Stella says about his famous smoke ring photographs that “…if they do not stand for the human figure, I do not know what does.” There’s a long tradition in both literature and religion that equates breath with life, and photographed smoke rings are breath rendered

Frank Stella, The Whale-Watch 1993

visible. In this piece they have been digitally processed as line drawings. They look like waves splashing around the black body of a whale, while the dot pattern is like light sparkling on the ocean surface, at the top making a rainbow in the mist. The slippage between air and water is very interesting and appropriate to whales who spout exactly that. But then Stella goes one step further and renders visible breath material as three dimensional casts. In this piece they are hard to see, but the cast smoke rings twist up

Frank Stella, ‘Oh!’ cried Toni (Q#3) 1998

around the lower right hand side. When casts of the smoke rings appear in a piece like this one, titled with spoken words from a story, then they also become the voice of actors in a drama. From breath to spoken word—through picture and object—is a great progression, and one that says a lot about figuration and abstraction, and does a lot toward allowing abstraction to find the meanings it often lacks. One is inspired to become an artist, presumably by other art, and inspiration means an intake of breath. The artist’s expiration, or breath out, is his or her payback to the culture that made their identity possible.

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