Bigger and Better

In some quarters one hears the claim that bigger means more serious or more ambitious. Not necessarily, because bigger doesn’t necessarily mean more. It’s one way to get attention in the world, and maybe does indicate a desire to get that attention, so from a dealer’s perspective a sign of something. But small works can be very strong in crowded contexts—think of Nasreen Mohamedi, Agnes Martin, Giorgio Morandi, Gunther Gerzso—so the quality that matters is not necessarily sheer size. What I want to see is abundance, and the all-over composition now canonical in abstraction gives more of the same, so not so generous. The problem with abstraction is its default recourse to the lyric, or personal. Abstract paintings usually look like the eruption of one idea, one sensation, one feeling, one discovery. They don’t seem to build or go anywhere after the initial impulse. But even the most facile and skilled artists used to practice a lot of preparation. Picasso would fuss about with painted bits of paper to try out compositions, yet he was capable of just whipping one up whenever he felt like it. Most abstract artists today seem to be content with Alan Ginsburg’s “first thought, best thought.” The purpose of planning is get the thing to go farther—to make it better. This might be why I think Stella’s later work is his best. His method remained as systematic as it was with the Black Paintings, but added more stages and made room for more elements. Many confuse system, order, planning with unemotional rationality. It’s actually an enabling device—it enlarges the working space and makes more room for emotion, as well as more perspective on the world.

Frank Stella, Jungli Kowa 1978

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