It’s Ugly, Drafty, Ghastly: Stella’s Work in a Garage

Frank Stella, whose highly rebarbative Recent Work exhibition is currently on view in a big, drafty, appropriately grungy garage adjoining the Paul Kasmin Gallery in Chelsea, was born in 1936. He thus now qualifies as a senior citizen, but as an artist he is still plugging away at the role of enfant terrible . This is but one of the many things that lends a distinct air of mirthless comedy to an otherwise melancholy event. I nonetheless urge everyone with an interest in the fate of abstract art to see it, for this may be the single most appalling exhibition of a famous abstractionist you are ever likely to encounter. It is guaranteed to make you shudder, and not with pleasure, either.

But then, of course, Mr. Stella’s amazing career has often proved to be of more interest than his work. It might even be said that his career, rather than the art on which it is based, is his real achievement. Unhandicapped by any art-school training in the rudiments of drawing and painting, he began making abstract pictures in prep school at Phillips Academy, and, both there and at Princeton University, he promptly established the kind of art-world connections that proved useful in launching a meteoric rise to fame and fortune that remains unparalleled in the annals of abstract art. At the age of 23, he enjoyed a scale of commercial success and critical acclaim that had eluded Piet Mondrian, for example, for his lifetime, and that came to Jackson Pollock only upon his violent death in a car crash.

Taking his cue from Jasper Johns’ first Flag paintings even before they were publicly familiar, Mr. Stella created a sensation with his black-stripe abstractions in the 1959-60 Sixteen Americans exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. A mere decade later he was given his first retrospective at MoMA; in 1987 he was given a second. It was on the latter occasion that William Rubin, the organizer of both retrospectives, invoked the names of Dante, Shakespeare and Picasso as appropriate comparisons for “the spirit of genius to be found in Mr. Stella’s abstractions.” Promiscuous praise doesn’t get much more promiscuous than that. Needless to say, from his very first exhibition at–where else?–the Leo Castelli Gallery, Mr. Stella’s work sold like proverbial hot cakes, and there was no shortage of critical praise to add to the sizzle, even prior to Mr. Rubin’s flight into the critical stratosphere.

In those early days, of course, the work itself was ultra-cool. Anything remotely suggestive of Abstract Expressionist bravura or improvisation–anything, indeed, that alluded to an overt expression of emotion–was categorically disallowed. Minimalist orthodoxy was stern in its prohibition of discernible feeling. Overnight, what Mr. Stella’s fellow Minimalist Carl Andre called “the necessities of painting” were radically abridged, and what remained, in Mr. Stella’s work, were pictorial compositions based on strict geometrical symmetry.

In retrospect, it is hardly a wonder that Mr. Stella soon tired of this infertile formula. Even its many admirers were obliged to acknowledge the large element of boredom it was generating. (Susan Sontag and Barbara Rose wrote essays that attempted to defend the moral and aesthetic necessity of such boredom.) What supplanted this Minimalist orthodoxy in Mr. Stella’s case was nonetheless something of a shock. He had, after all, been very explicit in consigning the Abstract Expressionist aesthetic to a past that was over. “It’s not a question of destroying anything,” he said. “If something’s used up, something’s done, something’s over with, what’s the point of getting involved with it?”

Yet in his initial post-Minimalist pictures he was openly producing a kind of mimicry or parody of Abstract Expressionist clichés. It wasn’t exactly painting, to be sure. Most of the work was mixed-media pictorial/relief on its way to becoming polychrome constructed sculpture. For a while, Mr. Stella persisted in calling it painting. He even had an exhibition of metal wall constructions in a London gallery which he entitled Easel Paintings . But despite all the blather about Caravaggio and deep pictorial space, Mr. Stella had pretty much abandoned the art of painting for sculpture.

The few paintings to be seen in the current Recent Work show are, in any case, overshadowed by the gigantic polychrome constructed sculpture and a mural-scale collage, which measures 95 x 328 inches, called The Duel (1999). The sculptures, if they can still be called sculpture, are certainly the worst and the silliest I have seen in nearly 50 years of reviewing exhibitions. The materials are, among other industrial products, cast aluminum, aluminum pipe and plywood with ceramic and steel components and with some or all of their surfaces randomly decorated with polyurethane, acrylic and less identifiable pigments. Ugly is hardly a sufficient word to describe the resulting oversize mess that it all amounts to.

In the heyday of Mr. Stella’s Minimalist paintings, it could hardly have been suspected that he had all along been secretly harboring an appetite for–of all things–the kind of graffiti that was then defacing so many public spaces in New York and other cities. It was only when he came to deliver the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University in 1983-84–another amazing chapter in this amazing career–that he revealed that he was suffering from a bad case of graffiti-envy, an affliction (it will be recalled) that he shared with another failed eminence, Norman Mailer. It is this unbridled appetite for the sheer mindlessness of graffiti that is projected on a mammoth scale in this Recent Work exhibition. You can forget about Caravaggio. You can forget about Herman Melville, Heinrich von Kleist and the other literary stars Mr. Stella claims have inspired him. Mr. Stella’s gold-plated journey from Minimalism and a mimicry of Abstract Expressionist sculpture has lately culminated in this riot of imitation graffiti. As I say, it is a career that remains unparalleled in the annals of abstract art.

Frank Stella: Recent Work remains on view in the Paul Kasmin Gallery garage, 289 Tenth Avenue at 27th Street, through Jan. 31. Be sure to wear a warm coat.