"FRANK STELLA 1958" is a prequel. It extracts twenty-one works, some rarely or never before exhibited, from the genetic soup of a remarkable evolution. Your degree of interest may hinge on how invested you are in the outcome: 1959, the "Black Paintings." Viewing Stella's brightly striped canvases from 1958, it's hard to avoid mental comparison with the absent dark ones. But life doesn't conform to the calendar, and Stella was making "Black Paintings" toward the end of his evolutionary year of color. It remains a matter of discrimination, both aesthetic and critical, as to what's black (the pigment) and what's "Black" (intended to appear achromatic). Depending on your visual sensitivity to chroma, as well as the rigidity or looseness of your intellectual categories, you will find at least one "Black," Morro Castle, perhaps a second, Delta, and maybe a third, Criss Cross, among the works presented by curators Harry Cooper and Megan R. Luke at the Sackler.
Morro Castle has a subdued, quirky pattern, an asymmetrical maze of right-angled lines left partially unpainted between broad black bands; this blackness is the purest in the gallery, a suitable finale to the exhibition. Even now, Stella's use of black escapes cliche; Morro Castle looks fresh, especially when isolated, as here on its own wall. Its placement may nevertheless seem predictable, rehearsing a lesson in strategies of reduction (from many colors, to few, to one, to black). Yet the lack of symmetry distances Morro Castle from Stella's destination, considering the course he was on. Arbeit Macht Frei--of late 1958, but not in the exhibition--has not only the blackness, but also the thorough regularity of the classic works to follow. Visualized beside it, Morro Castle's maze is a whim.
I should not imply that Stella in 1958 had but one telling moment, whether signaled by Morro Castle (a candidate for inaugural "Black Painting") or Arbeit Macht Frei (indisputably "Black"). Other events were occurring, even if Stella, a painter in a hurry, didn't linger. Coney Island harmonizes its three off-primary colors with a degree of finesse that the artist may not have consciously sought, but there it is. Its exhibition pendant, Grape Island, is far less resolved, yet its odd triad of hues, at once muted and bold, drew my attention equally, because coarseness can be worked to advantage. Perhaps this allowed me to sense the refinement of Coney Island despite the irregularity of its pattern, where horizontal stripes drift off axis, failing to keep in line. Here Stella may have painted intuitively for color's sake, not pattern's, though this becomes indeterminate after the fact. I suppose that Delta, revealing unruly shreds of red and green, is to Morro Castle as Grape Island is to Coney Island: Delta is a color painting well on its way toward "Black," but resisting all the same, with coarseness.
Viewing such closely related works, a significant percentage of a single year's production from a very fast painter, we have at least two choices. We can let certain pairs reveal one another's qualities, helter-skelter: Blue Horizon and, opposite the corner from it, Astoria suppress, even as they capitalize on, a conflict of vertical and horizontal stroking. Or we can follow the larger logic Stella laid out in his Pratt Institute lecture notes of early 1960; it guides the curators' overall presentation, as it has guided other Stella scholars, from Coney Island to Astoria to Morro Castle, and then, imaginatively beyond, to an absent Arbeit Macht Frei. The compactness of this exhibition, in part a product of the architectural limitations of the Sackler, allows the visitor to play artist, reconfiguring works into alternative sequences. …