Frank Stella, the art maker, started strong, then soared.
Now only 43, he has been a looming presence, a major New York painter, for nearly 20 years. At first he seemed a prodigy, one young star among many. Men we once thought his equals - Larry Poons, Ken Noland, Carl Andre, Jules Olitski - have faded into murkiness, staleness or worse. Only Stella has grown immensely. Today he stands alone.
He is the most inventive, daring and ambitious famous painter making abstract art in New York.
The word that should be stressed here is not "abstract" but "making." The vast colored, complex objects that go on view today in "Stella Since 1970" at the Corcoran Gallery of Art could not be more concrete.
Not one is two-dimensional. Improvised yet engineered, they are made of many things - wood, thick cardboard, colored felt, honeycombed aluminum canvas and ground glass. They are not non-objective. Their making is their content.
In 1960 Stella lectured in New York. "There are two problems in painting," he said. "One is to find out what a 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."
Stella by now knows what a painting is. Twenty years of thinking have taught him at least that. But the "making" is a "problem" that has not gone away.
One solves that problem only one picture at a time. In attacking it, in stalking it, in forcing his art forward, Stella has moved his painting into worlds we did not know were there.
His first works, the Black Paintings, at least seen in reproduction, seemed ruled, cerebral and strict. It was said so often that it sounded true, that those paintings, with their relentless repetitions and edge-repeating symmetries, referred to nothing but themselves - though no one has seen the shadows of Manhattan, its roughness and its loomings, would now say those dark pictures are not about New York.
His wide-open paintings at the Corcoran are about much more than that.
They call to mind the singing joy-in-color of the late Matisse, the Constructivists of Russia, ships' curves and seafarers, the gleaming stainless steel of the late David Smith, the so-called Action Painters, and the exhuberance that took the orders of the Renaissance through the sweeping curves of the Baroque into Rococo. One thinks of early Stella, too.
He has always been less illusionist than fabricator. He made his Black Paintings with a house painter's methods, materials and techniques.
Then he notched and shaped his canvases, and followed where that led. He moved from one color to many, from straight lines on to arcs. When in the last years of the '60s he made his "Protractor" pictures, with their interlocking rainbows (they were shown here years ago at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art), the painters here could not explain how he used strips of masking tape to mask out such smooth curves. Stella, even then, was forcing us to see the making of his art.
The exhibit at the Corcoran is not hung chronologically - it is Stella's installation - but it begins with the so-called "Polish Village Series" of 1970-73.
All the paintings is the series, with their knife-sharp edges, interlocking shapes, angled and jutting planes, were named by the artist for synagogues in Poland. Despite their many textures - shiny paper, felt, cardboard, painted canvas - and their unexpected colors these paintings have about them something regulated, crisp. In the pictures he made next, those of the Brazilian Series, interlockings start to open, that crispness starts to melt.
Stella is now scribbling and scumbling, etching his flat planes. The components of these paintings no longer march in step. These transitional pictures seem the most difficult and least engaging objects in the show, yet there is a stirring in them.
A free and wild energy, a kind of blasting brilliance, flies through the French curve shapes, the glistenings, the shiftings, and the ferocious brush strokes of the series that came next, the one Stella calls the Exotic Birds. The five painters represented in this year's Corcoran Biennial - Johns, de Kooning, Kelly, Rauschenberg and Lichtenstein - all have signatures that are known. It is not that they've gone stale, but we knew their styles and concerns at least 10 years ago. We could not, in those days, have predicted these new Stellas. No other New York abstract painter has moved so far so fast, and he is gaining speed.
The Stella exhibition is a weakened, truncated version of the traveling show organized last year by the Fort Worth Art Museum. Big as it is, one wants it bigger. "Stella Since 1970" closes May 27. CAPTION: Picture 1, Mrs. Richard G. Brown views "Dove of Tanna", by Frank Stella; Picture 2, "Lauckorona III"; photos by Tom Allen