Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 15, 2006
Harry Cooper and Megan R. Luke Frank Stella 1958 Exh. cat. Yale University Press in association with Harvard University Art Museums, 2006. 168 pp.; 59 color ills.; 20 b/w ills. $34.95 (0300109172)
Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, MA, February 4–May 7, 2006; Menil Collection, Houston, TX, May 25–August 20, 2006; Wexner Center for the Arts, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, September 9–December 31, 2006
Frank Stella. Red River Valley. 1958. Oil on canvas. 231.1 x 200.7 cm. Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums. Gift of Lawrence Rubin, 1973.135. Photo © President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Frank Stella’s place in the pantheon of postwar U.S. art is in little doubt. From his appearance in Sixteen Americans (1959) at MoMA until his February 1966 solo show at Leo Castelli Gallery (which received several damning reviews, especially from younger artists like Mel Bochner), Stella was arguably the center of the New York art world. What made him so compelling was the very ambiguity of his art. It was most definitely painting, but it also verged towards the sculptural. So much so that even after praising Stella’s skilled brushwork in her review of his January 1964 exhibition at Castelli, Lucy Lippard found it possible to state, “these paintings are real objects” (“New York,” Artforum 2, no. 9 [March 1964]: 19). Indeed, in an era when the rhetoric of medium specificity reigned supreme, Lippard’s seemingly contradictory observation—that a painting could also be a sculpture—revealed the radicality of Stella’s art. It also suggests how his paintings appealed to a number of different viewers, for his work was just as useful for those advocating Modernist sensibilities as it was for those more inclined towards the nascent phenomenon of Minimalism. It is Stella’s unique position at the crossroads of abstract painting and three-dimensional objects during the first half of the 1960s that makes Frank Stella 1958 such an enticing exhibition.

As the title implies, this show concentrates on the first year of his mature production. With over twenty paintings and assemblages nestled into two rooms, Frank Stella 1958 not only offers a fuller understanding of these often overlooked early works, but also provides a more tangible context for his seminal black paintings exhibited in 1959. It also strives to solidify a connection between Stella and Jasper Johns, which makes for a reading of these works in line with his reception in the early 1960s: that his art could be both pictorial and object-like. In many ways this tightly focused presentation follows a curatorial trend apparent in such major retrospectives as those for Barnett Newman, Dan Flavin, and Richard Tuttle, where each of these exhibitions incorporated a “re-hanging” of the individual’s first major solo show. Obviously, with Frank Stella 1958 it is slightly different, but we are still privileged to examine his art before his major breakthrough, and, as with all of these slices in time, we have the chance to see influential works coupled in a “near-original” format. In this case, it is a loose reconstruction, but it does let us reconsider Stella’s intellectual and artistic development as he moves from Princeton to the Lower East Side and then to 366 West Broadway.

The conception of this show has a couple of major implications. First, Stella, despite his youth and relative naïveté, knew what he was doing, and thus his black paintings were not a chance discovery but were the product of a yearlong investigation into formal problems raised by second generation Abstract Expressionists and the techniques of Jasper Johns. Secondly, the link to Johns, who brought home the image/object paradox like no other before him, implicitly suggests a potential reconstruction of the origins of Stella’s art, and more broadly, the origins of Minimalism. Indeed, the Johns connection is telling, and certainly some of Stella’s paintings have it. Stella, who was aware of Johns since his student days, became engaged with Johns’s repetitive method of painting horizontal stripes. These spanning bands inspired by Johns’s series of Flags show up in a number of Stella works, such as Great Jones Street, with its alternating red and black stripes. In all of these horizontally oriented compositions, which include East Broadway and West Broadway among others, a solid rectangle hovers around the center of the pictorial field and interrupts the left to right procession of stripes. Perhaps it is a continued reference to Johns, where Stella’s monochromatic sections stand in for the missing stars. However, in some of the earliest works, Stella also seems to embrace the combine aesthetic of Johns. Assemblages like Them Apples and its pair, Untitled, display once again horizontal bands in combination with another solid field. But this time they are painted on cardboard and wood, while being hemmed in by a frame that makes this vertically oriented piece closer in spirit to Robert Rauschenberg’s Bed (1955) than to most of Johns’s work from this time.

Stella’s absorption of some of Johns’ techniques suggests a way in which to position the lineage of Stella’s slippage between painting and objectness. It also raises the bigger issue of historical precedent. Does Stella’s reading of Johns mean that the insights of Neo-Dada, and by extension, Marcel Duchamp, have a causal relationship to the development of Minimalism? Perhaps. But this then gets into the messy awkwardness of the almost incommensurable bond between art historical practice and studio practice, for Stella liked Johns. He also liked Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb; Alfred Leslie even played a part. And according to Michael Fried, Stella owed a lot to Barnett Newman. Still, this is a valid and thought-provoking debate, and the installation of this exhibition facilitates it. Nevertheless, the paintings in question do not possess the edginess and blurring of aesthetic boundaries of some of his later works. None of the compositions dissolve the distinction between the depicted world and the real world quite like Hyena Stomp (1962). Nor do we see such a searing critique of illusionism as we do in a piece like Sidney Guberman (1963). And why should we? Stella is only months removed from college and is still figuring things out. Despite the fact that the stretchers he used project his canvases nearly three inches from the wall, the pieces seem conventional. They are merely paintings, even though in retrospect they provide hints of what is to come.

Most of the works have a keen awareness of gravity. Paintings like Plum Island and Red River Valley pull the viewer’s eyes downwards because of the horizontal stripes near the bottom of the canvas. In works like Seward Park, Mary Lou Loves Frank, and Astoria there is a sense that these pieces are almost melting as noticeable drips, stretching towards the floor, conceal aspects of the bands. These subtle gestures suggest a growing understanding in the materiality of his medium. But this self-knowledge came to a head as he waffled over what to do with the sides of his canvases: should he or shouldn’t he paint them? This choice comes with consequences because to leave them untouched stresses the fact that these are paintings, whereas to do the opposite lends the works to associations with objecthood. Eight works have their sides covered. The rest do not, and Stella, as he quipped in a 1964 interview with Bruce Glaser, chose to stick with bare sides .

Frank Stella 1958 culminates with Morro Castle and Delta—two of his earliest black paintings. Delta betrays this designation slightly as red under-paint shows through, but Morro Castle looks more familiar as its opposing, squared-off “U’s” increasingly grow until they meet at the center. Unlike later works, Morro Castle remains contained by assertive edges. Nevertheless, this is a bold creation (as are the rest of the paintings in this show). Clearly, Stella had hubris. He wanted to affect art history and “preserve” Abstract Expressionism with “a completely independent abstract art” (Stella, “The Dutch Savannah,” in The Writings of Frank Stella, Cologne: Verlag Der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2001, 139). And while striving for the gods, he, like Icarus, fell short with these works, which makes it seem that perhaps the most noticeable relationship at play here is less that his work could be both pictorial and literal and more that he could possess both precocious talent and the brashness of youth. Indeed, how do we reconcile the solemnity and aesthetic radicality of Morro Castle with a painting (whose location is unknown) from the same year provocatively entitled Mary Lou Douches with Pine-Scented Lysol? How does Stella’s untethered ambition find common ground with an untitled assemblage that features an advertisement professing a way to “wash out sticky mucus drip: stop hawking and swallowing germ-laden discharge”? In many ways we cannot, but this is the charm of his art. These are big, worked-up, colorful paintings; and this includes the black ones. They have attitude. Stella had attitude. Just check out his photograph for the Sixteen Americans catalogue if you have any doubts. These are not remarkable paintings, but they exude an air of greatness. And for a few years after 1958 his art matched his conviction, which is a remarkable accomplishment.

Alexander Dumbadze
Associate Professor, Department of Art and Art History, George Washington University