The Space of an Artist

Blog reader Naomi Schlinke has posted a comment that she has a less than positive experience with Stella’s work, particularly its space. That’s a good thing for me, a Stella fan, because it forces me to clarify what I feel about the work. Writing the response is less pleasurable and less interesting, but might be worth the trouble.

In a catalog of his prints that I recently acquired, Stella had this to say about pictorial space: “Space is part of the spirit of the thing, but it’s secondary…The question of space is an inherent one, not the subject matter.”
This is like the view of Ehrenzweig, who believed that a feeling of space is the mark of genuine art, but that it can’t be consciously planned or contrived. I have had the same experience – that if I start a work with the intention of building a space, and/or if I have that space clear in my mind, the results are always bad. Normal modernist flatness is a good starting position, and if space appears then good, but it can’t be forced. Fred Pollock said something similar. Stella’s work does not perfectly match what he said in Working Space, and that’s probably a good example of the problems that can arise when an artist writes speculatively or thinks forward about their work, but that activity should not be discouraged. And I think the whole thing has to do with Stella’s perceptive comments about space in Kandinsky’s work. He endorsed it as a necessary moment in the evolution of abstraction, but I don’t know….I find it too easy, too conscious, almost a trap, exactly the kind of space to avoid. Stella particularly mentioned the large piece in the Guggenheim with diagonal stripes, which interfere with Kandinsky’s normally scaleless, empty space,

Wassily Kandinsky, Komposition LX 1936

Wassily Kandinsky, Komposition LX 1936

and I also find that an interesting piece, though don’t really know why. At least it was

Robert Linsley, A Geomorphic Fantasy, Fifth Aeon 2002-2007

Robert Linsley, A Geomorphic Fantasy, Fifth Aeon 2002-2007

interesting enough that I borrowed the technique for one of my own works. In the end, Stella’s work always has a dash of literalism, and he goes for real planes in real space over illusionist planes in fictive space, but not always and not always with thoroughgoing consistency. Except in the prints, where the space starts out virtual and then gets the realist treatment with embossing and so on.

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