Literary Form

In his book on the Moby Dick series, Robert Wallace explains how Stella builds links between disparate works by repeating elements. What is most interesting is that this is also how the novel is structured; motifs appear at intervals, building allegorical and emotional bridges between chapters. Stella doesn’t take a secondary position with respect to the novel, so he is not really an illustrator, he responds to the form of the book. In some cases the works do appear to pick up on various moods and meanings of the book, but this is not strictly necessary, or at least it doesn’t have to be consistent. I think he has found an excellent way to work in parallel to the original, and one very important solution to the problem of the literariness of abstraction. But just to veer back to matters of technique, which are the true source of expressiveness, Stella’s repeated wave shapes don’t enter different works unchanged. Take the large white wave-whale in this piece, for example:

Frank Stella, The shark massacre (IRS 12 1.875X) 1988

When it appears again in this piece, it has been reversed and cut into in several places.

Frank Stella, Cisterns and buckets (Q 8) 1990

What is most important about these changes is that the shape is also painted, and the alteration of the shape alters the size and shape of the colored areas. So that means that there is some feedback between the artist and the piece—the applied color helps to determine the shape—as in classic modernism, but not as in Stella’s early work, or in the later modernism of the sixties and seventies.

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