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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

strange article from 1964 in the New York Times seeing the Nihilism of Stella https://www.nytimes.com/1964/02/16/archives/the-new-nihilism-art-versus-feeling.html



24 comments:

  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: http://artofericwayne.com/2015/11/07/frank-stella-foyer-aritst/

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  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.

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  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.

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

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  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

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  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.

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  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 - http://capscrits.blogspot.com.au/2015/11/frank-stella-retrospective-whitney.html

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

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    2. https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-frank-stella-has-had-a-disproportionate-influence-on-contemporary-art

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

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  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.

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  10. I predict that viewers of the future will no longer be able to interpret the language of flatness "become" space. So much work like that of Laura Owens just jumps out into space.Stella set the stage for that.

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  11. Hi Martin. Interesting essay. I guess I am a little late to the game--I came across this article via a comment you made on a hyperallergic from a couple of years ago that you linked here. I've been very interested in Stella recently and so was checking out their backlog of articles about his work.

    In regards to this particular comment you've made here, its interesting that you say Stella "set the stage."--Because if I am understanding you correctly, you're saying he made the transition from a "picture-window" style painting where one looks into the space of towards a flatter painting, in which one sets a "stage" for marks and pictorial motifs to act on. In other words, there is no space for the viewer to enter in to, rather the picture enters in to our space (as in Laura Owens) Am I understanding you correctly?

    In regards to your essay, I want to push back against the notion that Stella is not using color in a way that refers to reality. I think the color-aid palette he uses is a reflection of contemporary urban and technologic spaces. Though maybe the space of spectacle as you contend. However, given that the colors that artists have access to are simply derivative of what industry and the technological sectors want, it seems to me as though his color is just as grounded in contemporary reality as the colors of Bonnard, Matisse, etc. were in their respective contemporary context.

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    1. Thanks for responding to my blog. I acknowledge your point as valid.But where does the color experience originate. In my book on drawing and painting I quote Baxandall who talked about the chiaroscuro used by Baroque artists like Caravaggio and in particular Chardin as being grounded within the eye/mind and that it achieved a degenerate phase in the late 19thc where the reality was out there in the real world. It was purely descriptive. Stella admits he wants to build his paintings out of the world of design but his later work pays homage to the Baroque as admitted in "Working Space" as a critique of his earlier work. But that work does not seem to come out of an inner experience of color.I describe that inner experience in the praxis of the classroom in particular Matisse's Blue Nude where the blue aura around the nude is an after image created by looking at the warm flesh of the body. In regards to the connection between Zombie Formalism and Stella's role I am not alone in seeing the genesis. I think there is a link in my blogpost to other articles. You are right in seeing Stella's roots in Modernity. And I should get over my resistance to the importance of his role in modern art. Here is a link to my book. https://www.amazon.com/dp/1475021364
      As I once said about Jed Perl's writing it is like tilting at windmills and I should get over it but it does make for some enjoyable jousting. Joseph Nechvatal and Ben Davis (whom I quote in the article)had similar issues with Stella. Appreciate your comments.

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    2. Martin, thanks for the response! I definitely see what you're getting at, in terms of Stella's work coming out of a design-first perspective as opposed to a phenomenological experience of the world. "Working Space" is great and its interesting to see him own and recognize how he and others had painted painting into a corner and it needed to breathe again to regain its vitality. I am so steeped in Stella's writings now I look forward to getting a copy of your book to get some thinking from another perspective.

      Best,
      James

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    3. Martin, I was thinking today--is the shift your describing that happens with Stella and goes on with the Zombie Formalists essentially the shift from Paintings about Phenomenal Experience to Paintings about Painting? In the sense that Paintings pre-Stella (for the sake of argument) are abstractions generated from phenomenological experiences of the world, whereas certain abstractions post-Stella are generated from phenomenological experiences of other paintings? (And so, using the visual logic of abstraction but without any external references.)

      If thats what you're getting at I can see how my counterpoint to your essay isn't really valid--because though Stella is using colors of the contemporary world, his paintings are still not coming out of an experience of the world, necessarily. But rather he is simply building out of the language of painting.

      Sorry to keep on, just trying to clearly arrive at this distinction in my own thinking.

      Best,
      James

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  12. His writing had a big impact on me at one time. Glad to hear you are going to get the book.Good luck with your show in RI.

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    1. Oh thanks! Appreciate that. Feel free to drop a line if you're ever in RI, we could do a studio visit or something like that.

      jsundquist7448@gmail.com

      Best,
      James

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    2. Did you buy my book? That should answer many of your questions . https://www.amazon.com/dp/1475021364

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    3. Haha, I hadn't yet. I was intending on finishing Working Space and also Donald Judd's writings before ordering but I just may have to jump ahead. Just placed the order and looking forward.

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    4. https://martinmugar.blogspot.com/2015/08/william-bailey-and-donald-judd.html
      Here is a take on Judd that the late Carl Belz liked

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    5. If you do go ahead and buy it, Amazon allows you to write a review of the book. Unlike Stella I have practical exercises to establish links between the Baroque and Modernism .

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  13. Are the crew the essential workers,the band of brothers? And who is Ahab?Is the Corona virus moby dick?

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