Tuesday, 25 September 2007



(First published 7th August 2007)

Stella’s rooftop exhibition of sculpture at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY follows on from a show at Paul Kasmin (NY) in May-June (the website there currently in transition, regrettably). It measures a steady progression for an artist renowned for restlessness and experiment, but at the same time Stella’s trajectory has increasingly looked wayward by general trends, his goals obscure or trivial, his success, to be frank, less than stellar.

Yet Stella’s path also spans the course of Minimalism, and to understand why his sculpture arrives at such respectable but unexciting backwaters, one must appreciate how his notion of sculpture arises from his painting, and how this is determined by a Minimalist approach to abstraction. This is too much for a short and simple post however, and while Posts 24, 28 and 33 take up the course of Minimalism, here the post settles for Stella’s transition from painting to sculpture. The line admittedly can become very thin and Stella’s use of increasingly complex, shaped canvases and ‘heightened’ stretchers stretches the painted support to more three-dimensional considerations. The turning point occurs around 1972-3 where additional layers to a work exceed mere shaping and deliver a painted wall or bas-relief.

This arises at much the same time that Stella’s stripes are drawn into overlaps or interlacing, introduce a basic depth and non-stripe shapes, take on more complex meaning, allude to traditional textile and basketry motifs, for example. Further depth then prompts more figurative motifs; further stripes then prompt more literal depth and articulation. Either way, the basic patterns that Stella has relied upon as minimal abstraction soon threaten to seep back into the figurative and concrete, and to avoid this he turns to more three-dimensional application. Unfortunately, sculpture embraced on these terms runs into other problems. The rigour established between strict pattern and painting cannot be sustained in three dimensions – three dimensions need more of a pattern than a set of standard curves or planes as painted surfaces. It literally requires another dimension to the governing principles of construction (see also Post 36). Also, much in Minimalist painting and sculpture at this time render Stella’s version of either as decidedly conservative.

The problem is really that Stella is left with a concept of painting as just colour applied to a surface, and sculpture as dedicated surfaces. Meanwhile others had gradually extended minimal pattern to temporary or permanent murals upon various architectural and civic features – from Daniel Buren to Sol LeWitt to Gene Davis (his Franklin’s Footpath 1972) to the site specific works of Claude Viallat, for example. Then again the materials of pigment and application in themselves had challenged basic pattern and support by various staining, pouring, spraying and spattering. Pigments augmented with latex or polyurethane, as in the work of Linda Benglis relax pattern radically; approach sculpture less rigidly. Later work by Jules Olitski and Larry Poons literally rises to the challenge.

But for Stella supporting planes can at best appeal to standard volumes, curves (the French Curves template) and while painting is relieved of pattern by this, colour and application then struggle for purpose or purchase. In the 80s Stella adds glitter and other excitement to his pigments, but the problem is essentially that it is still stuff to be applied to a support and supports are no longer enough for Minimalism, nor mere application of some version of paint. Significantly, Stella returns to his trusty stripes, concedes some basic volumes (and modelling), looks to less direct or more incidental marking and shaping. More convoluted or elaborate planes are introduced; more ingenious pattern is applied to them in formidable combination. But the result is actually a kind of overkill to a weary concept, or kitsch.

Throughout the 90s Stella slowly allows industrial standards and colouring to his ‘sculpted’ planes, yet often works remain ’attached’ to the wall, unwilling to quite abandon painting, uncertain what painting is quite abandoned to, without pattern or sculpture. With the turn of the century Stella eventually finds enough ‘pattern’ in his curling tubes and pipes, industrial finish to his arabesques and geometries, to resist greater ‘painting’. And while the effect lags somewhere behind the more remote designs of a Dennis Oppenheim or Alice Aycock, the conspicuous commissions of a Jeff Koons or even Tony Cragg, this is only fitting for a pioneer of Minimalism. For some, the elaborate flourishes and curlicues his materials now allow, amount to baroque splendour, given the times, rococo might be more apt.


flies said...

it soudns like you're saying his conception of painting isn't as revolutionary as that of certain minimalists.

so what? I never saw his work as an attempt to deconstruct or reshape our concept of painting. Certainly, it plays in the space between painting and sculpture.

At times you seem to be criticizing him for not totally abandoning painting for sculpture. how absurd! As if this were some kind of failure.

His paintings are much more intersting to look at than those of buren. Le Witt's work is rarely more interesting than the wall it's covering up.

Check out the book on stella's moby dick series. The reproductions are stellar. The work is among the most visually engaging i have ever seen.

CAP said...

I’m saying ‘the space between painting and sculpture’ is minimal, marginal and largely irrelevant. Which is why we have categories like painting and sculpture; why they still stand as they do. If you want to play both ends against the middle, it’s a pretty short game, with only one loser.

I’m saying that his lame conception of sculpture is severely hampered by his equally feeble conception of painting. The reason he fails at sculpture is because he starts from painting, and thinks he can continue it with sculpture. The reason he is saddled for so long with all those clunky ‘shaped’ planes in sculpture, is because he can’t think past surfaces to paint on. The reason he is saddled with such a clunky notion of painting, is because he just wants something to cover surfaces with. He should have stuck to house painting. Maybe he would have graduated to using sash cutters eventually! - and been able to ‘do edges’ – or would that have been too much like drawing? His later works (90s+) recover somewhat, but then come in some distance behind others using comparable means, as I’ve indicated. Too old, too slow, too rich, too dull.

So his failure is two-fold – as painting and sculpture.

If he’d bothered to look at contemporary developments in using novel pigment cocktails like Benglis, Poons or even Olitski he would have cottoned on that ‘brushing’ was his biggest drawback, if covering surfaces is the first priority – that a fixed or final surface is not always even necessary. If he’d bothered to look at Buren or Viallat’s landscape installations, he’d have seen how scale alone won’t really ‘decorate’ architecture (his aim) – that more searching integrations do far more for pattern or abstraction, for color, scale and surface. But that would require taking his own ideas seriously, applying the same discernment and sensitivity to the work of others, he expected of his own.

But Lil’ Frankie was stuck with the convictions of a prep school nerd and as wunderkind, blinded to the work of rivals, unfortunately. As for the embarrassing literary turn of the Moby Dick series (what an apt symbol!) – this is only to concede that abstraction is less than pure! That if metaphors are available to abstraction, then it is steadily reeled into the figurative or concrete. Which is it to be – that abstraction offers more potent metaphors than figuration? – or that ‘abstraction’ needs more vital literary or figurative reference? Either way, Stella’s wafer-thin appreciation of depiction and painting takes another beating. Check out the ironically titled Working Space. Working Space Cowboy would have been closer to the mark.

America won’t let go of him as an icon because it’s still in love with the idea of the boy-genius – a bit like Orson Welles – but without the Hollywood blacklisting. There is literally so much invested in him! They love the idea that some privileged little twerp from Princeton can spring up and ‘solve’ abstraction – take it to the max or min! But as history rolls on, these devastating gambits look far less convincing, simply because the bulk of successive work by artists (abstract and figurative) can comfortably do without them. Minimalism proved to be anything but. Stella’s talents were mainly for arrogance and self-promotion.