During his visit to the Anderson Collection at Stanford, the celebrated artist Frank Stella led a small group of students around the galleries while reflecting on his career, his art, and the works on display at the Anderson. In 1959, Stella stunned a New York art world dominated by Abstract Expressionism with his Black Paintings, somber compositions of black bands separated by thin pinstripes of unpainted canvas. Absent the bravura brushstrokes and psychological symbolism of Jackson Pollock and Willem De Kooning, Stella’s works were all surface, and their literalness laid the groundwork for Minimalist artists like Carl Andre and Donald Judd. In the ’60s Stella began creating stripe paintings using copper and aluminium industrial paints, incorporating a wide range of colors into his work. Later, he began using unconventionally-shaped canvases, from L’s and T’s to multi-part polygonal forms. Suffice it to say, Frank Stella is a monumental figure in the history of modern painting.
At the Anderson collection, while Admiring Robert Motherwell’s Italian Summer (1963), Stella called it a painting that “works in spite of itself,” contrasting its thinly-applied pastel blues and chalky blacks against the virtuosic brushstrokes seen in nearby paintings by Adolph Gottlieb and Franz Kline. Stella paused in a gallery where two of his works, Polk City (1963) and Zeltweg (1981), hang opposite one another, though they hardly look to be from the same artist. Polk City, a vaguely “S” shaped canvas built from three parallelograms and painted with his signature stripes, looked orderly and restrained in comparison to the chaotic Zeltweg, an anarchic arrangement of intertwining painted and scribbled metal that extends several feet from the wall. Yet Stella considered Zeltweg a painting as much as Polk City; moreover, he considered the earlier painting a necessary foundation for creating the later work. Asked about the later work’s three-dimensionality, he quipped: if painting is about the surface, working in three dimensions gives you surfaces.
Those looking to see the bridge between these works need look no further than the Frank Stella retrospective open now at the de Young Museum, the final iteration of an exhibition presented previously at the Whitney Museum and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth by curators Michael Auping and Adam Weinberg. Despite a truncated selection of 50-odd works (roughly half the Whitney’s presentation), the exhibition succeeds in presenting coherently the long trajectory of Stella’s six-decade career–and you could hardly fit another work into these crowded galleries.
The exhibition opens with an eclectic group of six early works that introduce Stella’s approach to the problems of painting that his career explores. Delta (1958), with its shaky and slightly irregular black chevrons that flicker between receding space and flat decoration, explores the tension between literal and representational. The small notches cut from the corners of Avicenna (1960), combined with the rectangular hole cut from the center, hint at Stella’s grandiose experiments with shaped canvas a few years later.
The art historian Michael Fried attributes to these paintings an autonomous ‘objecthood’: lacking any illusionistic space or symbolic meaning, we see them straightforwardly as painted surfaces that represent nothing but themselves. However, their tight arrangement in the exhibition severely undercuts any attempt to see them this way, as a view of any single painting includes the peripheral presence of at least two others. That said, this visual intrusion can prove rewarding when viewing works by a doorway. You might glimpse particularly resonant earlier works in the previous room, and revel in the coherence and continuity of Stella’s oeuvre.
The first two rooms of the exhibition end with two exceptional pieces from his Black Painting series, concluding our look at Stella’s early career. A long rectangular gallery spans Stella’s work from late ’60s to early ’80s, beginning with three shaped canvases from the Irregular Polygon series. Fried called these paintings a triumph, the culminating development of modernist painting: pictorial structure determined self-reflexively by the shape of the canvas.
Stella’s swaggering dominance of the late-sixties art world can be seen in the monumental sprawl of Damascus Gate (Stretch Variation III) (1970), one of his massively-popular Protractor paintings. The work feels like an inflection point, Stella’s exultant cry of decoration and flatness before his turn to volume, seen in the architectonics of the all-wood Bechhofen (1972) and the riotous graffiti-like arcs of Talladaga (1980). At the Anderson, Stella framed these experimentations as a result of his work in California with master printer Kenneth Tyler. Inspired by the aluminum plates used in printmaking and aided by skilled fabricators in Los Angeles, Stella was able to go beyond the canvas.
From there, two more long galleries bring us from the ’80s to the present. Assemblage-like compositions, geometric arcs and lines erupt from the wall to completely collapse pictorial space into real space, merging Stella’s work from the ’80s onward back onto his earliest ideas. In his Harvard lectures, Stella called this “pictorial space that is capable of dissolving its perimeter and surface plane.” The exhibition rests on this modernist conclusion, presented as the logical next step for a painter committed resolutely not only to abstraction but also to the idea of painting as a practice necessarily about itself and its needs as a medium.
In a way, the complete elision of real and depicted in the later work defeats, albeit unsatisfyingly, what Fried calls the “virtual inescapability” of pictorial illusion. If shape in painting “must be pictorial, not, or not merely, literal,” why not both?
- Frank Stella, “Caravaggio” in Working Space. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986, 10.
- Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood” in Art and Objecthood. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1998, 149.
- Ibid, 151.
Images courtesy of Betty Noguchi, Anderson Collection.