Just for now, I would rather stay at street level and save a walk up the staircase at 45 East 78th Street for another visit. Not since Dorothy Miller’s 1959 Sixteen Americans exhibition at MoMA has a group of Frank Stella’s Black Paintings been shown together like this—and here they are, installed on the ground floor of L&M’s plush town house. So what is there to see, given this opportunity after all this time? A lot has happened in the intervening years, obviously, even though abstract painting—and let’s not forget it has been abstraction, rather than painting per se, that for so long has seemed beyond the pale—is now getting a great deal of attention. With that said, most new efforts at abstraction comfortably sit within the cool of quotation: It’s all been done before, so let’s have fun. But I don’t want to have fun.
On ViewL&M Arts
April 12 – June 2, 2012
Logic is not always felt in the same way that it is perceived. The clear strategy that Stella employed in the late 1950s for getting from one side of a painting to the other is no more or less notable, on the surface of it, than waves heading toward a beach; it simply does the job. Yet while this metaphor might hold, nothing in what I see here is abbreviated. Remarkably, there is no lack of impact or nuance in these paintings. In the workmanlike application of black enamel house paint on raw cotton duck (Stella had been working three or four days a week as a house painter), no aspect of a painting’s ability to affect a viewer is reduced. Again a painter, without recourse to any obvious skills, tested the reception of painting—like Manet did and like Pollock did. That old chestnut, “anyone could do that,” evoked again here, could once more be met by the answer: yes, but no one else did.
That Stella’s paintings are so successful attests to just how well all the elements involved in their making come together. Yes, they are prescient of Minimalism, but they are also just as reflective of the achievements of, say, Mark Rothko. What Stella rejected was any guarantee afforded by easy rhetoric. With youthful confidence, he identified and acted upon the intuition that a painting did much of the work of generating meaning itself—and to happen upon this, Stella definitely didn’t need what Meyer Schapiro had disparagingly called “night school metaphysics.”
As was equally true of some of his near-contemporaries, including Hesse, LeWitt, Judd, Andre, and Flavin, Stella’s pragmatism did not reduce the poetry and philosophical complexity of his work any more than it diminished art’s capacity for raw power. Politically, the open availability of simple compositional strategy and the clear use of vernacular materials are surely democratic. As Stella said, “What you see is what you see.” More Claude Lanzmann than Mel Brooks, in stating visual facts and titling prosaically, Stella leaves the viewer on his or her own. And that’s the point. One painting title after another speaks of social transgression, real or perceived, and of the patent inability of language to précis appearance. “Zambezi” (1959) was the name of a 1950s transsexual nightclub in Harlem, as well as a river in Africa. “Arbeit macht frei” (1958) was the mocking phrase situated above the entrance to one of Germany’s most notorious concentration camps. Hannah Arendt warns of a carousel of meaning in language that hides atrocity: “the banality of evil.” Or, in the words of one of Woody Allen’s characters, “How the hell do I know why there were Nazis? I don’t know how the can opener works!” Stella’s Black Paintings open the routine onto horror—connecting what one person thinks is normal to what is other. Modernism’s follies and strengths collide here in a body blow, relieved only by a walk up to the second floor of L&M, where the intellectual dialectic of shape and its upended topographical consequence continue, with the aluminum and copper canvases of 1960 and ’61, in a calm and rational vein.
45 East 78th St. // New York, NY