Frank Stella, Rank Amateur, in an Overhyped New Show

It was William Rubin, then chairman of the department of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, who,

It was William Rubin, then chairman of the department of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, who, on the occasion of Frank Stella’s second exhibition at the museum, invoked the names of Dante, Shakespeare and Picasso as artists with whom it was thought appropriate to compare the work of Mr. Stella. But that was back in the fall of 1987, when the New York art world, though hardly in a state of untarnished innocence, had not yet fully understood that there is no such thing as a ceiling on promotional hype when a big-time reputation is at stake. This is a lesson we had to wait for the born-again art scene of the 1990’s to teach us. Which is to say that when it comes to high-level art-world hyperbole, the sky is now the limit–or maybe even, in this space-travel era, the cosmos. Dante, Shakespeare and Picasso now turn out to have been mere openers in this game of attempting to assess Mr. Stella’s cosmic status.

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Do I exaggerate? Well, sample this masterpiece of copywriter’s hyperbole from the opening paragraph in the catalogue accompanying Mr. Stella’s current show at Knoedler & Company: “Is it fair to state that art, at its highest level, engages the spectator intellectually, evinces technical virtuosity, elicits an emotional response and deals with questions of morality? Not every work partakes of these qualities in equal measure, but the best, it seems to me, satisfy each of these criteria. Dante’s The Divine Comedy , Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling, Shakespeare’s Hamlet , Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment , Goya’s Capriccios , T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock –do they not meet the test? Where do Frank Stella’s works of the last decade stand vis-à-vis this multi-dimensional standard?” It is surely no coincidence, by the way, that the show currently on view at Knoedler is called Frank Stella: Multiple Dimensions in the 90’s .

Is the question posed in the passage I have just quoted really meant to be taken seriously, or is the whole text simply a parody of what is now permitted in exhibition catalogue writings? I have to confess that I am not absolutely certain that it isn’t a parody, and the issue is made more complicated by the fact that much of the art that Mr. Stella is currently exhibiting is itself a parody–actually, a double parody. For the metal sculpture in the exhibition looks like a parody of 1950’s Abstract Expressionist sculpture–what the metal constructions of Herbert Ferber and Seymour Lipton might look like after an atomic meltdown–and the pictorial stuff (it can’t really be called painting) looks like a parody of Mr. Stella’s own post-Minimalist, neo-Caravaggesque attempt to save abstract painting from emotional inanition by transforming it into graffiti-like polychrome relief.

Whether or not we regard those idiotic references to Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as parody, the author of this tribute to Mr. Stella’s cosmic importance–Jason Edward Kaufman of Cambridge, Mass., which sort of suggests Harvard or M.I.T. or something really brainy–has nonetheless met the terms of his commission, which was clearly to place the art of Frank Stella in even more exalted company than was thought seemly in the not-so-innocent 1980’s. You do have to wonder, however, why Picasso’s Guernica came to be omitted from the litany of masterworks now deemed suitable for comparison with Mr. Stella’s output. Has the art of Picasso lately suffered some catastrophic devaluation in Cambridge circles of which we have remained unaware here in New York? And, come to think of it, why was it thought more appropriate to cite Eliot’s Prufrock rather than, say, The Waste Land or the Four Quartets ? Prufrock is rather small beer, after all, compared to the magnitude of Eliot’s greatest work. Or have the revisionists in Cambridge gone to work on Eliot’s oeuvre as well?

On the other hand, I can see why it might have been thought the better part of discretion not to invoke The Waste Land on this occasion. My dictionary gives, as one of its definitions of “wasteland,” the following: “Any place, era, or aspect of life considered humanistically, spiritually, or culturally barren,” and that pretty much sums up the spirit of Mr. Stella’s Multiple Dimensions in the 90’s , which does indeed turn abstract art into a wasteland of expired aspirations.

It would be a mistake, however, to take Multiple Dimensions in the 90’s as a measure of what is still possible for abstract art to achieve in this last decade of the 20th century. This show may be a measure of Mr. Stella’s failure to elevate the graffiti esthetic to the level of some neo-Caravaggesque triumph, and a measure, too, of what can happen when artists begin believing in what their admirers claim as their achievements. But the work itself tells us little or nothing about the current state of abstract art. As a sculptor, after all, Mr. Stella remains a rank amateur. You can be sure that if the stainless steel constructions now on view at Knoedler & Company did not bear his name, they would have a difficult time finding a prestigious venue for their exhibition. As for the polychrome relief constructions in the show, they will no doubt find their proper venue in the lobbies of the new office buildings currently under construction in Manhattan and in corporate headquarters in office parks the country over, where, a generation hence, they will scarcely be noticed.

Meanwhile, isn’t it time to call for a moratorium on idiotic comparisons with The Divine Comedy and Crime and Punishment , et al., which only serve to underscore the imaginative poverty of Multiple Dimensions in the 90’s , which remains on view at Knoedler & Company, 19 East 70th Street, through June 26.

Frank Stella, Rank Amateur, in an Overhyped New Show