On Modern American Art: Selected Essays

By Robert Rosenblum | Go to book overview

FRANK STELLA, 1958 TO 1965 1986

Works of art are supposed to be timeless and immutable, but as decades pass, they may also change unrecognizably. The Demoiselles d'Avignon, for instance, is not the same picture it was back in the 1950s. If it then looked like the first pictorial earthquake to announce the future fracturing of Cubist planes and spaces, these days it seems mainly to be charged with overwhelming emotions about sex, fear, and death, more akin to late-nineteenthcentury anxieties than to the creation of new twentieth-century formal alphabets. Back in the 1950s, too, the Jackson Pollock we saw unleashed a torrent of chaos and unbridled passion, whereas these days he has turned into a quite different-looking painter, whose tempests have become delicate shimmers and whose wildness has been tamed to the propriety of museums and art-history textbooks, fit to stand in the company of late Turner or late Monet. Such changes, often drastic and contradictory ones, especially mark the later experience of works of art which, like those by Picasso or Pollock, may seem to announce, when newborn, a total revolution, wiping earlier slates clean and inaugurating what, at the moment, appears to be a new visual era. But in retrospect, the sands of history have a way of smoothing over the shocks of aggressively unfamiliar art, leaving it in the usual historical position of looking both backward and forward and of having both proper ancestors and progeny.

Such thoughts are prompted by my own task here of introducing the first volume of a multivolume catalogue raisonné of the work of Frank Stella, who began his public career in 1959 as an enfant terrible ("Is it really important," asked one hostile critic, "for the public to see the work of a twenty-three-year-old boy who has only been painting for three or four years?"). Today, in the mid-1980s, he has become, where art is spoken of at all, an international household word and even a street-side word (his name, mystifyingly, is inscribed in a pavement block for all the world to see on the southeast corner of Broadway and Tenth Street in New York City). I

My credentials for doing this are long-term. I was lucky enough to have been teaching at Princeton's Department of Art and Archaeology in the late 1950s when Stella was a student, and I knew him then and looked hard enough at his paintings to want to go on looking at them after he graduated in 1958 and moved to New York. There, in what seemed an unusually narrow and cramped loft on West Broadway, he quickly produced an almost military lineup of black-stripe paintings that were to rock the art world when a sample quartet of them was seen at Dorothy Miller "Sixteen Americans" show at the Museum of Modern Art

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