After Poussin

Following from the preceding post, the overloadedness (if the reader will forgive such an awkward coinage) of Stella’s work is attractive, to me at least, but it does present problems. For one it becomes more difficult than usual to grasp the overall form and the larger movements within it. So much detail threatens to turn the picture into noise, but the details are all specific so we make allowances and keep looking. Stella himself recognizes a broader problem. About Annibale Carracci he says

“Most of all he is discreet; perhaps too discreet to make enough pictorial presence felt. Not that it is not there, but it is so hard to dig out that we feel the effort is hardly worth it. It may be difficult to admit, but our laziness is Annibale’s doom. No quiet painter can hold the attention of a culture for long. Quiet painting, even of great originality, is sure to be merely the subject of intermittent academic revivalism.”

The obvious response is that he should say this culture; the obvious question would be—does less incident equate to greater quiet? Theoretically no, but it is difficult to get anyone to slow down and look, including those who are predisposed to do so. Stella further complains that

“…the poor reception for the great exhibition of Emilian painting in the 80s occurred because it was too much of the real thing for the public, and perhaps even too much for the art professionals. It appeared that no one wanted to look at that much painting. The presentation of painting encompassing such complex and diverse ambitions was enough to turn people off. The irony was that a surfeit of good painting obscured it’s own beauty.”

Can’t win either way. But then another problem arises, which is the tendency for the educated viewer to place art in a conceptual schema. Stella’s busy compositions might discourage looking; there is too much to look at, not just in his work, but everywhere, and a limit to most people’s ability to respond fully and at depth. From a distance, at a glance, the work can be placed in its art-historical, theoretical, market niche, and that’s what the busy professional does. Breathing space is necessary for a real experience of art, so it is possible to seize a viewer’s attention by giving less, precisely for this reason. In Stella’s case time spent does give a return, because he does compose, always bearing in mind that he also likes to push things past the point of settlement. A dash of arbitrariness is the American way. In this piece there is a ‘V,’ made of the colored dot pattern, that comes down into a rounded turmoil of black and white layered against a screen background. It might be like a big swing, or a ship that comes rolling up wrapped in its own agitation with the waves of its history splashing behind and below, kind of like what happens in the Moby-Dick chapter for which it is named.

Frank Stella, The Pequod meets the Jeroboam. Her Story 1993

Although I want to say less about my own work, I have to say something about its difference from Stella’s. My works have the Cézannist ambition—to do Poussin over after nature—although a spill or blob or stain is a different level of nature than he had in mind. Every bump and divit on the Islands fits the pattern. Edges are in communication. Small forms nest inside large ones. If one gives the time to track the shapes, patterns and relationships, I believe there is a reward. Real complexity is in inverse ratio to filling up, yet reception is never guaranteed. Stella’s way is right too. Lately I have begun to find a way in and through his denser arrangements, and will talk about that in a future post.

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