On Modern American Art: Selected Essays

By Robert Rosenblum | Go to book overview

FRANK STELLA, FIVE YEARS Of VARIATIONS
ON AN "IRREDUCIBLE" THEME 1965

In the twentieth century, ambitious artists have often chosen rock bottom as their precarious goal. Whether in terms of Duchamp's relentless pursuit of the devastating consequences of logic or Mondrian's pruning of all but the bare and vital skeleton of pictorial illusion, the path that leads to the brink of nothingness has created en route some of our century's most exhilarating adventures and enduring works. Since 1945 this irrepressible tradition has fathered, among other things, the impulse that stimulated masters like Rothko, Still, Newman, and Louis to reduce their vocabulary to the most elemental components and thus to create the full power of their mature styles, as well as the dilemma of how then to continue. And it is this tradition, too, that has compelled many younger artists to challenge these old masters in turn, by taking their own risks in the dangerous domain of the reductio ad absurdum, where one can lose all or gain all. Of this new generation, few artists, if any, have produced a more consistently intelligent and vigorous sequence of first-rate paintings than Frank Stella.

Stella's radical position became publicly apparent in 1959, when, at the age of twentythree, he was represented in the Museum of Modern Art's "Sixteen Americans" show by four huge canvases that rivaled in size the acknowledged masterpieces of Abstract Expressionism and that disconcerted their audience by what seemed to be an impudent monotony and emptiness (fig. 104). The predicament of those critics and spectators who condemned Stella's work as a kind of Dada joke was perhaps understandable. How quickly could one have recognized, say, the qualities of four austere 1920s Mondrians if one had never seen a Mondrian before? Indeed, with Stella, as with Mondrian, an evolutionary context is almost essential before the individual painting can be properly perceived. The black pictures of 1959 were not born suddenly but, in fact, were the logical and patient distillation of a series of remarkable early works. In these, Stella, like many precocious young artists, did battle, as it were, with some of the major pictorial forces of the 1950s--the bold compartmented armatures of Gottlieb, the atmospheric tiers of Rothko, the heroic scale and openness of Newman. From such pictorial premises and many others, Stella slowly drew the surprising conclusions of his Black Paintings, works that contested the authority of their sources through an uncompromising logic difficult to ignore. Thus, most of the values upheld by the masters of the 1950s were attacked by Stella in terms of their own grandiose dimensions. With clues taken from the refreshingly

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