Reading Abstraction

Frank Stella, The Betrothal in Santo Domingo 1999 (detail right side)

Frank Stella, The Betrothal in Santo Domingo 1999 (detail right side)

In the Kleist series, imagery related to the story, in this case a novella about the famous slave revolt in the West Indies, can’t be ruled out. Robert Wallace, in his discussion of the Moby-Dick works, did very well in showing how the works touched the literary original and then moved away from it. With a background in comparative literature rather than art I think he did an excellent job, and avoided the mistake common in literary readings of art of a too particular and systematic one-to-one correspondence between picture and text. His interpretations were illuminating and accurate. In his treatment of this piece he seems to have more difficulty, but the failing is not his exactly. American culture is preoccupied with race in a way that I find hard to comprehend, though I can understand that it has a context and a history I don’t share. But I cringe when that preoccupation is expressed in a fixation on color, particularly in art. Even as applied to people, white and black are metaphors, so how could color in a picture have any precise social significance? In any case, all color in pictures is relational—whatever it means can only be found in combination, so color symbolism is always reductive. Red or yellow or black or white have no intrinsic meaning, or emotional weight, despite what Kandinsky and other theosophists once thought. Even optical effects are hardly definitive: blue can be made to advance and red recede in the right context. But he might be on to something with respect to the brown ellipses in the upper right corner of the detail above. Among other things, Kleist’s story is about miscegenation and conflicted loyalties, and this arrangement of overlapping disks might well be seen as a diagram of something like that—thinking abstractly—as one use of the interlacing technique. Another part of the piece that Wallace singles out is this

Frank Stella, The Betrothal in Santo Domingo 1999 (detail left center)

wire mesh formed shape. Again, he thinks that its variegated color makes it attractive across social divides, but I think rather it’s the figurative aspect, that it is a shape with a strong suggestion of a human body—it resembles a torso or other broken piece of sculpture. As such it relates to material mentioned in an earlier post. But most remarkable in Stella’s later work is the range of both figurative and abstract form.

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