Figures coming through

Ruminating on the later work of Frank Stella has led me to a some new thoughts about what abstraction really is. Most important is to keep a sense of what Richard Shiff described in our recent conversation as the strangeness of it. We get used to the art we repeatedly see, and so can’t see it anymore. The most destructive normalizing force is our art historical knowledge and theoretical understanding, but close behind that comes the old expressivist fallacy, that returns everything to the artist. These are the enforcers of habit. If abstraction is strange, then it can’t be defined, because definition removes the strangeness, and intention likewise. The formulation of an intention is how the artist protects themselves from the strangeness of their own work, which otherwise might shake their sense of self—negate their cherished values, contradict what they know etc. What abstractionists really want is to enter a world without limits, as Pollock said “a landscape the likes of which no human being could have seen,” and of course the reason art can open a door to that world is that it is itself limited. But that’s aesthetics, right now I’m pondering a section of one of Stella’s Kleist paintings, which I discussed before, but now looking closer at what seems to be a very strange figure. A brown football shape that makes a head, and other brown shapes that make a breast and two arms, one thick and one very thin,

Frank Stella, Die Marquise von O_  1998 (detail center right)

Frank Stella, Die Marquise von O_ 1998 (detail center right)

merge with curving white areas that look like a body squatting down on its haunches. The small pointed “breast” suggests a female figure, but not necessarily. I’m sure that Stella did not set out to paint figures, neither would he necessarily object if they appear. Figures and faces that appear without any effort on my part I call demons, and I assume that they are waiting somewhere for a chance to get on stage and do their dance. Open-ended, improvisatory abstraction is the doorway they need. Stella was likely just organizing

Frank Stella, Die Marquise von O_ 1998 (detail left center of original collage)

Frank Stella, Die Marquise von O_ 1998 (detail center right of original collage)

rounded shapes, and a look at the original collage supports this—the skinny “arm” and oval “head” are more obviously parts of a cut-out circle. The figure was not planned, maybe not even recognized as such by the artist, but every stage of the working process opens up other possibilities of form and recognition, and now that we can see it it won’t easily go away. But isn’t an art that doesn’t know what it is doing very, very strange? The very idea of a leap in the dark, or blind action, is peculiar, but stranger still is what it finds.

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