Stella’s Achievement

It’s always contentious to raise the subject of cubism in the context of American art. Today it seems remote. The pictures look small and intense in a way that pictures today are not. They also have a kind of antique quality or patina—evoking bohemian days in Montmartre and all that. However, I have put a cubism tag on every one of my recent posts about Stella’s Moby Dick. His debt to Picasso is clear, yet not obvious. If I mention Picasso’s painted metal reliefs most readers are going to shrug. They seem too far off to be relevant.

Pablo Picasso, Violin 1915

But if you look at the paint itself, they come a lot closer, and closer to Stella. Stella’s difference is that he makes large, public abstract gestures in space. That feels very different from bending sheet metal to make an image of a familiar thing, but formally, technically, there is not much in the later work that wasn’t done way back then, either in relief, collage or painting. The broader and deeper importance of cubism will have to be addressed at some point, but right now I just want to say that in my opinion Stella is the real and best successor of Picasso. He is the only painter I can think of in the latter half of the twentieth century who reaches as high a level. But this would be a laughable assertion if not for the Moby Dick series. That work shines back on Stella’s earlier work, and allows us to see that above all he has a Picassian capacity to change. I felt like saying to develop, but it’s an open question whether anything ever gets better—yet Stella’s changes have opened up his work undoubtedly. The point is that it doesn’t really matter what kind of work one makes—what medium, what language, what sources, what function. Principles are irrelevant, as are positions, ideas and ideals. Take any bad idea you like—it’s what you do with it that counts. That’s how I felt when I poured out a can of paint to make my first Island—I’ll just take my stand on this blob, it’s as good a place as any. All the best moves are unmotivated, unprovable, unnecessary and, above all, unpredictable. Stella’s progress might simply be described as the gradual abandonment of his good ideas and worthy principles. And that may also be the importance of cubism. It makes no sense.

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