Frank Stella is pacing back and forth on the antique rugs in his Greenwich Village house. Part living room, part gallery, the space is white-walled, skylit, huge. Large color field paintings by Morris Louis, Larry Poons, Ron Davis, Ellsworth Kelly - and Frank Stella - are hanging on the walls.
"You've seen the galleries in SoHo. How beautiful they are, those spaces, and they were made for paintings. But there's nothing to put in them. What's there? A tape casette, a TV screen, a line drawn on the wall.
"You don't have to be a genius," Stella adds, "to see the lack of focus, the general diffusion. The energy is slackening."
His energy is not in question. You hear it in his speech, you see it in the sharp exuberant complexities of his new abstract paintings. It crackles round him, this compact, intense man of 40. Neither nervous nor at ease, he carries a wariness about him like a shield. In a Russian hat of beaver fur and old paint-splatered shoes, be volunteers nothing, but, answering all questions, interrupts long silences with dense packets of brish speech.
He does not intend to mystify. "I start my painting from the ordinary premises that everybody else has." But there is nothing ordinary about the constantly surprising blooming of his art.
In the heyday of the '60s, when the Beatles were the biggest band, Stella had fans as devoted, in the art world. We loved his paintings, his colors, his growth. It was his pictures, his formalist intelligence, that made him a leader. His art, though tough, was never ponderous or dry. Each new work of Stella's earies something extra, something unexpected, a cymbal-clash of color, a sweet but broken melody, a sudden act of daring.
Stella is explaining that paintings are just objects, when suddenly he smiles.Bear, his chow, is running in a circle, chasing his own tail. "He's unbelievably stupid," says Stella. Then he tells the story of the cat in the shop window. Bear is on the street outside, bouncing up and down with unrestrained excitement, but the cat, inside, protected, yawns and goes to sleep. Stella acts it out. The painter is lying on the floor, stretching out his arms like some luxurious odalisque.
Stella is best known for his formalist inventions, his systems, his geometries, but there is behind his logic something fierce and entertaining. The show "Frank Stella: The Black Paintings," at the Baltimore Museum of Art through Jan. 23, is, for those who love his work, one that sends shivers up the spine. These radical and somber pictures, the first that he exhibited, are haunted by one's memories of what was yet to come.
One recalls, in the '60s, the countless art world conversations his willful works endered, the doors they seemed to open, the noise they made when new. How we struggled with those Stellas a dozen years ago. We read the essays on them "some brilliant, some inane), and argued, and learned. In the provinces beyond New York no abstract painter living seemed more crucial than Frank Stella. Minimal art, systemic art, the shaping of the canvas, the many-variations-on-a-theme look of every one-man show - so much of what was new then seemed to bear his stamp. Stella was a star, there was no doubt of that.
And what was most amazing then - what still is - is that he did it all on purpose. There is nothing accidental, nothing bluffed or hidden, in the Black Paintings of Stella. He'd sensed a problem and he'd solved it. "All I want anyone to get out of my paintings, and all I ever get out of them, is the fact that you can see the whole idea without any confusion. What you see is what you see," he'd say.
The first of the Black Paintings date from 1958. When he made them in Manhattan, Stella had just finished Princeton.He was 22.
The New York art world saw them first at the Museum of Modern Art in 1959, and there was grumbling at his youth Pollock, Rothko, Still, Gorky and de Kooning, and other heroes of the '50s, ahd struggled toward abstraction, and you could see their struggle in their paintings. But Stella arrived by a single leap of insight, a simple act of will.
His successes were incredible. While still is his 20s he taught at Harvard and at Yale; he showed in Paris and in London, at the Whitney and the Guggenheim, the Jewish and the Modern; he represented the United States at the big international art fairs in Venice and Sao Paulo. No other abstract painter had ever gone so far so fast.
Stella is still at it. His October show at Knoedler's of the so-called French Curve Paintings, thoug demned as well as praised, was among the most exciting of the placid New York season . The Black Paintings in Baltimore remind us where it all began.
Sixteen early Stella, all alike, all different, were painstakingly assembled by curator Brenda Richardson for the Baltimore exhibit. never in the past have they been shown together. The timing is just right.
They caused great consternation once. Brian O'Doherty (a.k.a. Patrick Ireland), until recently the top art honcho of the National Endowment, once called Stella's paintings "valueless as art." Hilton Kramer has recalled "the incredulity and ridicule (my own included) with which these works were greeted," but that controversy of the last decade has long since dissolved. Today, perhaps for the first time, the Black Paintings of Frank Stella are old enough to be seen anew.
They look terrific - less theoretical than one remembers, more hand-made, less severe. One feels t their impact at first glance. They have the weight, the presence, of Old Masters.
Stella spoke about them to art students at Pratt 17 years ago: Two Problems in Painting
There are two problems in painting. One is to find out what painting is and the other is to find out how to make a painting. The first is learning something and the second is making something.
One learns abot painting by looking at and imitating other painters . . . I began to try to imitate the intellectual and emotional processes of the painters I saw . . . Fortunately, one can stand only so much of this sort of thing. i got tired of looking at other people's painting and began to make my own paintings. I found, however, that I not only got tired of looking at my own paintings but that I also didn't like painting them at all. The painterly problems of what to put here and there and how to do it to make it go with what was already there, became more and more difficult and the solutions more and more unsatisfactory. Until finally it became obvious that there had to be a better way . . .
He found it. He simply figured out an image, a regular all-over scheme of thick, repeated lines, and followed it unswervingly. He was interested, he said, in "a kind of negative Pollockism." He dispensed with color, composition, intutive embellishment and launched a wholly new attack on the "drawing-painting problem."
"Instead of drawing with paint, Pollock could paint with drawing," said Stella. Stella would dispense with drawing. "I ended by only painting with the brush; I didn't do the drawing with it."
His only tool would be a thick house-painter's brush, his paint a cheap enamel. It sounds almost simple, but that's not the way it looks. Despite the thick black lines and processes they share, the Black Paintings do not look alike. Odd, processional spaces seem to migrate through them. The bands are freely painted. Occasionally they wobble. Their edges are not hard, but soft, and the directions that the paintbrush took determines how those 2 1/2-inch bands of black catch and cast the light. The though-stretching theoretics that swirled round them once no longer seem to matter. The blackness in the gallery is more suggestive than oppressive.
One thinks of other darknesses, of the black paintings of Reinhardt, Rauschenberg and Rothko. When Rauschenberg made his in the early '50s, they were generally misread as a nose-thumbing of sorts, a perverse dada gesture. The last dark works of Reinhardt are final distillations, end-of-career paingtins. So are the last Rothkos in the Houston chapel. In them one can feel the blackness of impending death.
But the Black Paintings in Baltimore were for Stella a beginning. Everything that he's done since - the notched canvases with their pigments of copper and aluminum, and then the large shaped canvases with their married, ordered Va, the grand polygons that followed (perhaps his finest works), the protractor paintings, the increasingly complex, and colorful, constructivist collages of cardboard, wood and metal, even the French curves - everything that he has done was contructed step-by-step on the fim foundations of those first Black Paintings.
If you tell the artist that his Black Paintings remind you of the shadows and the structures of Piranesi's ruins, that the blackness is [WORD ILLEGIBLE] , the spaces are as deep, but that Stella's pictures the mysteries [WORD ILLEGIBLE] , nothing is withheld, Stella will not buy it. He corrects you [WORD ILLEGIBLE] . Those thoughts are yors, [WORD ILLEGIBLE] .
He says, "The will [WORD ILLEGIBLE] a role in how people look [WORD ILLEGIBLE] . I believe that. I don't look [WORD ILLEGIBLE] at the Black Paintings. Then [WORD ILLEGIBLE] . I just scan them." Ever More Dramatic
He is standing in the big room of his New York apartment. The building, from the outside numberscript, a '40s Greenwich Village [WORD ILLEGIBLE] bland and blank-walled briox. In the center of the room is a carpet covered byramid, part sofa and [WORD ILLEGIBLE] "a reverse conversation [WORD ILLEGIBLE] calls it. There are books and [WORD ILLEGIBLE] , and a pile of Indian blankets and a rubber-bulbed chrome horn. The [WORD ILLEGIBLE] chairs beside the ryramid were resigned by Corbusier.
Some artists of our [WORD ILLEGIBLE] Mondrian, for instance, have [WORD ILLEGIBLE] their way toward purity, cleaning and refining, and nothing but the final distallation [WORD ILLEGIBLE] . Others, [WORD ILLEGIBLE] , for instance, [WORD ILLEGIBLE] another path. Their art grew ever wilder, more inclusive, grander, more dramatic. Stella is one of these. He began, at 12 with a statement [WORD ILLEGIBLE] , and on the built castles. He is no still. His newest French curve paintings are alive with flash and glitter.
They are three-dimensional paintings, bright with curves and swoops and textures, crammed with references to other an and with allusions [WORD ILLEGIBLE] . When Stell made the Black Paintings abtract art was thriving its possibilities seemed endless, and that focus [WORD ILLEGIBLE] wandered, the energy has faded.
When Stella first found fame, he was one of many that the crowd of abstract painters testing the wholly [WORD ILLEGIBLE] is thinner now than then. Because of the accomplishment that lies behind him because of the ever-growing energy that his pictures muster, and because of the [WORD ILLEGIBLE] startling, though [WORD ILLEGIBLE] steps he fares to take, Stella, at age 41, now seems to stand alone.