Been reading the catalog of a 1979 show at the Guggenheim Museum called The Planar Dimension. The essay by Margit Rowell can only be described as lucid and enlightening. Her discussion of Picasso’s constructions is brilliant, and the essay in its entirety is essential for anyone interested in the problems of relief painting. The concluding sentence of the essay summarizes the important idea of the entire show and catalog: “It is worth considering that the assertion of open space which characterizes much twentieth century art came about through the extension of two-dimensional surfaces, or a pictorial spatial concept, into actual space.” That pretty well summarizes something that a lot of painters find difficult to accept, namely that painting is not restricted to colored pigment pushed over a surface. Stella evidently learned a lot from this show, visible in his work. Some of the artists included, such as László Peri, Antoine Pevsner and Vilhelm Lundstrøm, are clearly precursors, and it is surprising and illuminating to put them in relation to Stella, since they are generally not names to conjure with. Peri made reliefs in cast concrete,
of which these are two examples. They mix illusionism with cut out shapes and
impressions into the concrete, a kind of relief. They are also polychrome. Lundstrøm’s work resembles nothing so much as Stella’s Cones and Pillars in the way it mixes tactile paint with metal forms, the more interesting the comparison in that it is so clearly unresolved, experimental, small and has suffered over time.
But it’s the comparison with Pevsner that gives me a shock. Pevsner and Gabo represent a position that seems definitively obsolete today. I remember years ago hearing Jeff Wall ridicule Gabo, who he described as MORMA—middle of the road modern art. This piece by Pevsner is called Bust, so the two large circles might be breasts, but if it is reversed, a
mistake that often happens, it looks very clearly like a face or head.
Materials like celluloid and painted metal are right in Stella’s ballpark, as are the circular holes, but the figurative aspect is truly uncanny. There’s more to learn from Rowell’s catalog, which I will revisit.