Love Letters

I’ve been enjoying a group of small works in Stella’s Kleist series named after some of the writer’s love letters. Each one has a nice formal gesture; this piece, for example, has parts

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Frank Stella, To Wilhelmine von Zenge, Gottingen, June 3, 1800 (LL#9) 1998

that swing up and down in opposite diagonal directions; this other piece is also divided top

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Frank Stella, Wilhelmine von Zenge, Chemnitz, September 5, 1800 (LL#7) 1998

and bottom—the top airy and light, the bottom half with a curved planar back. It’s hard to put the configurations into words, and of course they are not so simple. Even as small pieces, around 20×16 in., they are complicated enough. They hang on the wall, but the background planes, found in all the painted reliefs from the Exotic Birds up to Moby Dick, are sometimes less prominent than usual. For Stella the transition from painting to sculpture seems to be important, though his whole career appears to deny that the distinction matters. These works have an air of improvisation, and that’s what I like about them. The questions that arise, of course, are why is this shape bent just so? and why this color in this particular place? One of the authors of the Wolfsburg catalog describes these same pieces as “…crazy, colorfully sprayed and splashed protuberances, the meandering material flows, the gently splattered confusion of planes and growths on aluminum…” Fair description, but it sounds as if even defenders of the work see less order and intelligence than is there. But he also says “Stella’s pictorial excresences are fate” and that’s closer to the target. Ultimately, the objection to painting generally held by conceptualists is that it seems arbitrary, and that this arbitrariness is just subjective, that it can be traced back to the artist’s fantasy of sovereignty. Productive faculty is equated with social power, doubly guilty because only a fantasy of the same. My critical antagonists in England, who are mostly painters, seem to have the same attitude. Emerson knew something about it:

“I would write on the lintels of the doorpost, Whim. I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation.”

Is this shocking? Critics may be excused, but if any artist finds it so, isn’t that more shocking still? A young artist may feel the need to be careful, and to defer to the standards and conventions of his or her age—but eventually one no longer has the time for that. Practice and experience ensure that the work is more than whim, but it’s

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Frank Stella, To Adolfine von Werdeck, Paris, July 28, 29 1801 (LL#12) 1998

more important to make it than to plan its resolution, or to make sure it meets some pre-existing agenda. Meanwhile Stella says

“I love forms as forms, for me they have an inner identity and an inner value, I love them for themselves, and do not see them just as forms to be manipulated. They are very personal; I love them as someone might perhaps love his girlfriends’s ankle.”

What more of a rationale does any decision need than this? Only the most obtuse conceptualist would call it mystification. It’s objectified subjectivity, bearing in mind that subjectivities are objective to begin with, and that the part of them that can’t be identified is the emergent. In any case improvisation, or whim, has a special place in abstraction, untheorized as yet.

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