I’ve never been a fan of Frank Stella, who currently has a monumental retrospective at the Whitney Museum. Maybe you are.
I once received a copy of his book, Working Space, as a gift, and dutifully read through it. I try to keep an open mind.
I was not at all persuaded by his art or arguments, and the only image that really struck me in the book was Titian’s, The Flaying of Marsyas, which I think Stella included as an example of the opposite of what he was about (or else purely for its formal qualities and completely irrespective of the content and subject matter).
It’s not a really good sign for a modern artist if the most impressive and lasting image in a book devoted to his work was a painting done in the 1500’s. At this time I was an undergraduate art student at UCLA, and taking a painting class. My teacher didn’t like my work because it was figurative. She was, how shall I say it, a dick about it. I think, no I am sure, she was the teacher who told me I would never make it to graduate school. Didn’t mean to talk about this, but it is kinda’ juicy. I’ll get back to Stella in a moment.
We had an assignment in her class to copy an existing painting. I showed up to class with a blank canvas and this Stella book. She looked hopeful! Then I flipped through it to the painting by Titian, and the end result was that she decided that I shouldn’t do the assignment if THAT was going to be the painting I was going to copy. Note that if I was going to make a Stella, that would have been stellar.
Here’s an example of a painting I did while in her class, which was actually my first semester at UCLA.
She gave me a B+, which was an insult for an aspiring artist, and of course her prognosis that I would never advance, because my art was ass-backwards. Incidentally, I did go to graduate school, and she happened to have switched to the same school, and I ran into her once, and she apologized. That didn’t undo the damage of shitting on my art as an undergrad. Also, this painting was included in a group show at a gallery after I graduated from UCLA. Back to Stella.
He’s obviously not my cup of tea at all. In fact, he’s more like the napkin beside the tea, because there’s nothing in the art to imbibe of. Despite my heavy indoctrination into postmodernism and contemporary art, I retain my same general preferences. I like art that has guts, and I don’t mean chutzpah. I mean the kind of art that if you prick it, it bleeds. Or oozes. Kinda’ like the Flaying of Marsyas. I like my tea with milk and sugar, and my art rich and thick and brimming over with life. My two favorite artists when I applied for UCLA, decades ago, were Van Gogh and Francis Bacon. And they still are. They are artists who attempted to deal with the human condition/predicament, to render their imagery in their own styles which were a hybrid of how things look and how they paint, and in so doing created a unique window on reality for me to look at and through.
Stella’s work strikes me as dry, formal, contentless, and boring. That’s just me. It looks like something you’d see when walking into a big bank on Wall Street or Park Avenue (I temped at some of those). It’s like a giant colorful badge of success.
Admittedly Stella’s work is intelligent and sophisticated. I’ll give it that. And if I were in a bank lobby, sitting there waiting for my temp assignment to start, I’d surely be glad it was there to look at, though I might be reminded of hierarchies and power structures I got the short end of the stick on. I’d notice that the piece is also like a weapon of sorts. You could get hurt if you ran into it, if you were enervated about having to make photocopies for 4 hours straight, and only had 15 minutes to high-tail it to Gray’s Papaya for a 50 cent hot-dog or two, on your break, before organizing and stapling aforementioned copies into nice packets. The sculptural painting thingy has lots of sharp edges. It’s kind of assaultive, like a hastily made armament for combat on the battlefield of the art market (formerly known as the art world). Sure, it’s impressive, but I hate the protractor shapes in the upper right. It’s brash rather than beautiful. If you have the means to make some shit like this, I think it had better be beautiful. For me that might mean a better use of color, and I’ve never found Stella’s use of color appealing. And the piece above really looks like a shredded soda can, with a kiss of a demolished automobile (brazen crumpled commercial utilitarian crap).
But I acknowledge Stella’s art is good for what it is. Stella went in the direction of art being objects, rather than images. This is a wise choice if one wants to make millions, because big art sells for more than small art, even though it’s nothing like the difference between a big book and a slim volume. To make big art can be much quicker and easier than making something smaller that is image based. And Stella was a straight-outta-art-school whopping success story, so he obviously made the smart choice.
Mostly this may be a matter of taste, whether you or I prefer Stella’s Flin Flan protractor painting or Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas. For me, I’m not so interested in the art object in the external world. You can’t really divorce it from where it’s shown, such as the wall it’s hung on. The gallery or museum or bank becomes a difficult to extricate part of the whole of the piece, and I’m not that interested in institutional spaces.
Compare this to listening to music. One of my favorite ways to listen is in the dark with headphones. This allows me to enter the world created by the music. But with Stella, even in reproductions of his mature work, you can’t go into his world. It’s a flat surface to begin with, or else projecting outward like the proverbial file from a sliced piece of cake smuggled into a prisoner. And even if the art is flat Stella breaks the rectangle of the picture plane to force consideration of his art as a physical object in the world. For many people that makes it more real, but for me it only makes it really more mundane.
Of course I can get into his art, and would make my best of it if I were able to go to his retrospective, which I am not. I could make that kind of art, and have (the way I got through art school was to ‘beat them at their own game”, which included doing photography, performance art and installations). But, alas, it’s not where my heart is.
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