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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."



Frank Stella, Plant City, 1963. Zinc chromate on canvas. 102 1/2 x 102 1/2 in. (260.4 x 260.4 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art; gift of Agnes Gund in memory of Anne d’Harnoncourt, 2008. © 2015 Frank Stella/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Arguably, Frank Stella is the most famous & successful abstract artist to emerge in the widespread reaction against abstract expressionism that began in the summer of 1950 (months after “ab-ex” itself had become the reigning avant-garde). In my book, neither “famous” nor "successful” automatically equates to “best,” but these two adjectives qualified Stella to become the subject of the first major show devoted to a single living artist at the Whitney Museum of American Art in its new Gansevoort Street HQ. Thus we have “Frank Stella: A Retrospective” (through February 7).

This mammoth exhibition incorporates approximately 100 works of art: paintings, collages, reliefs, sculptures, prints, drawings, photographs and maquettes. The ensemble occupies the entire fifth floor of the museum, with a charming little piece done in 2013 also displayed in the eighth floor café & two large sculptures in an outdoor gallery.

All these works provide an impressive chronicle of a very public career with many more phases than the moon.

That career began with stark, flat minimalist paintings in the late 1950s—the famous black-and-white “pin-stripes” which created such a stir when they were shown in “Sixteen Americans,” an important MoMA exhibition of 1959-60. Other paintings from this period utilized the same narrow stripes and similar geometric configurations but employed aluminum or copper paint.

In the mid- to late 60s, Stella progressed to comparatively classic and more colorful paintings. The most notable series from this period are the “protractor” paintings, so named because their imagery is based upon this humble desk accessory. These works were first displayed by Leo Castelli in 1967, and featured in Time magazine on that occasion.

Since the 70s, Stella’s work has evolved through a somewhat overwhelming number of different “series,” while growing progressively a) more and more three-dimensional and b) more and more elaborate and baroque. Some (though far from all) of the latest works, in fact, are executed in a style so twisty-turny that they look as though they’re falling apart.

As you may have sensed from this last phrase, I’ve never been an avid fan of Frank Stella's. His work has seemed to me impressive, but cold.

This may be because on the two occasions when I’ve met him, he’s been a tad rude to me. Still, I’ve long since learned that niceness and talent don’t always correlate, and that any decent critic has to try and separate the artist from the art.

With Stella, my task in this respect was eased by the fact that I saw him at the opening last spring of Darby Bannard’s exhibition at Berry Campbell.

I knew that he and Bannard had been friends as undergraduates at Princeton, but that was like sixty years ago. To the best of my knowledge, the two have traveled different pathways since, so it was nice to see him turn out for Bannard’s big night.

Possibly as a result, I went into the Whitney show determined to keep an open mind about it, and wound up liking much more of it than I’d expected.

It starts out with a beguilingly modest painting called East Broadway and done in 1958, the year the artist graduated from Princeton and was still an unknown.

The paint application is this painting is still likeably soft and fluid, and this stylistic evidence of the abstract expressionist cocoon from which Stella was emerging is matched by its imagery: it’s a parody of The Little Spanish Prison, another modest painting by the abstract expressionist Robert Motherwell, done between 1941 and 1944.

East Broadway is composed of horizontal black and yellow stripes; in the lower right hand corner is a small black vertical shape that could be taken for a door. Little Spanish Prison has stripes, too, but vertical yellow and white ones. In its upper left hand corner is a small red horizontal shape that could be taken for a window. All this is too close to be coincidence. It’s a killer.

Thus softened up, I went on to the pin-stripes, paying particular attention to The Marriage of Reason and Squalor II (1959). I’ve seen it before, as it’s owned by MoMA, and on previous occasions, I’d been disturbed by its black rectangles within rectangles. They’d reminded me of cell blocks and mazes, but this time, the painting simply struck me as very sweet and genteel.

I also related to some of the aluminum and copper paintings from the early 60s. I suppose these originally looked shiny because of their metallic paints. Now they are just attractive matte shades of palest gray or golden brown.

A very beautiful painting in this sequence is the silvery gray Marquis de Portago (first version) (1960).

A distinctive variant in this sequence is Plant City (1963), a six-pointed star. As it was done in zinc chromate paint, it too may once have had a golden shine; now it is just a rich, warm yellow.

The “protractor” series isn’t that well represented in this show, although one of its three examples is large (Harran, 20 feet wide) and one is enormous (Damascus Gate (Stretch Variation III), 50 feet wide. Or maybe it’s just that my attraction to this whole series is waning. What once dazzled me may now look a bit too planned.

On the other hand, I liked a lot more work done since 1970 than I’d liked before. Sure, a fair number of those monster mixed-media wall pieces thrusting themselves out onto the viewer had me jotting notes like “too much—can’t leave well enough alone” and “badly organized” or “horror vacui.”

But other wall pieces employ harmonious colors, restrain themselves in the mixing of media, and hang together – in short, they work.

Among these successes (in the approximate order that I encountered them) are The Blanket (IRS-8, 1.875x) (1988); St. Michael’s Counterguard (1984); Inaccessible Island rail, 5.5x (1976); Eskimo Curlew, (1976); Bechhofen (1972); La penna di hu (1987-2009); and K. 459 (2012).

So go – and enjoy. You may have a completely different take on all these different art works from the one I had.

“Frank Stella: A Retrospective” was organized by Michael Auping, chief curator of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, and Adam D. Weinberg, director of the Whitney, with the assistance of Carrie Springer¸ also of the Whitney. It will travel to Fort Worth from April17 through September 4, and then to the de Young Museum in San Francisco, from November 5 to February 27, 2017.
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