Wednesday, May 14, 2008

By Any Other Name

When 22-year-old Frank Stella came to New York City in 1958 and began painting a series of austere black paintings, right in the middle of the Abstract Expressionist craze, few people knew what to make of him. But just one year removed from Princeton University, where he studied history, Stella made a splash with Die Fahne Hoch! (above, from 1959), a series of methodically painted black lines on a metal plate that ushered in the age of Minimalism. Born May 12, 1936, Stella’s star rose quickly in the art world heavens. Die Fahne Hoch! appeared at the MoMA in a 1959 exhibition of rising new artists. In 1970, Stella became the youngest artist ever to receive a retrospective at the MoMA (which The Guerilla Girls claim, in one of their many grievances against the MoMA, may have been helped by the fact that Stella’s dealer was related to a MoMA curator). While the last of the Abstract Expressionists roared, Stella very quietly became the next big thing.

Die Fahne Hoch! is a line from the Horst-Wessel-Lied, the anthem of the National Socialist German Workers Party, and translates to “the banner raised.” What black lines signified in relation to Nazism still mystifies. "What you see is what you see,” Stella later said tautologically. “Painting to me is a brush in a bucket and you put it on a surface. There is no other reality for me than that." In later, more colorful works such as Takht-i-Sulayman Variation I (from the Protractor Series; above, from 1969), Stella gets even more outlandish with his titles, taunting the viewer to tease out some narrative from narrativeless abstraction. This allusive quality makes Stella both intriguing and frustrating—there’s either something there or nothing, but nobody can say for sure. By this point in his career, Stella, a restless stylistic chameleon, had already begun to move beyond Minimalism and into Color Field abstraction.

In the late 1980s, Stella took on the great while male of American literature, Herman Melville, and his masterpiece, Moby-Dick. Enter Ahab; to him, Stubb (above, from 1988) belongs to a series of abstract painting-sculptures that take snippets of the novel as their title—in this case, one of Melville’s Shakespearean “stage directions” found throughout the tale. Many elements in the work seem to suggest something in Melville’s work (perhaps Ahab’s body can be seen in the amorphous mass rising through the center), but, again, we can’t find anything concrete to grasp other than the title itself. Abstract art, by definition, thrives through its abstract power to suggest. Many artists use the tension between specific titles and unspecific form, but few give us so little as Frank Stella to go on. ''A sculpture is just a painting cut out and stood up somewhere,’’ Stella says, inviting us to see all his art as pure medium at work, and then pulling the rug out from beneath with his titles.

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