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Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Ahab, the Pequod and Frank Stella at the Whitney

Frank Stella
It is interesting that Stella has a retrospective at the same time that  Zombie Formalism is reigning supreme in the contemporary art scene. The shadow of Stella’s early painting haunts their work and functions as a ground upon which these artists build their imagery. But it is not a ground with which they engage in a dialogue or agonic surpassing but a blatant copying. Whereas Stella’s work cut itself away from the Cartesian doubt of most Modernism and cut out for itself a role of being emblematic of the modernist and positivistic hegemony of America triumphant, the Zombie Formalists express a sort of redundancy where the present keeps repeating itself in a circular loop: Stella ad infinitum.
Sarah Morris
Mark Grotjahn

Stella makes it easy for abstractionistas to fall back on his work as a formula for “abstraction making”, in that he already excised color and form from their grounding in the perception of reality. Instead of a panoply of color that works dynamically out of the complexity of color perception, he uses a rules based strategy limiting their number and form as though pre-selected from a color-aid pack. This simplicity of color choice goes hand in glove with a simplicity of form. Moreover, his self-consciousness early on about the shape of the rectilinear canvasses’ relationship to the forms conveyed within, leads easily to taking the form making from the canvasses shape. Again,, it is his ignorance, willed or otherwise, about how colors interact with each other that frees him up to deal with the canvas as abstract form. I recall years ago meditating on his black canvases and realized that this absence of any activity of push and pull between colors resulted in the objectification of the canvas leading to the canvas beings perceived as a shape on a white wall. Object among other objects, including the humidity meter.  An absence of a metaphysical pointing out from the canvas to another realm keeps the canvas in a pragmatic world of just being a physical shape on the wall.  You can see this same strategy pursued by Ellsworth Kelley, who eventually deconstructs the support reinforcing its materiality, which is not the road Stella goes down. He could have gone there but for the haunting of the majesty of Baroque painting that turns him toward a pursuit of complexity and expansion off the wall out into space. He identified more with the overweening confidence of those Baroque artists than with the self-reflexive doubt that motivated the early Modernists. The artists of Rome had the majesty and power of the Church to buoy them up. Stella had the absolute domination of a positivist scientific world view promulgated by the most powerful nation in the world to launch him into an enormous expending of materiel.…
Frank Stella

An understanding of the relationship of Stella to his own antecedents is clarified by studying his influence on his descendants, the Zombie Formalists. Stella and the Zombie Formalists ignore core aspects of their sources. Stella abandons the optical self-reflection that formed the core of Mondrian’s artistic progress in order to use color as just shapes to play with. Within the paintings of the Zombie Formalists any notion of play found in Stella is abandoned so as to foreground a ghostly use of Stella as commodity. Interestingly enough, working backward hermeneutically from the dry commodification of the Zombies, the playful aspect of Stella in contrast seems to become a more salient aspect of his work. It is as a whole the product of "homo ludens" and is therefore more optimistic and out of sorts with the cold cynicism of the zombie zeitgeist. The retrospective seemed out of sync on so many levels with our times and lead me to understand why even the goofy playfulness of  Koons has to be couched in postmodern cynicism to be successfully marketed in this day and age.

Frank Stella
Derrida coined the term hauntology (a play on ontology) to express how the past informs the present in a post-ideological world. The enormous crucial battles of civil and individual liberation are over; there is just the road of ever more efficient technological functioning and communication. Heroic notions of humanity or the working class fade away as an ever more wired society keeps mankind integrated into the mechanism of the industrial state. Since the priority of this state of being is ever more efficient functioning, it is in its interest to obliterate any connection to the past that could slow it down. Although other modes of being that once existed come back to “haunt” the present, and we can try them on or play around with them, they do not define our essential mode of being in the world. Or maybe they can only be recycled in the current cynical mood as Stella has been by the zombie formalists or as John Currin does with the style of the populist Thomas Hart Benton.  The goal is to empty them of meaning so that ultimately private domains once explored in painting cannot escape being mechanized or function ever again as possible sources of individual self-realization.
"The Pequod Meets the Jeroboam" Frank Stella 1993

Melville’s story of the great white whale is often seen as a study and critique of capitalism. Ahab is only interested in his private quest and is clever and manipulative enough to convince his crew to go along with him. Melville is somewhat ambivalent about the morality of this exploitation as he feels we all exploit someone below us even as we are exploited. In my reacquaintance with the book several years ago what struck me was that the crew and Ahab are two different species of mankind. The crew is close to its surroundings ever ready so as to react to changing circumstances. When a sailor is knocked overboard on the shuttle out to Nantucket, Queequeg without prompting jumps into the icy November waters to save him. The crew creates bonds among each other instinctively knowing that their survival depends on being a band of brothers. They feel the palpability of the world as much as Ahab ignores it. For him everything is metaphysically abstract and involves goals that move the crew toward a denouement far from the practical goals of whaling.

There is an analogy I would like to attempt between Ahab's distance from the real and Stella's ignorance of any relationship to the long optical tradition of Western painting. The world is experienced by the crew of the Peqoud with a hands on feel for the things and events around them. For Ahab the world is not experienced in its praxis but is manipulated and ignored in the way Stella’s colors are abstract in the worst sense, derived from color-aid packs, not the way color is experienced in the eye as in Bonnard, Matisse or Cezanne. Stella has left artistically the sensuality of being in the world behind in order to fulfill what he sees as his manifest destiny to occupy more and more space. His formal affects are not achieved as for example in the work of Al Held, but imposed as he piles patterns on top of patterns. This  analogy of Ahab's delirium to Stella’s lack of grounding in the sensual is weak in only one sense: Stella does not live up to the the degree of Ahab's ascetic delirium. The journey he takes us on is neither majestic nor exhilarating. There is no hint at the void that lies under all of his exploits. At most Stella is a good engineer. Ben Davis in his spot on review of the show mentions a thesis Stella wrote at Princeton. Its bearing on his achievement is interesting to mention:

In that long-ago Princeton theses on Pollock and Celtic ornament, Stella claimed that the formula for "art" was pushing decoration to the point where it transcended itself. The knotted pyrotechnics of these final pieces certainly do that—it's actually hard to think of a space where they would work as passive d├ęcor. It's just that the direction they transcend decoration towards is the domain of theme parks and Broadway bombast. That is, spectacles built not to savor but to stun, not for connoisseurs but for visitors passing through.

The title of Davis’ essay is “All Style no Substance”. It raises questions about what is substance, what is substantial. The word can be better understood if broken down into “what stands under”. A meditation on what is substantiality and its relation to Stella’s work would be of interest to the connoisseurs and would make an engagement with the work of Stella worth their while if his work were at all engaged in that questioning itself. To savor such a discussion would be to linger, not to pass through.

* an interesting discussion is taking place here: on Henri Art Mag


  1. Excellent. I didn't want it to end. I was trying to figure out how Stella uses color, because I find his use of color repugnant, though I wasn't sure why. If it truly is just based on a predetermined set of colors in a color aid pack, that explains it. Why, given what he's attempting with his grandiose wall sculptures (called "paintings") are they not beautiful, or otherwise aesthetically appealing? It seems that if you don't have to hinge color on recognizable form, extra emphasis could be placed on exhilarating use of color (as I think Richter sometimes achieves).

    You may find my much shorter and less ambitious post on Stella of some possible interest:

  2. I liked your story about your teacher.Had a design teacher who told me all painting was dead when I wanted to do a painting of the grill of a car on a project on the automobile.He told me to make a photo.I said I didn't do photos.Two years later with the figurative movement having taken hold in the intervening years,I had him as a painting teacher and he had no problem with painting.He took the art magazines and what they proclaimed seriously.

  3. A grill would make a good subject for a painting! Considering most art students will give up art and take on some other occupation, I'm not sure why some teachers have the passion that artists should follow a certain path, rather than letting them do what they want, or better yet, cultivating what the students themselves like in art. Anyway, things got much worse for me in grad school because not only was painting dead, so were white males.

  4. Mitchell Rosenzweig said this on Facebook: Hi Martin,
    Your essay on the Stella show was brilliantly composed and right on,,,
    the void.....

  5. Alan Pocaro wrote on twitter:
    A thoughtful analysis that explores broader aspects of the human condition minus inert a priori criteria for what art must do

  6. A comment I left on Henrimag:Hi,
    I took some notes on your intriguing elaboration of your views on Stella. The notion of making “real” an “alternate theoretical and visual reality” made the Stella’s work for me.Those words unlocked them as did your differentiating him from other more optical abstract painters like Olitski who pale in comparison. Upon reading my notes this morning I thought of Heidegger’s critique of Nietzsche’s thought as being shaped by a will to will.It is a doubling of will.a hyperbolic notion of the will.It pushes man’s creations into that alternate reality that you talk about. Maybe giving credence to "anon’s" notion of his relation to space travel.I may have mentioned in my piece how different he is from say Giacometti who retains the notion of the viewer observing reality even though he problematizes it. We are carried along by Stella’s later work.There is no question of stopping things to observe an event at one moment in time.
    I tried to make a point in the essay that the reality of Queequeg is different than that of Ahab. The crew are carried along by the mania of Ahab but they remain human in their relation to each other and the physical world.They experience the cold and the wet,the exhilaration of being at sea. They have “real” moments in the way that a Monet can still be a cold day in Winter or a balmy day in Spring. Maybe this is the individuality I am talking about.In Rubens it is the flesh that you want to touch,that grounds the exotic space. I recall the Frick show of work from the Mauritshuis a few years ago and a Rembrandt where parts of the painting were pinned down with a build up of paint that seemed to move into an infinite notion of detail. I know the stripes and the squiggles serve the grounding purpose in STella but there is none of the fascination that points to a reality beyond the work or in the case of Rubens the eroticism that heats up the work and makes you linger on the parts.But then again Stella(reflectingHegel’s notion of the way the slave makes himself free through labor) is 'arbeit macht frei" or will to will,not just object making but making objects times two or times ten.

  7. Hi Martin, interesting post – but I’m puzzled by the connection you draw between the Zombie Formalists and Stella. Apart from Matt Connors’ stripes in The Forever Now show (which could as easily derive from Noland or Davis) – I’m hard pushed to see any of the usual Zombie crew – Bradley, Murillo, Kassay, Smith or Lund – getting into stripes or shaped canvases. To me they seem to owe as much to Olitski or Poons for stains/splatters – fields in Kassay’s case.

    Also see -

    1. Click on Grotjahn under his ptg in the blogpost and it will link you to an article on that makes my point.Thanks for your comment.

  8. Just read it. I think it's one of your best!

  9. In trying to participate in a conversation on abstraction on "Abstract Critical" I referenced this article and found myself saying that maybe Ahab/Stella took abstraction to the bottom of the ocean. Only Ishmael survived.Got to think about this one.