Stella’s Ecstasy

My admiration for Frank Stella is total; he is a great and exemplary artist. In Robert Wallace’s book on the Moby Dick series, he is quoted as saying that abstraction has a special ability “to spark in a viewer’s mind the rich constellation of feelings and associations produced by a confrontation with reality.” This is close to something I was saying a few posts back, or another way of saying the same thing. Stella’s work joins on one side to a large body of practices I don’t like, for example the works of Fiona Rae or Fabian

Fiona Rae, Untitled 1991

Marcaccio, to mention two. These are painted montages, with many incidents bumping up against each other. Stella’s work is not just additive, there is a working through and a working out—the forms appear to emerge in and through their placement, which is really composition in the most traditional sense. I know that sounds wrong, because Stella is also very spontaneous and freehanded, and likes a dose of arbitrariness, often a large dose, but it is my impression that no matter how chaotic, the works hang together, though it may be a mystery how. The work that I dislike is just one thing beside another, one feeling or idea added to another. Worse, it may also include atmosphere and suggestion, something I have also criticized here. Stella gets to reality by repressing easy associations.

Frank Stella, The Grand Armada 1989

That doesn’t mean there are no associations or even imagery, but they are formed, constructed—not subjectively dreamed, but concretely felt. It’s not about sparking a vague something in the viewer’s mind, despite what he says, but about facing them with a real thing. The confrontation is with art, not with mental mists, of which what we call “reality” is too much made. This may be a hard distinction to make convincing, but I feel it.

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