By Martica Sawin
The free-flowing spaces of the Whitney Museum’s 18,000 square foot fifth floor seem to have been specially created for the current fifty-seven year survey of Frank Stella’s art. Not only are the height, space and light necessary for the scale and shimmering surfaces of Stella’s flamboyant later works, but also the artist’s preoccupation with structure dictates a dynamic relationship between artwork and surrounding space. From the early black paintings to the shaped canvases, shallow reliefs and assertively three dimensional pieces that barely connect to the wall, Stella’s works insistently occupy space rather than closing it out in favor of a self-contained formal composition. The installation allows for shifting vistas of Stella’s carefully deliberated structures as they interact with each other and with the space they inhabit. Despite the extreme contrasts the visitor gets a sense of underlying continuity from the first obdurate black canvases to the concluding Baroque extravaganzas.
During a visit to my neighbor, artist Stephen Greene, in 1957 when gestural Abstract Expressionism was at its peak, my eye was drawn to a small rectangular object on the wall. On its surface thickly painted bands of black were separated by scarcely visible lines of bare canvas. “What on earth is that?” I asked. Steve replied, “That is a painting by my brightest student at Princeton, Frank Stella.” Within a year of Stella’s graduation, the enlarged offspring of that painting were on view in New York galleries and in 1959 the 23 year-old Stella was included in a “Sixteen Americans” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. The same year the museum purchased a large black stripe painting, The Marriage of Reason and Squalor II. By the time of his first show at the Castelli Gallery in 1960 he was using copper and aluminum paint on canvases that had been slightly modified to take on a distinct shape that was repeated by internal stripes.
Seemingly oblivious to the favorable response generated by these difficult works, and the shifts in direction they inspired in some of his contemporaries, Stella systematically pushed on to the next step in his campaign to redefine the parameters of painting. The mid-sixties saw a series of jagged polygonal canvases painted with vibrant fluorescent colors; these were followed by the brilliant rainbows of the “protractor series.” By 1970 some shaped canvases stretched to 50 feet long and cutouts of wood and cardboard were collaged onto surfaces to create shallow reliefs where shadows come into play. Experiments with industrial materials—wire mesh, pre-cut aluminum shapes, printed metal alloy sheets, or etched magnesium led to ever more complex configurations, increasingly independent of the wall. In his mind these were still paintings and he splashed them with lurid color and graffiti-like scribbles. He also made use of 3Dprinting and computer-aided design. The complex layering of the works from the mid-nineties on would scarcely be possible without the help of assistants feeding drawings into CAD programs.
Despite his famous remark—“What you see is what you see”—implying an absence of external references, many of Stella’s works were inspired by specific sources such as race tracks and Scarlatti sonatas. In the series titled after chapters in Moby Dick there are identifiable fins, splashes, and plunging sleek forms. This is an exhibition about having it all, painting and sculpture, abstraction and content, simplicity and complexity, austerity and flamboyance.
A wall label contains this quote from Stella: “I don’t think you can do it all at once. That is why you’re lucky you have a lifetime.” With this exhibition the Whitney makes it possible to experience the trajectory of a lifetime in one place and all at once.