Complexity and Simplification

Throughout the twentieth century, the formal complexities of modernist art have driven artists to simplify and clarify their work. Judd and the other minimalists were doubtless right in their feeling that abstract painting had become too fiddly and fussy about matters of little importance. Louis might be exempt from the charge, but Olitski certainly laid himself open, perhaps to good effect. The situation today is very different, though the same bad painting still exists, and still, for some people, represents what painting is or should be, certainly in my town. Today I love the infinite complexity of painting, in which the relationships between color, design, tone, touch, texture, shape, line, field, space, layers, are truly beyond the capacity of any consciousness to orchestrate all at once—and that’s why I try to keep it simple. Stella’s work, however, gives complexity another life, another chance. Under the chaos there is a structure of forms, which, as we have seen, are repeated and to some extent standardized. But the aspect that bothers me today, also an important difference from my own work, is filling in the backgrounds. He uses repeated stenciled or printed patterns, and though I like them, and sometimes love them, as in this piece,

Frank Stella, Jonah Historically Regarded 1992

and am tempted to follow the same path, I can’t see how to motivate them. But the point is that they don’t have to be motivated. They provide an attractive foil for the action up front, so they just have to be taken in all at once, as an “all over” yet single gesture. Energy prevails over doubts in this case. Like Stella, I believe that every part of a picture must be used, but that doesn’t mean they all have to be painted in. In Stella’s work, the positive forms are also often decorated with all over patterns. So much busyness goes against my feeling for art, but it works, and who can argue with success? Stella himself said that “painting wants to be chaotic, but it can’t.” This work is a masterpiece of complexity,

Frank Stella, The Pequod meets the Samuel Enderby of London (D-20, 2X) 1991

a culminating piece, in my view. Though every surface is covered there is  no filling in. It requires comparisons with other works and perhaps reference to the chart to disentangle the wave/whale shapes, so Robert Wallace’s book is almost a necessity, although it’s a hard thing to get today. But what makes this a great work is that it really does make a new whole out of its parts. Where there is more there is more pleasure.

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