Putting shapes together

I’ve been reading Robert Wallace’s book on Frank Stella’s Moby Dick, and finding it very inspiring and important. More about the book itself later, but right now I want to keep thinking about Stella. Wallace says “he…[sees]…himself primarily as a person who ‘puts shapes together.'” This must be why I feel an affinity with Stella, for that’s exactly what I do, only I don’t bring them together ready-made, I let each grow into its own space. In my work the invention of the shape and the placement of the shape happen at the same time.

Formally the Moby Dick series is not so different from what came before it in Stella’s work—assemblages of painted templates. The big difference I can see is that Stella starts to invent his own forms, to design his own shapes, which makes a qualitative change. Actually, the change was gradual, and began in some preceding series, but Moby Dick was the crucial development, and an important and beautiful one. There are three main sets of shapes in the series: Chinese lattices from a published collection compiled in the 1930s, gutter shapes from turn of the century foundry drawings, and Stella’s own invented “wave-whale” shapes. All three of these elements appear in most of the works, but it’s the last one that really takes this series to a higher level, and gives it an expressivity one can feel even without careful study. As Wallace points out, the presence of these invented shapes gives more value to the two ready-made elements.

Up to the Polish Villages Stella invented configurations, but not discrete shapes. William Rubin, in the catalog for his second MoMA retrospective, said “In his earlier compositions, Stella had never drawn a freehand curve—and he would not begin now; all the curves in the Exotic Birds are taken from the fixed (though extensive) vocabulary of mechanical drawing.” That changed with Moby Dick, the first works of which were included in that show. For a beginner, he made some very attractive shapes! This chart of some wave-whale figures comes from Wallace’s book, and they came to him from Stella’s studio: I find them very, very interesting. The internal drawing in the shapes even more so.
The following piece has two wave-whale shapes. The left hand one is on the chart, the right hand one is not, but the latter has a richly articulated interior. More about this later.

Frank Stella, The Pipe 1988

I’ve been aware of the Moby Dick series for a long time, maybe twenty years, since Philip Leider’s article in Art in America, and I always liked them, but now I love them. It’s been a long time since I had such pleasure in looking at modern art. The fact that they are no longer contemporary may be part of it, to my discredit. The only excuse for such belatedness is laid out in Wallace’s book, namely that there have been few opportunities to see them in groups, at least outside of Japan.

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