Frank Stella, Flin Flon VIII, 1970.

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.

Got this book as a gift, read it, didn’t take to it.

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).

TItian_-_The_Flaying_of_Marsyas (1)
Titian, “The Flaying of Marsyas”, 1550-76

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.

“V”, by me, 1990.

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.

“Pachanak” 1979, by Frank Stella.

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.

No thanks, Frank. Nope. I’ll pass.

~ Ends

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7 replies on “Frank Stella: Foyer Artist

  1. I get the idea of taking painting and then breaking up its physical unity so it can be arranged but in space. Pachanak is clearly struggling with this technique in a way that the picture at the bottom of the post isn’t. But isn’t it all art about art? No doubt we’re now at the level of art about that too. Wake me up when something interesting happens.


    1. Art about art about art. Yes, I think we’ve been at that level for a while. I didn’t get into it in this post, but the Stellas I most like are his monochromatic freestanding sculptures (not hung on a wall). Several people have made comments on Articles about his retrospective that they object to the sheer size and mass of his pieces, which seem to them out of place in a world that needs to be sustainable. This interests me in relation to the Koons & Hirst spectacles, as well as the big $ productions of McCarthy and Barney. It used to be the, “it takes money to make money,” but now it’s also “it takes money to make art”. Stella shades into this as well.

      Also there was a good article discussing Stella’s own statements about his interest in decoration, which his art often doesn’t seem to go much beyond.

      What is interesting in art may so depend on what someone is interested in. Artists are desperately trying to make interesting art, and throwing millions at it. What succeeds? Can anything be interesting for very long in a time that is a glut of spectacle that’s too much for anyone to digest. Can any song stand out when dozens are being played at the same time at full volume?


      1. Large-scale art is in proportion to the need among those who buy it to show their wealth. Sustainability doesn’t come into it because it has no place in the ideology of collectors other than being cast as sandle-wearing scaremongery about environmental destruction. The largest research effort in human history is, in this black and white quasi-religion, not a shred of evidence. And then there’s the jobs. What about the jobs? Large-scale manufacturing allows scores of graduates to take on the minimum wage jobs they dreamed of when they studied. So anyone who argues against wage slavery argues against freedom: they also argue against the social mobility towards it that education provides. Art that demonstrates the large-scale success that goes with private endeavour should therefore have museums built and maintained for it at massive public expense. Cutting through the noise of spectacle is a surprisingly socialist form of late-capitalism. Buying tickets for shows by the artists you mention is a vote for keeping things working in the interests of those who we think really matter. Amen.


      2. Started up my chainsaw to attempt to cut through the sarcasm. Destroyed the blade.

        I guess people could protest millions of dollars spectacle art by not buying tickets, but that would probably be as effective as me trying to purge my social media feeds of [insert corporate-created pop star of your choice] by not buying his or her CDs… I gather they have enough people clamoring to invest in the status quo of art, that the people who don’t go and probably couldn’t anyway don’t amount to a significant loss. But there may be something to say for taking a crap on it online.


    1. Thanks. Read your article over a cup of coffee and rather enjoyed the analysis of the development of his work. I got the impression that much of his career revolved around very little real investigation of even purely visual ideas, but done on the very large scale and showcased in the gallery and museum world throughout. He’s really quite he poster boy for large scale, extraordinarily expensive, supposed breakthrough art in the faith of the linear progression of art history (you know, in which something like using an odd-shaped canvas is “breaking out of the picture plane” as if it represented some great, philosophical paradigm shift, and not just a design idea that could be had and dismissed in a normal afternoon working for a design firm as a commercial artist. Are these “developments” really any more innovative than package design? You do a good job of examining the limitations of a career based on the idea that “what you see is what you see”. If an artist confines himself to the purely non-representational, and further removes any appeal to emotion or the sublime, and then tops it off with a general disregard for appealing aesthetics, there’s not much left to work with. Overall I enjoyed the art history component of your article, and all the images.


      1. Thanks Eric. I think a lot of critics are just cowed or too obsequious to actually come out and say how empty and redundant Stella’s work is – but you can sort of read it between the lines with a lot of them. I’m just coming out and saying in formalist terms what people have believed since the 70s (I’m of that generation).

        Liked by 1 person

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