions have suggested to the open mind new ways of understanding the phenomena of nature and human perception.  But rarely have the advances made by abstraction been quantifiable.  Its evocative power operates at a mysterious, sub-verbal level and its content seems to be explicable only in vague and shifting parameters that seek, but never find, the common ground uniting individual points of view.

Abstraction is a reflective more than a commutative act. With the intimacy of poetry, it can express through an artist’s personal vocabulary, his inner sense of “equilibrium.”  As observers, we may delight in its pictorial design, in its variegated field of action, in its decorative appeal.  This seems to be the supreme accomplishment of these works and somewhat chillingly, the leading museum of modern art glorifies them.  Since it is difficult to conceive of them as an effective instrument for social change, or as a cogent and methodical inquiry into the mechanics of human perception, perhaps we may best regard Stella’s colossal relief paintings as an exemplification of the limitless freedom our society permits its artists to enjoy.

But, we must ask ourselves, is this freedom, alone, enough? Can the bizarre and dynamic experience of a Stella relief vie with the rich, human-emotive range of a Velasquez, a Goya, or even a frilly mythology by Rubens?  Maybe someday the rhythms and forms of pure abstraction will acquire the presentational discipline that time affords music.  But until then, our understanding of such visual effects is not adequately explicit to justify their priority over figuration.

The retrospective, sponsored by the Paine Webber Group, Inc., continues at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, through April 23.  It is accompanied by a 172-page catalogue by the former curator of painting and sculpture at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, William Rubin.  For further information call (512) XXX XXXX .

Jason Edward Kaufman  30./

This article appeared in New York City Tribune, Nov. 16, 1987, pp. 14, 10.


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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

A complete list of past articles is available here.


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