Americans have little patience for depth or nuance. We are a literal people. We want things when we want them. We prefer the surface of things. We want the answers to our questions presented to us with no funny business. Excel charts, bullet points, sequential outlines and cliff notes make us feel secure and in control. Leaves all the froufrou out of it and we know exactly where we stand.
When Stella painted the Black canvases he used a simple recipe to make straightforward things that succinctly encapsulated the endgame of American Modernism. Direct. Egalitarian. Incontrovertible. And he would hammer that point home every chance he got. “All I want anyone to get out of my paintings is the fact that you can see the whole idea without any conclusion . . . What you see is what you see.” Seems easy enough, but it isn’t, not if you carry the title around in your head. And that goes for all these black paintings – “The Marriage of Reason and Squalor,” “Getty Tomb,” “Zambezi,” “Arundel Castle,” “Die Fahne hoch!”. These titles are not exactly numerically blank, matter of fact or unburdened by complexity. Maybe we were not seeing what we were seeing.
“Death and especially suicide are prevalent references in the titles [of the Black Paintings]. The names of three paintings incorporate Nazi references. Four titles derive from major disasters. Several names come from song titles with unusually depressing subject matter. Several others are named for “black and deviate” nightclubs (in [William] Rubin’s words).” [From Erin Williams’ wonderful article on “Minimalism and Meaning-Making”] Turns out that Frank’s famous bon mot might actually contain a bit of nuance and irony. How un-American of him. It’s also one more complicated reason that these paintings are so good.
The Third Man was filmed at the beginning of the Cold War in Vienna. The city is a wreck – destroyed by the war, riven and allotted among the occupying armies. There are huge piles of bricks along the streets, bombed out buildings, martial law and crime and corruption goes unchecked. Europe’s young generation has been destroyed, the streets are nearly empty of youth. And it’s in this bleak setting that we watch worlds collide. The story begins simply enough with a journey, a friend and a death…
“Now [in the American version of the movie] everything is established, and all mystery eliminated, as Holly Martins takes control of his own story. The worldly unknown British voice with a dubious past becomes the known and down-to-earth American one. You can’t imagine Holly Martins ever having been within a million miles of Constantinople. Oklahoma suited him better. A startling, offbeat and ironic beginning becomes a humourless and conventional opening to a Hollywood thriller, with no more purpose than to establish the scene. Everything is just what it is. To Holly Martins the military police in Vienna really are ‘good fellows on the whole doing their best’. The ambiguity and delicious mischief of the original are lost. Anything irregular or slightly irreverent is straightened out. The insouciant understatement of ‘bombed about a bit’ becomes the prosaic ‘bombed a little of course’. Even the casual, conversational tone now seems false. For there’s nothing spontaneous about the introduction now, it’s just the hero telling his story.” [Richard Raskin European versus American storytelling: the case of The Third Man]
Of course we all know what happened to the great Minimalist Stella – he took up with the Europeans. All through the 60s he was on a tear and worked his way through the prosaic and the utilitarian. He used industrial paints – Black, Aluminum, Metallic. Then bursts of color with a Modernist Franco-American flavor – house paints from Benjamin Moore. Later he used experimental flourescent paints – day-glo, bright, manufactured, corporate. All of this was accomplished in line with the logic of the Black paintings, the compositions determining the shape of the stretchers. Curves started to appear (“arabesques” as the European Henri might say), because he was using a new tool. They are aptly named the protractor series. So many good paintings. So many good ideas in less than a decade. Stella was in full Fordist production as he came to the end of the 60s. And he could have gone on in this way forever. Until he didn’t.
In the next decade (the 70s) his ideas began to fluctuate, complicate, and finally, go totally off the rails. Frank built out his constructivist imagery while using his painting hand for expressionist brush work. By the 1980s he had become illicitly involved in a deep and all encompassing love affair with European Visual History. Frank went public about his middle age crisis and talked poetically about Working Space. He was enraptured with the Renaissance, illusionism, Caravaggio and Correggio, Russian Modernism and the Bauhaus. He spoke about these things in deliberately scary and highly sexy ways. He manufactured massive baroque abstract structures crusted with sloppy paint that slipped off the wall, slathered across the floor and squatted in your lap. It was only then that it occurred to us that maybe we had absolutely failed to actually see what we saw. We were enraptured by his early work and unsure of who Frank had become. Stella was not like the flat-footed Holly Martins bringing American “aw-shucks” artistic simplicity to a broken and torn world. He was actually the duplicitous Harry Lime – an expat painter on the prowl, conniving, cheating, brokering and murdering his way through Europe’s vast treasury of visual history.
What a fantastic, challenging, open body of work he has given us. But to this day I still have to convince abstract painters of the greatness of Stella. They just can’t seem to get over those early works. They love them like apple pie and Chevrolet – until of course – you mention the titles. They refuse to see the connections beneath the surfaces. For me the moment of real clarity was the great shadowy doorway reveal that he gave us in the 1980s. Frank’s Working Space showed us that he had been engaging in a bit of delicious European mischief right from the start.