Untethered – Not Process and Frank Stella – Continuation…

Since the conversation about Stella was getting long on the post for Untethered – Not Process, I thought we’d expand a bit. So this is a continuation of that discussion, and please forgive the editing – this comment was originally done on the fly and with a very sharp tone – which I regret… My apologies for my petulance – I do tend to pop off at times.


Frank Stella "Gobba Zoppa Collotorto" 1985 Art Institute of Chicago
Frank Stella “Gobba Zoppa Collotorto” 1985 Art Institute of Chicago


Hi Martin,

This comment will be all over the map…

Yes, I do understand the importance of the individual, and I agree that Stella does not approach this concept in the usual ways. But I think this is a failure of Postmodern abstraction itself. If you’ve read his book, Working Space, you get a sense of the ambition that he has for painting, and he chooses Rubens as one of his starting points. Now Rubens is a complex character in the history of painting. First because of the breadth of his output and second because of the torrential shifts in tone between his public work, which always moves toward outright spectacle, and the private work, which is full of delicate intimacies and private secrets. At one time these kinds of private works could express the complexity of the individual. But today with the all-pervasive online world this is no longer the case. (See the last post on Not Process.)

Stella has never made “private” work – at least not that I’ve come across. He has scaled down his public works in order to piece out his ideas or to sell less expensive work to collectors (I’m sorry, but those smaller stripe paintings are just cute and ridiculous all at once.) I’m not saying that these works lack “individuality” because that’s just outright wrong. They are unique to Stella. But they are not private, never private, and they reveal hardly anything about the master. But when you have corporate executives saying things like this: “People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people,” he said. “That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.” – the idea of the “private individual” has become something else. The closest things that Stella has made that comes close to something we might have at one time termed “private” art are the raw (pre-scanned) smoke ring photographs on the small wall – abstracted Self Portraits. Who knows? Maybe Stella is like the rock star Prince and he’s keeping a secret vault of thousands of these kinds of “private” art works waiting to be discovered after he is gone. We’ll gasp in awe when we find drawings, photos and paintings of assignations, lovers and family. Then the generations that follow will have to reevaluate his story…. Not likely….

Peter Paul Rubens "Rubens, Helena and Frans" 1635 Metropolitan Museum of Art
Peter Paul Rubens “Rubens, Helena and Frans” 1635 Metropolitan Museum of Art


The transition from signs that dissimulate something to signs that dissimulate that there is nothing marks a decisive turning point. The first reflects a theology of truth and secrecy (to which the notion of ideology still belongs). The second inaugurates the era of simulacra and of simulation, in which there is no longer a God to recognize his own, no longer a Last Judgment to separate the false from the true, the real from its artificial resurrection, as everything is already dead and resurrected in advance. Jean Baudrillard  “Simulacra and Simulation”

Just as Rubens’ major commissions were about Power so is much of Stella’s work. And especially in the later work from the 80s forward, everything Stella has made is aimed at the Corporate World, the Global Economic Community. In some of those wall constructions he actually used the same manufacturer of European currency printing plates to make his collage elements. (Can you imagine going to the EU Bank and asking to use their plate factory?) As an American abstractionist he can not create the painterly illusions that Rubens was so wonderful with, nor can he turn to a late abstract figuration because he is so tied to Clem’s Neo-Modern dictums of process, purity and abstraction. His solution to volume, form, illusion and caricature from the start of his career was to turn to the pure logic of industrial manufacture, to the processes of Fordist production which he then later used in his sculptural architectures. Sculpture, as we know, is already in the round, already volumetric and in our space. The Gordian knot had been cut and illusion, the thing Stella hammers on about in Working Space, is beside the point – clever that.

Paint in these works is used as a “decoration” – to create patterns or “flows” like the graffiti work that inspired his thinking in Working Space – his painting never describes or creates the illusion of caricature as it once did on Roman and Greek statutes. Instead it vandalizes the volumes, becomes transgressive, fights the sculptural forms pushing them towards flatness and abstraction. In these painted wall works the visual power comes from the hermetic spaces within the work itself. The contrived forms, made more aggressive with color or cut, push outward into our space, the space of the gallery – or as Nechvatal’s “open letter” states – it pokes you in the eye. This aggression of form, the positing of an alternate theoretical visual reality, is something Stella delineates over and over again in Working Space. It’s always been Frank’s intention to make visual, to make “real,” the abstract – even in those early Black works.




Abstraction allows for this kind of visual aggression because it carries none of the “figure,” none of the vulnerability of human existence in it – at least not in the Postmodern era. Our kind of abstraction is fashioned like a disaster of war, an economic meltdown or a car crash – an aggressive event entirely of our own making, a glitch in our conceptual reality that must be pieced back together at all costs. This is how Empires work, how they are formed – in the moments of break down when the abstraction becomes fails into violence. And whether we wish to acknowledge it or not the American Empire began just so with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 followed by one abstract crisis after another. It was about this time that Stella’s wall constructions really began to push out into the spaces of the galleries. And it was also at this time that a new kind of abstract realism began to be felt in his constructions. Stella had made the jump…

Peter Paul Rubens "The Landing of Marie de Médicis at Marseilles"
Peter Paul Rubens “The Landing of Marie de Médicis at Marseilles” 1623-25 Louvre Museum 

Private or Public

What constitutes the individual in a world where there can not be private moments? What does that individual look like? To get back to Rubens – when middle aged Peter paints his young family out for a stroll in the arcadian garden what is he saying about his life? When Rubens paints those giant swirling Medici cycle paintings for the French Royals what is he saying about their lives? How does one inform the other? Does Peter’s individual life matter to those whose power Rubens’ celebrates? One thing comes clear when confronted with his Public work – the individual Paul could never exist in Rubens’ branded abstraction of power. What is that difference? Well I’ll leave that up to you…



Individuality as a Fad?

I can not attack Stella for the lack of an “individual” viewpoint. The individual no longer exists in the Empire of the Corporate Spectacle. Since the late sixties and early seventies his work has been in service to other, “grander” things. His paintings solve problems – problems of scale, composition, space, etc. while providing “difference” – much like Rem Koolhaus and Frank Gehry who create “individual” forms of architecture through a brand name experience. These Postmoderns make allusions to traditions of art, literary, musical, and visual art, but they do so outside of the cult of the “individual.” They do it through the systems and operations of “critique.” And my apologies to those who know Frank (who seems like a lovely person,) but his works are aesthetically ruthless, hungry, terrible and awesome in ways most abstractionists today can not understand and do not “see.” Most abstractionists are either lost in nostalgia or they are too busy covering up their imagery with sheets of paint or skeins of overlaid images confusing the issues of what they are painting and what they are trying to express. Stella on the other hand makes no bones about it. He is straight forward, creating powerful images that twist a room to their own ends.


Jason Frago "Passive Abstraction to riotous Baroque" October, 29 2015 The Guardian - Photo By Justin Lane
Jason Frago “Passive Abstraction to riotous Baroque” October, 29 2015 The Guardian – Photo By Justin Lane


In that back room those 3 wall sculptures do just that. Like the Rubens painting of the arriving Medici princessa there is absolutely no room, no space big enough to hold those impossibly morphing things. There is no room for us! You’re not going to be able to back away, to find space, to catch things one at time. Those images are going to roll over you, just like American foreign policy, just like Moby attacking the Pequod. And just like Rubens’ Queen the world explodes on arrival. In fact for Rubens this moment is so powerful and auspicious that even the mythological realm intrudes in the form of group of water nymphs coming to pay tribute and celebrate a new overpowering reality. Is Stella’s White Whale, are his aesthetic choices, any different? It’s the same kind of “poke in the eye” if you ask me.

4 thoughts on “Untethered – Not Process and Frank Stella – Continuation…

  1. Hi,
    I took some notes on your intriguing elaboration of your views on Stella. The notion of making “real” an “alternate theoretical and visual reality” made the Stella’s work for me.Those words unlocked them as did your differentiating him from other more optical abstract painters like Olitski who pale in comparison. Upon reading my notes this morning I thought of Heidegger’s critique of Nietzsche’s thought as being shaped by a will to will.It is a doubling of will.a hyperbolic notion of the will.It pushes man’s creations into that alternate reality or talk about.Maybe giving credence to anon’s notion of his relation to space travel.I may have mentioned in my piece how different he is from say Giacometti who retains the notion of the viewer observing reality even though he problematizes it. We are carried along by Stella’s later work.There is no question of stopping things to observe an event at one moment in time.
    I tried to make a point in the essay that the reality of Queequeg is different than that of Ahab. The crew are carried along by the mania of Ahab but they remain human in their relation to each other and the physical world.They experience the cold and the wet,the exhilaration of being at sea. They have “real” moments in the way that a Monet can still be a cold day in Winter or a balmy day in Spring. Maybe this is the individuality I am talking about.In Rubens it is the flesh that you want to touch,that grounds the exotic space. I recall the Frick show of work from the Mauritshuis a few years ago and a Rembrandt where parts of the painting were pinned down with a build up of paint that seemed to move into an infinite notion of detail. I know the stripes and the squiggles serve the grounding purpose in STella but there is none of the fascination that points to a reality beyond the work or in the case of Rubens the eroticism that heats up the work and makes you linger on the parts.But then again Stella(reflectingHegel’s notion of the way the slave makes himself free through labor) is arbeit macht frei or will to will,not just object making but making objects times two or times ten.

  2. a doubling of will is present in stella’s work from its origin and informs it to this day, yet it may not hew to the metaphysical concepts martin outlines above. stella’s position is strongly characterized by the premise of second-order observation, one of the underpinnings of postwar systems theory and the cybernetic realm of which the discipline is a part. this is key to grasping a presentation of the work as nodal and serial, which proposes a wholly synthetic ontology that has implications for subject-object relationships similar to those implied by trans-classic calculi and quantum mechanics.

    an understanding of stella’s early work from the black paintings through the ben moore series is hamstrung by the ‘minimal’ appellation used to describe both it and the work of his closest peers at the time of its startling appearance in the late ’50s and early ’60s. donald judd rejected this description of his work, and a similar refusal should apply to stella’s as well if one carefully examines the complex movement of pictorial thought that unfolds up to, and including, the massive protractor paintings.

    it’s always been my belief the black paintings were cargo cult works that approximated the scale and surface of the abex artists stella admired, executed in an attempt to harness the magic and power of sheer material presence. stella dispensed with the existential rhetoric that surrounded the painting of rothko, newman, and pollock, and while not exactly surrogates, the works are facsimiles devised for the artist’s personal ends, still imbued with a primitivism that the technical qualities of the aluminum paintings would ruthlessly efface. in this sense, and in relation to modernity in general, the black paintings are analogous to the life-sized timber and frond effigies of aircraft built by pacific islanders who witnessed squadrons of superfortresses flying overhead on bombing missions during the second world war. the paintings are designed to summon sublimity. the aluminum paintings, which immediately follow, actually are the abstract equivalents of a widespread technological prowess that came to define the first stage of postwar american society, which was corporate in its organization and optimistic in its worldview, if not entirely omnipotent per se in its projection of power and rationale.

    it was in the delineation of these series that stella discovered that which would which carry his painting forward to the self-professed decorative engines of his first peak, culminating in his first moma survey in 1970 at age thirty. the speed and efficiency with which the artist worked through the specific problems posed by these series was astonishing, and incredibly novel. with each seen in toto, the mechanics of display and reception become the prime integers of meaning which drove interpretation of the work. as such, a show at castelli of symmetrical purple polygons became not only a clatch of abstract ‘portraits’ of the artist’s creative circle, but a picture of a picture in and of itself, one that alluded to a system open to energetic forces but closed to random information. this would constitute the essence of a cybernetic ontology, if indeed one were to outline such a state of being. it’s somewhat telling that none of the purple works are on view at the whitney, their pigments having proved unstable and their surfaces too fragile for the everyday.

    leo steinberg famously described the most challenging art of the ’60s as in need of other criteria that would provide a basis for evaluation and understanding. it seems we’re still waiting for something similar with which to face stella’s best work, which in some respect he’s always yet to do.

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