in Interviews | 17 AUG 12
Featured in
Issue 6


On the occasion of his retrospective at Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Frank Stella talks about illusionism, abstract expressionism and the inevitable mechanics of gesture in painting

in Interviews | 17 AUG 12

k.179, 2011 (Courtesy: the artist & Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / Freedman Art, New York)

MARK PRINCESince the late 1960s, you have taken your painting further towards the three dimensions of sculpture without relinquishing its pictoriality. But in recent work, such as the Scarlatti K. Series (2006–ongoing), would you say that you are now making sculpture?

FRANK STELLA No, I’d say it’s the same thing. It’s just that it sounds horrible to call it ‘pictorially-informed relief or sculpture’. Actually, it’s medieval polychrome relief.

I was recently looking at a photograph of a wire frame work from 2009 from the series La penna di hu . The lattice of shadows it cast on the wall behind it seemed closer to your early striped paintings than the work itself. In your Working Space (1986) lectures you make a distinction between real and illusionistic space. Is the increasing elaboration of the objects on which you paint a way of keeping pictoriality grounded in real space?

FS Since the advent of Modernism in the last century, conventional illusionism no longer exists. It may return with digital Photoshop art. But, by and large, for modern painting it’s been over for a long time. It’s not that there is anything inherently wrong with illusionism. In my work, there’s plenty of real, internal illusionism; what I don’t have is depicted illusionism, and perspective. It’s a pictorial illusionism – it’s just not laid out in regular, mathematical terms. The relief pieces allow you to walk around the painting or change your point of view: you don’t have to be directly in front of the piece. The perspective of conventional illusionism begins to fail you as you move to the left or right. It’s different with these things: as you move towards the sides, it feels inclusive. It doesn’t diminish the space that is available to you to experience, either pictorially or illusionistically.

Moultonboro II, 1965 (Courtesy: the artist & VG Bildkunst, Bonn & Artist’s Right Society (ARS), New York)

In your early paintings, you were using very thick stretchers, which meant that one had to walk around the painting to fully perceive it. So they were also not simply frontal.

FS That was just to give the frontality a lift off the wall, so that it floated a little bit in front of it. It provided a more direct sense of surface.

In the late 1960s and early ’70s, as your paintings were expanding into the extra half-dimension of relief, conceptual artists were attempting to dematerialize art. You seem to have been on a diametrically opposed course. Would you say conceptual art has had any bearing on your work?

FS No, it didn’t have much bearing. But on the other hand, when you see a so-called conceptual artist making a statement on a billboard, it’s not very conceptual. It becomes quite real, even pictorial.

Basra Gate, 1967 (Courtesy: the artist & VG Bildkunst, Bonn & Artist’s Right Society (ARS), New York)

Twentieth-century Modernist painting assumed that the basic properties of painting – colour, form, line – should remain autonomous, and that this autonomy could be a pliant and capacious vehicle for art. Is this a tradition you still recognize as your own?

FS I think that’s why it’s able to survive. Working Space was about having room to work. Whether it turns out to be mimetic art or abstract art, it has to have a convincing sense of form. Abstraction allows an inventive interplay with the notion of form. The human body was a flexible tool for making form, and abstraction tries to create a substitute for the body.

But you have always seemed to be ambivalent about the autonomy of abstraction. Some of the curvilinear forms from the Exotic Bird series (1976–80) are based on real draughtsmen’s templates. The early striped works relate to design aesthetics of the late 1950s and early ’60s. The palette of the Polish Village paintings (1971–73) has what we would now call a ’70s flavour. Are you conscious of trying to make paintings which are both in and out of their time?

FS You can’t get away from that without being too dramatic, or too self-involved. But the struggle for an artistic identity is also a struggle to make a kind of form that is independent from the aesthetics of your time. But I don’t think that’s necessarily possible. Was Titian really out of step with his time? I mean, he is his time, that’s another way you could say it: that you make your own time.

I’d like to ask you about your practice of making a spectrum of variations on a single compositional format. You produce a series of identical support structures and apply different colours to each.

FS Some things lend themselves to variation. But usually I get bored pretty quickly. With the concentric stripe paintings, for example, you don’t have to be a great mathematician to see how many possibilities there could be. I try to think of the variations like this: imagine you really had to stretch each one of those canvases yourself.

Takht-i-Sulayman I, 1967 (Photograph: Richard Pettibone)

You seem to develop compositions by trial and error, through a sequence of collages and maquettes, as though there were an ideal formal compositional structure – an archetype – which you are circling around, trying to define. Or is the process more contingent and open-ended than that?

FS I do have a sense of structure, but the results are always disappointing and unfold with a kind of randomness. But in spite of myself, some things work, and I can’t explain why. The hope is that you keep the average to a fairly high level.

Your painting has undergone radical shifts of strategy over the years. There’s the great expansion of colour and gesture in the 1970s. You apply gestural marks to distinct coloured planes as though to animate or ornament them. The method recalls Pollock’s all-over skeins of dripped enamel as much as traditional patterning, such as in Islamic decoration. Is gesture impersonal ornament or personal trace?

FS My first teacher, Patrick Morgan, said a drawing is a gesture – it’s how the artist uses his hands, the mark he makes. That simplified everything for me. You want to make a painting, and you do it with your hands … you create a gesture. Maybe many of them, maybe few. But gesture is the inevitable mechanics of making an art object. It can be a sum of gestures, or it can be a single gesture if it’s good enough.

Didn’t you attempt to suppress the gesture in your early work?

FS I disagree. The early paintings were all drawing, except that I made them with the marks of a brush. It’s the brushwork that counted. It was used in the way that you would normally draw. Those paintings were completely misrepresented at the beginning. People assumed that I painted them like geometrical paintings. But they don’t look like hard-edged painting.

Your Working Space lectures plot a traditional narrative from the Renaissance through to 20th-century abstraction, which you suggest took a wrong turn in the 1960s towards flatness and mannerism.

FS I think I was wrong about that, actually. If you look at the painting of Helen Frankenthaler, Jules Olitski or Larry Poons, it was good, and getting better all the time. It was a significant painterly step. It was difficult to take a step forward in terms of quality from the best Abstract Expressionist painting, particularly Pollock. Poons, Olitski and certainly Frankenthaler, were startlingly original, but I was concerned that it was just going to be about itself, that it wasn’t going anywhere. But they went a long way without making a fuller object, or engaging more directly with the space in front of the painting.

Your early stripe paintings have been a frequent reference in the resurgence of formalist abstract painting over the past decade. Despite the fact that in your lectures you conceive of art history as a single deterministic progression, leading up to Modernist abstraction, younger artists treat Modernism as a vast repository to draw on.

FS Working Space was based on a ferocious attempt not to comment on anything that I hadn’t actually stood in front of. It’s about an actual physical engagement with the art of the past, and of your contemporaries. This is what is missing for me in the notion that digitization and reproduction can be an important part of art.

You don’t see a painting until you see a painting.

FS And you don’t have a painting until you make it.

Your painting has never lost sight of the great Abstract Expressionist tradition out of which it emerged. It builds directly on those terms – the scale, the frontality, the capitalizing on the innate properties of painting – but it throws them off balance. Did it seem to you that Abstract Expressionist painting needed to be disabused of its grandeur?

FS You think that when you’re young, but I wouldn’t say that now. In fact, I would say that, unfortunately, there hasn’t been any grandeur since then. The driving force behind that work, I believe, is as much tactile as
it is optical. You want to touch the paintings.

Which goes against the formalist idea of ‘pure opticality’.

FS Pollock is just spectacular, but what really moved everybody is that the paintings made them want to get down on their hands and knees and whip the paint around themselves.

The Working Space lectures propose a flexible three-dimensional space for abstract painting. To what extent is film capable of creating such space? Film asks of us a suspension of disbelief. Does painting, on the contrary, require the preservation of disbelief?

FS Painting is the opposite. It’s physical and present; you can touch it. You can’t walk up to a film. You’d have everybody yelling at you because you were in the way of the projection. You can’t get closer to it. But I think Caravaggio’s The Beheading of St. John the Baptist is as close to CinemaScope as you can get. In earlier paintings, what’s going on is nowhere near as focused, or as conventionally lit. That painting looks like a scene in a movie.

k.162, 2011 (Courtesy: the artist & VG Bildkunst, Bonn & Artist’s Right Society (ARS), New York)

In recent works you have developed the densely patterned surfaces into a great multiplicity of overlapping surfaces. Does this teeming heterogeneity become a subject matter in itself, a metaphor for global diversity, for example?

FS No, it’s just a question of using things you like. It really came from the impact of working directly with printing, which is the opposite of painting. As though you were to go to the store and buy a ten-foot roll
of canvas, and then, bang, you hit it, and the painting was there. And that was the idea behind the stripe paintings: to make a direct, visual impression. Which is something that I never really managed until I made prints. The paintings should imprint your vision. You see how they’re made. They have to make an immediate impression that fixes your vision in some way.

There’s also been a kind of immersion in materiality, in manipulating steel, metal, and plastics to the point at which whatever logical impulse you began with is left behind.

FS That’s true – there’s a painterly form of casting. The use of molten aluminium as pigment. Painting with metal has become possible. To be able to paint on top of an already given painterly process is very important for me, although very physically demanding.

You began your career with an artisanal methodology for painting: process-based, materialistic, anti-metaphysical, but also anti-pop-cultural. But some of your recent sculptures resemble science-fiction objects. They appear technological, perhaps even functional, but in a way that can’t be defined.

FS When I was growing up there was the comic character Flash Gordon, who appeared against backgrounds that looked like modern architecture, like Shanghai. No matter what you do, there will always be something that it resembles. I hope the work will be itself, but inevitably it looks like something to somebody, including me. I wasted a lot of time worrying about trying to make forms that didn’t look like anything. But you can see something in anything.

Frank Stella lives and works in New York. His exhibition Frank Stella – The Retrospective. Works 1958–2012 is on view at the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg from 8 September 2012 to 20 January 2013.