Openings: Frances Stark

By Cooper, Dennis | Artforum International, April 1997 | Go to article overview

Openings: Frances Stark


Cooper, Dennis, Artforum International


The day I walked through "The Power of Suggestion," LA MoCA's recent survey of drawings by young American artists, there was a pack of high schoolers on a field trip. They moved from room to room, gathering in campfirelike semicircles around each piece. Their teacher, a balding gent with a mildly cultured air, would ask them what they thought so-and-so was attempting to convey, and they would mostly try to come up with elegant ways of saying, "It's weird but kind of cool," over and over. All except for a handful of artsy teens near the back, who maintained a tightlipped nonchalance. Then the group reached Frances Stark's Untitled (Goethe), 1995, four interrelated works on paper consisting of text fragments from Goethe's novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, lightly traced out in purplish-blue carbon. Although the drawings were as prim, cryptic, and seemingly adult as the other art in the show had been bouncy, explosive, and seemingly youthful, the artsy clique suddenly came to life, rhapsodizing and gesturing in a way that seemed to flummox their teacher and fellow students. Their buzz of "amazing" and "I know what she means" had a rapt sincerity so at odds with their grooveball demeanor that it made me wonder.

"Maybe they responded passionately," says Stark, "because that's what I'm doing in a lot of my work - having a kind of love affair with an artist's voice. I'm not interested in the texts I use necessarily. . . . I'm not a fan of Goethe or Werther. When I first read the novel, I thought it was boring. I'm just fascinated by the construction of interiority. And maybe those kids were responding to the work's touch, because it's not creepy or ironic."

Stark is part of that sparkling group of relatively recent Art Center College of Design graduates who are just now coursing through the art world - Sharon Lockhart, T. J. Wilcox, and Joe-Mama Nitzberg among them. Art Center is a school famously besmitten with French theory (i.e., its recent sponsorship of the ravey Baudrillard "Chance" conference), and Stark, like the best of her fellow alumni, is a reluctant disciple. Formally, the visual patterning of her work is so reduced that it seems to require an instruction manual, until, that is, one notices its reference points - Goethe, Emily Dickinson, the Beatles - whereupon her tight lines and seemingly precious arrangements become almost unbearably tender and parochial, and the field of emotionally magnetized pop-cultural particles organizes into a radiant code. At heart, she is the sadder, wiser descendant of every grade-schooler who ever mindlessly emblazoned her or his notebook cover with stars' names and rock lyrics. She has merely clarified the impulse - and refined the practice into an art so obsessive and fragile that it seems to emanate all the wistfulness in the world. …

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