What you see is what you see,’ Frank Stella famously said of his paintings, in a sharp rebuke of abstract expressionism’s aspirations to sublimity. Yet, as the Whitney Museum’s ‘Frank Stella: A Retrospective’ makes clear, what you see is not always self-evident when it comes to this artist. At the age of 79, with two MoMA retrospectives already to his name, Stella is a pivotal figure in American art, acting as a hinge between the reductive vocabulary of late modernism and the modular, mechanistic language of minimalism. However, the Whitney show also reveals Stella as an eclectic, in equal measures deadpan and unabashedly kitschy, and a willing transgressor of art-historical templates as well as his own precedents.
Jointly organized by the Modern Art Museum of Forth Worth and the Whitney, and overseen by Stella himself, the show comes ready-fit to the Whitney’s expansive new home and brings together more than 100 pieces. It moves at a steady speed, at times chronologically, but also in loops that juxtapose the artist’s late self-described ‘maximalist’ works and early minimalist hits. These officially begin with Stella’s ‘Black Paintings’ (1958–60), the first of which were executed when he was only 22 and included in MoMA’s canonical 1959 exhibition ‘Sixteen Americans’. Works like Die Fahne Hoch! (The Flag on High, 1959), with its cruciform structure of concentric black stripes separated by thin lines of bare canvas, still exude a sombre, mechanical allure. If Andy Warhol’s aim was ‘to be a machine’, in these and other early works Stella was propelled by the same industrial tick, producing paintings that reflect a modernist interest in flatness and opticality while evoking manufactured objects like doors and windows.
Taking up the industrial design principle that form should follow function, Stella began to use aluminium and copper to spatially render his paintings’ compositional geometry as the very shape of their canvases. In the Whitney show, these works, which can only just be considered paintings, shimmer in their emphatic materiality, cast into relief against Stella’s early and later expressive production. The notched Avicenna (1960), with a rectangular hole for its centre, evokes a bulkhead scavenged from a battleship. The fluorescent Conway I (1966), meanwhile, toggles between painting, corporate logo and oversized theatre prop.
As the exhibition makes clear, by the mid-1970s Stella had opened a Pandora’s box of formal experimentation. How to describe what it unleashed? Works like Grajau I and Grajau II (both 1975) let it all hang out, literally and figuratively, in increasingly flamboyant reliefs of painted metal. Stella’s later work, deemed heretical by critics, might just be minimalism’s Id. Its decorous forms are baroque bordering on kitsch, designed to awe a mass audience. And Stella revels in these registers irreverently, contentiously crossing over into the viewer’s space. Such architectural fancies recall the decorous leanings of postmodern architecture and the designs of the Memphis Group. If spare, minimalist aesthetics echoed the language of corporate lobby design, Stella’s late work – once described by Dee Wedemeyer in the New York Times as the real estate developer’s choice – seems to echo the bright, frivolous art that hangs on sterile lobby walls. Granted, such associations are unfair to Stella’s diverse output, but what makes some of his later work so audaciously of its time also frequently dates it, as Stella placates and piques in equal turns. So Inaccessible Island Rail, 5.5x (1976) now appears fairly suburban in its expressively scrawled surfaces, while the glittery curves of Khar-pidda 5.5x (1978) might be too ostentatious for even the most die-hard Stella fans.
In its final stretches, the exhibition alternates the monumental aluminium wreckage of Raft of the Medusa (Part I) (1990) with the exuberant accretions of Circus of Pure Feeling for Malevich, 4 Square Circus, 16 Parts (2009). The latter, a tabletop circus of metallic organisms, combines playful arabesques with digitally rendered forms reminiscent of sci-fi films and H.R. Giger designs, while showcasing the artist as a delicate draftsman in space. Here, as in the darkly knotted k.359 (2012), Stella’s adventurous use of digital tools offers the artist playful routes out of painting’s self-imposed constraints and into our world of data flux.
Although the heretical ‘maximalist’ Stella divided critics, his extravagant flights into literal space extended his definition of paintings as objects and seeing as a physical act. These works, no longer for the eye alone, make the act of seeing part of bodily movement through space, as they change their shapes with each shift in perspective. In this regard, the exhibition might act as a kind of catalogue of seeing in all its vicissitudes: from casual scanning, to prolonged engagement, to spectacle.