“Abstract painting, Stella suggested, is in crisis. After the achievements of Mondrian and Color-field abstraction, painting seemed to lose its way. Not only has it become increasingly difficult to envision a vital future for abstraction but, perhaps even more significantly, it is difficult to relate it to a meaningful past that extends back much beyond the early twentieth century. In this sense, the current crisis in painting is said to parallel a crisis that occurred near the end of the sixteenth century with the death of Titian. Hence, Stella calls for a new Caravaggio to fill the void. For just as Caravaggio reinvigorated painting through his new treatment of space, so too painting’s task today is to discover “a new pictoriality,” a new sense of space, that is not determined by extra-artistic considerations. “After all,” Stella argues, “the aim of art is to make space, space that is not compromised by decoration or illustration, space in which the subject of painting can live. This is what painting has always been about.”
The last part of this statement becomes more credible when we realize that for Stella painting did not really come of age until the Renaissance, when the reconstruction of space according to one-point perspective gained dominance. The creation of such autonomous “working space” is Stella’s real subject. For him, the problem of painting is not so much the problem of representing a three-dimensional object on a two-dimensional plane but the use of “convincing illusionism” to make pictorial space seem real. According to Stella, painting should not confine itself to the picture plane (thus enslaving itself to “the tyranny of the perimeter”) but should seek to create a “communicable whole,” a “sense of absolutely convincing reality” that is capable of “making figuration look real and free.” (One recalls Kant’s observation that “beautiful art must look like nature, although we are conscious of it as art”) Adopting a phrase from Berenson, Stella describes Caravaggio as a premier “space composer,” meaning by that term not a composing in space but a composing of space. Dreaming of making painting “an enterprise that is independent and self-contained,” he praises Caravaggio for living up to the post-Renaissance artist’s “new-found responsibility” to create his own space, “space with a special self-centered character.” By steadfastly exploring this space, Caravaggio “made the studio into a place of magic and mystery, a cathedral of the self.” [Roger Kimball on Frank Stella’ s Harvard Lectures on Working Space]
Stella’s challenge, in Working Space, to the existing spatial parameters of modernist abstraction had already taken artistic form in the rupture and realignment in his own artistic development, from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s. The crisis hinged on whether painting should reject or cultivate its capacity to create pictorial space. Stella’s minimal stripe paintings from the late 1950s and early 1960s – monochrome stripes of enamel paint of a uniform width, modulated by a two and three quarter inch brush – rejected illusionism by emphasizing, on the contrary, a painting’s objecthood, its condition as the residue of a physical process, a set of measurements, a realization of scale. In their symmetry and serialism, they conform to the anti-compositional ‘oneness’ which Donald Judd prescribed for Minimal art. Judd’s essay Specific Objects (1965) approvingly describes Stella’s shaped paintings of the early 1960s as involving ‘little or no space’. The ‘little’ that remains consists of diagrammatic traces of illusionism: a kink in the stripes, a diagonal configuration, a maze structure which might intimate spatial recession, but only by inference, and seems designed merely to designate the work as ‘specific object’ in the form of painting rather than sculpture. What signification remains is confined to the beefy H and Vs of the shaped canvases, and they are more geometric monoliths than linguistic signs. Then, in the late 1960s and ’70s, just as early Conceptualism was opening up new spaces for art outside the traditional boundaries of the stretcher frame, Stella’s painting expanded, as though in sympathy, into many-faceted relief – multicoloured, compositional, explicitly gestural and spatially diverse.
It is ironic, therefore, that Stella’s influence on recent painting – for example, on the work of Wade Guyton or Ned Vena – is mostly limited to that of his minimal stripe paintings, which are being interpreted as mechanically divided surfaces representing their own production. Guyton, for example, uses an enlarged version of an ink-jet printer to progressively blacken primed canvases. The bands of ink – a technical feature of the ink-jet print – become an image of striped formalism, a rarefied ghost of Stella’s wobbly-edged tracks of black enamel. Slippage in the printing suggests the humanistic imposition of compositional values onto a remorselessly uniform technological field. They register, with metaphorical weight, as apertures onto white light, glitches in the drawn blinds. In their imposing scale and ‘all-overness’, Guyton’s ‘paintings’ resemble US late modernist abstraction, and cultivate that association, but they prove to be ‘blinds’ in both senses of the word – false leads and screens. Where we expect to find modernist autonomy there is instead a graphic design idiom which frames painting as a Warholian metaphor for its own production and reproduction. Reductively, but with ruthless consequentiality, Guyton casts the seduction of the black monochrome not as the transcendental void (as with Kazimir Malevich or Ad Reinhardt), or the autonomous painted object (Stella’s black striped paintings of 1959 – The Marriage of Reason and Squalor II or Zambezi), but as acquirable design decor. The solipsistic space of the painting cedes to the spaces in which it will be produced, collected, owned and displayed. [Mark Prince on the legacy of Frank Stella’s Working Space]
In “Working Space,” a book derived from a series of lectures that Stella delivered at Harvard in the early eighties, he framed his new work as an answer to a crisis in abstract painting. He saw a precedent in Caravaggio’s invention, in around 1600, of Baroque spatial illusion, in which the space in a picture appears continuous with the space outside it. But Stella’s theory proved more gripping than his practice. Caravaggio, in service to the militant piety of the Counter-Reformation, devoted his dramatic style to fervently envisioned religious content, such as the appearance of the risen Christ at Emmaus. The story told and the manner of its telling conjoin in Caravaggio’s work. Stella’s fealty to abstract art as a cause and an ideal—the only content that his art allows—can seem remarkably frail by comparison. It led him into willful eccentricities that may raise unkind questions about the cogency of his early triumphs….
Stella’s cynosure then, and perhaps his problem now, was a coolness beyond cool. In a telling passage from “Working Space,” he recounts a youthful misgiving about the grand masters of Abstract Expressionism, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, whom he revered. He writes, “I sensed a hesitancy, a doubt of some vague dimension which made their work touching, but to me somehow too vulnerable.” The older artists had established New York as the imperial court of artistic innovation. It was time for their heirs to start behaving with an impunity befitting emperors. The stars of Pop and minimal art did so, though in most cases with some degree of irony. Warhol’s Factory poked fun at itself as a cottage-industry miniature of commercial mass culture. Minimal art related itself to new forms of public space—corporate lobbies and plazas, airports, malls, and freeways, synopsized in white-box galleries—which seemed to render obsolete the contemplation of discrete pictures and sculptures. But Stella wanted to maintain the grandeur of post-Renaissance Western painting, updated through the elimination of the muss and fuss of religion, politics, psychology, and other all-too-human weaknesses. [Peter Schjeldahl on Frank Stella]