I’ve loved Frank Stella’s work since I started in art, and have seen a few examples over the years. Readers of this blog will also know that I have a strong interest in the Moby Dick series, and I have seen some of those, but it was not until recently that I really saw them. I went to Toronto specifically for that, to find some Moby Dick works in private collections. First of all, Stella is a master of all the things that painters have always done—drawing with paint, coloring, inventing images, inventing illusions, orchestrating complex arrangements in space and on the flat. The pieces are obviously worked through, there is no feeling of the ready-made or photomechanical—but then that’s obviously wrong, factually untrue. I guess I’m more interested in Stella’s brush than in his use of industrial technology, but then he is one of the rare artists who has integrated the ready-made and the photomechanical with the hand-made such that the distinction between them seems unimportant. That’s how it should work, but the prevailing approach today seems to be to stress the use of technology, to make a point of it, as if that had some special merit. It seems to be a hang over of the old modernist value of truth to materials, so Stella, even though his work is grounded in the production economy—the factory, the workshop—is less hidebound, and less beholden to modernist dogmas than most art today. The only comparable work that comes to mind are Rauschenberg’s silkscreened canvases of the early sixties, otherwise art of the last fifty years seems to be mastered by technology rather than able to master it. The reception of Benjamin’s “Artwork” essay might have something to do with this, and I will take that up soon. Here is one of the pieces I saw in Toronto:
From where I was standing it seemed to be in part printed on aluminum, as in these two details, although on the left side I wouldn’t rule out spray paint and stencil.
Only Stella can make this ordinary negation seem exciting, through how it is combined with the hand, with brushstrokes. This is one of the secrets of his achievement. Also, in this piece there are two wave/whale shapes, on the right and left sides. They are both bent to fit. Cutting into them, bending and coloring are three ways to integrate the fabricated forms into a hand made work—all three at once gives Stella’s characteristic style, which can ingest the poison of the ready-made without harm.
On this trip also made a point of looking at the sides and backs of the reliefs; I’ve long been aware that they were painted, but had no expectation that it mattered. Some people seem to think that he has a lot of gall calling these reliefs paintings anyway—a non-issue if there ever was one. I found that his treatment of the supports reinforces the pictorial nature of the work. After twisting my head around behind a bent piece of metal I was looking at the backside of a painting, which then didn’t seem so thick, even though it was not necessarily the same painting I could see from the front. To illustrate, the left hand part of this piece has etched parallel lines in the grey/red and blue/green areas, painted in with black.
On the back side the same lines are painted on top of the metal, in the same places. A red circle seems to be behind a Chinese lattice, like the moon seen through a window, and there is a yellow circle on the back, again directly opposite the circle on the front—a game of transparency that pretends that vision can go through a picture to another place where the world it sees is different. Alice through the Looking-Glass might be as present as Moby Dick, but painting is not thereby left behind, only enhanced in its capacities and potentials.