Size and Importance

Further on from the previous post—if Stella was part of a larger, more general response to abstract expressionism, I think the generally accepted understanding of that response has been too limited. We usually hear that it was a reaction against the emotionalism, intensity, anxiety and doubt of the older generation. I see it as a reaction against the limitations of the lyric or subjective mode. An abstract expressionist picture is an enlarged moment. Historically the moment by moment movement of the artist’s mind took the form of a series or succession of small works—think Klee, or even Picasso’s cubist still lifes. To expand the size was a claim for the social importance and value of individual creativity; that was fine, but the content was still slight. And the reaction—the systematic, deliberate, planned work of Judd, Stella, Kelly etc.—didn’t actually do the job. Uninflected surfaces, regular forms and all at once reception were good things, but they kept the singleness of idea and experience of the older art. There was certainly an ethical aspect to that, but it was also just contemporary taste. Everyone was habituated to the artwork as the embodiment of one idea. A large Ellsworth Kelly fundamentally offers the same kind of experience as a small Morandi—thoughtful, deliberated, condensed, hinging on sensibility. One could say that some large scale American painting is just a way to allow intimist work to survive in the post-war consumer environment, which is bigger, busier, blander, more distracted than before, and to find a market for it among people who don’t incline to reflect or meditate or live with art. Against this perspective, Stella’s later work is really something more, and a real expansion of art.

Frank Stella, la Vecchia dell’Orto 1986

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