#65. David Sweet writes on Losing Sight of Stella

Frank Stella, “Die Fahne hoche”, 1959

As someone who admires and was influenced by Frank Stella’s early paintings I get irritated by those who minimise his achievement and then congratulate themselves on their lack of interest in his work. If we lose sight of Stella, and his contribution to the history of abstraction, we may be doomed to a future consisting of a combination of Hans Hofmann and Pierre Soulages, a Druidical impasto fest, accompanied by necromantic invocations of Pissarro and Tintoretto, which goes on forever. There has got to be an alternative.

This is not an attempt to make anyone like Stella. Aesthetic judgements aren’t enforceable. But it is an attempt to throw a spanner into the machinery of rejection by following up on the challenge posed in Stella’s well-known remark ‘What you see is what you see’. So it concerns not aesthetics but phenomenology, what you see in Stella.

Stella’s technical originality shows up clearest in contrast to Barnett Newman. But they also have a lot in common. They were both making big paintings in New York at a time when American painting was a major cultural force. A progressive concept of history was also in play. The idea that painting could ‘advance’ in response to the best i.e. ‘most advanced’ work of the immediate past, made sense. Going ‘beyond’ Newman, therefore, was a reasonable motivation. What helped was that Stella wasn’t an Abstract Expressionist. He was free of the elaborate belief structure that surrounded the artists within that movement and found himself at the start of a new sensibility that eventually led to full-blown minimalism.

Barnett Newman, “Cathedra”, 1951

If Cathedra (1951) is compared to Die Fahne hoche!  (1959) it should be possible to work out how Stella takes Newman forward in formal terms. Compared to Stella, Newman’s work seems quite traditional. It is divided up into unequal areas and because they are unequal a relationship exists between parts and whole. It’s almost entirely blue, but not solidly blue, allowing variations across the large areas to provide visual purchase. It must count as a radical, ambitious pictorial statement, in size and simplicity, so it’s not obvious how Stella advances the art form with his group of black paintings eight years later.

Michael Fried, in his ‘Three American Painters’ catalogue essay in 1965, fully acknowledged Stella’s debt to Newman. While the gestural Abstract Expressionists were being unfavourably reassessed, Newman’s reputation held up pretty well through the sixties and Don Judd wrote an appreciative and uncharacteristically generous account of his Newman’s work as late as 1970.

The standard explanation maybe to claim that Stella moves forward by a process of reduction, jettisoning some of Newman’s elements, getting rid of the internal relationships, avoiding chromatic sensations, deleting the ‘zips’.  But if Stella’s advance on Newman was simply a consequence of following a ‘less is more’ policy, his paintings would have ended up like Robert Ryman’s. Instead he chose to respond by making a series of works using stripes of black enamel. The method, along with the depth of the stretchers, gave the paintings something of the appearance of ‘objects’, a property that Newman’s work did not suggest.

Given what happened later, Stella’s incorporation of object properties into painting may be seen as a lethal blow to the art form. The hollow boxes of minimalism seem to be the antithesis of pictoriality, banishing the illusionism and spatiality that had always been associated with the two-dimensional surface confronted head-on. Fried always claimed that Stella ‘defeated objecthood’, but he also invited it into the pictorial arena, offset maybe in the ‘Irregular Polygons’ of 1966 by the activity of the ‘depicted’ geometric elements. In the black paintings however he does something different, and it this that I think is important about his contribution. He gives the paintings the phenomenological impact of brute objects but arranges for the pictorial aspects to be fully experienced. He does this not by defeating objecthood by illusion, but by depicting flatness.

Frank Stella, “Jill”, 1959

Depicted flatness is not the same as the experience of flatness as a property of objects. Some things are just unremarkably flat but it’s the pictorial appearance of flatness that matters with the black paintings. If they had been more Ryman-esque, more filled with paint, they would have been ruined by suggested depth. The stripes systematically break up the plane, marked by the insulating gaps of pencil line and canvas, converting it from a brutal facade into a visually active field. The painting technique means equal emphasis is given to every part of the field. The eye follows the structure along the paint tracks, travelling around the edge of the support when the stripes go in the same direction. In Die Fahne hoche! the stripes are at right angles to the canvas edge, in Jill (1959) at 45 degrees. Giving the boundary and the centre, and all points in between, the same positional characteristics means there is nothing beyond or before the plane, which the eye has to consider. It only has to encounter the pictorialised flatness that the method produces.

This may sound like rehashing the discredited Greenbergian analysis that linked progressive flattening with the revealing of the art form’s essence. But the point I’m making about Stella’s black paintings is that they had a phenomenological impact that that other paintings didn’t have. ‘What you see is what you see’ asserts a militant position, insisting on the primacy of what meets the eye. It’s not just that Stella’s paintings were flat, which would make him an object-maker or literalist. He doesn’t present flatness, or take it for granted, he argues for flatness.

Stella argues for flatness as Cézanne argued for apples and oranges when the Impressionists had all but dissolved the object in atmosphere and light. Cézanne thought the movement was a great step forward for painting, and wanted to maintain its methodology and attitude to what meets the eye. But he also wanted to find a way of producing something object-like that was compatible with the system. He couldn’t just paint objects fully realised and complete as Chardin had done, so he instead produced in pictorial terms a solidity that matched the phenomenology of Impressionism. The contours of Cézanne’s anxious objects are lost and found amongst the paint strokes, behaving much as objects do when they appear under the conditions of visual perception. He does not subsume everything to a unifying perspectival order or supply a conventionally well-organised naturalistic world of the sort that satisfied earlier generations of painters. With Cézanne, ‘What you see is what you see’.

Arguments have a particular structure. Unlike stories, their components are not linked by conjunctions that facilitate narrative flow from one event to the next. There’s a gap between premise and conclusion that can only be crossed by inference. I don’t think it’s too far fetched to say that flatness in Stella and solidity in Cézanne are inferred rather than stated. Both could have been more explicit but then we would be encountering a different phenomenology, one born of certainty, not doubt. Without the role of inference, we would be looking at Ryman and van Gogh.

The phenomenological territory produced by Stella’s argued flatness is significant by virtue of its absence from current efforts within abstraction. That’s perhaps because the emphasis is almost entirely on space. Flatness is supposed to take care of itself. It may be identified with the backboard/wall support in relief or collage, or with the fabric surface in painting. In the latter case, if followed up by using thick pigment, the canvas disappears under a deep layer of tactile material like a pelt or skin. The first coat, when applied, can become the foundation of the next set of moves, paint on paint, gradually building to create a slab of medium that can be manipulated and worked to generate interest. The top of this thixatropic crust forms the terrain that confronts the viewer, with its invitation to find spatial cues amongst the undergrowth.

If the consistency is right it’s a temptation to just push paint around inside a world of paint. If a large quantity of pigment is involved the effects obtained may seem an impressive celebration of the medium, emphasising its unique capability of creating meaning through accident and improvisation. Abstraction can help to legitimise freestyle pigment activity, rendering the results more articulate, structured, and expressive. There is obviously no place for argued or depicted flatness in these procedures, though the works produced may end up on a wall, being praised and admired for the many qualities they no doubt have. They do not belong to the phenomenological territory that Stella defined, but neither do they fit with a much older idea of painting and that’s because they have abandoned the picture plane.

Stella’s depicted flatness is an argument for the picture plane in the context of works that appropriate the phenomenological force of the object. I think that’s why the black paintings are impressive. But it is easy to forget the picture plane as a factor in the organisation of abstract painting given the convenience of material flatness, which will anchor any number of diverse elements without too much bother. Yet, though it was an imaginary construct of the science of perspective, it has been central to the idea of pictorial art for a very long time. In ‘Modernist Painting’ (1960) Greenberg writes that:

The Old Masters had sensed that it was necessary to preserve…the integrity of the picture plane; that is to signify the enduring presence of flatness underneath and above the most vivid illusion of three-dimensional space. The apparent contradiction involved was essential to the success of their art, as it is indeed to the success of all pictorial art.

The fact that paintings are materially flat does not amount to the equivalent of ‘preserving the integrity of the picture plane’. Even without the ‘vivid illusion of three-dimensional space’ paintings still have to ‘signify the enduring presence of flatness’ as part of their phenomenological offer. The problem with ‘paint on paint’ methodologies is that though ‘depth’ can be easily induced, it is at the expense of the integrity of the picture plane. In its place is the idea of the surface, but the surface is an extension of the material domain occupied by the pigment. There is no possibility of ‘apparent contradiction’ because there is insufficient difference between the elements in play for one to disengage enough to interact productively with the other.

I realise I’m generalising about the conditions needed for a ‘successful’ painting. However, the relationship of paint to picture plane is not the same as paint to surface. It seems to echo the difference pointed to earlier between the structure of argument and that of narrative. Paint + surface are part of the same story. Paint + picture plane are more like premise and conclusion, the one inferred from the other. Surface can provide the narrative, the material context for space, but only when the integrity of the picture plane is considered can the significance and value of that space be tested.

At the beginning I said I was influenced by the early paintings of Frank Stella. What followed may have seemed like tortuous, academic theorising about those works. But the point of the exercise was to try to recover the source of that influence, locked in its historical moment, and turn it into something of use now in a very different time. Back then it was possible to put on an exhibition called ‘The Art of the Real’. With the advent of minimalism, experience of ‘the real’ was consciously pursued in a gallery setting and it became embedded within the new artistic outlook that developed after Abstract Expressionism. No one now believes in that ‘real’ and the sensibility, and its associated phenomenology, has been almost entirely dismantled, leaving minimalism to those promoting an uncluttered look in the realm of interior design.

What counts as real in terms of current sensibility is more fluid. In culture more generally, it’s obvious there is a move away from argument, and what used to be called ‘dialectics’, as ways of organising and testing knowledge. Instead we are awash with narratives, with stories, some of which might be true, but their truth content is not the main point. It doesn’t matter if they are fact or fiction, or combine the two. Their appeal lies in the fascination of the events they recount, which could be sort of real, or at least, not impossible. They need to cast a spell rather than offer information, and they are impervious to argument, though they do compete with other narratives and may come off worse. (Damien Hirst’s new exhibition, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, shows this narrative sensibility taken to hideous extremes, one man’s mythological fable being more or less another’s fake news.)

Under present circumstances it’s hard to see how the phenomenological impact of early Stella can be reconstructed in such a way that it influences anybody fresh to the possibilities of making abstract art. His retrospective of last year didn’t make it to Europe. The paintings I’m talking about aren’t that fecund stylistically speaking, so there isn’t much to appropriate. Maybe the upcoming Jasper Johns exhibition will help educate some over the value of the picture plane and lead them beyond a preoccupation with the ‘turbid ebb and flow’ of acrylic medium and back to the realm of ‘successful’ painting. Not calling Stella ‘boring’ might also help more people to see his paintings a little better.

April 2017.


Michael Auping, ‘The Phenomenology of Frank’, Catalogue essay in Frank Stella, A Retrospective, 2016.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, ‘Cézanne’s Doubt’, in Sense and Non-sense, 1948. English translation 1964.

 Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind, 1949.

Clement Greenberg, ‘Modernist Painting’, 1960.

Michael Fried, ‘Three American Painters’, Catalogue essay, 1965.


  1. Some of the best sense I’ve seen written on this site about the art of painting in the context of contemporary practice.


  2. Thanks for this essay. I always cringe when someone refers to Greenberg’s “discredited analysis” because some person would have to do the discrediting, and in order to discredit Greenberg’s analysis, that person would have to be a more insightful writer on art than Greenberg was. I know of no such writer since Greenberg wrote. On the other hand, it might be thought that Greenberg’s way of looking at art has been discredited by the passing of history, which has made that way of looking irrelevant. Because Greenberg’s way of looking at art involves judgments of quality and it seems that if there is one kind of analysis that has become irrelevant, it is judging the quality of artworks. But to my mind, that fact doesn’t imply that Greenberg’s analysis is “discredited”; it may mean that art itself – the making and the appreciation of art – has become irrelevant, and Greenberg cannot be blamed for that historical fact.

    Regarding Stella, I have trouble grasping what you mean by “depicted flatness.” To depict flatness would be to represent flatness (as opposed to, say, showing or exhibiting or making manifest flatness). I think that some paintings of Jasper Johns (maps, flags) may depict flatness, as do some pop art images that consist of paintings of things that are obviously flat (not only literally but emotionally), like comic book images, photographs of electric chairs, celebrities, and so on. So depicted flatness in connection with Stella seems a little bit vague to me.

    I notice that the essay does not discuss the issue of shape very much but I think that the primary function of Stella’s stripes is to relate to the shape of the support in various ways, for example, by simply reiterating it or by stating a different relationship by positioning the parallel stripes at a particular angle in relation to the literal shape. (This is the way Fried sees it in his analysis of the relation of depicted to literal shape.) The purpose of stating a specific relationship between depicted shape and literal shape is both to confront (by inviting it) and to “defeat” the temptation or risk of seeing the picture as an object existing in the world. (What is the alternative to objecthood? –Illusiveness, as something that exists for and by virtue of the eye alone is illusive.) I do not believe that Stella’s early paintings would be “abstract” if they did not engage this tension between objecthood and illusiveness. (So-called “Op Art” (e.g., Larry Poons’ early dot pictures) aren’t really abstract in my opinion because they do not engage with objecthood.)

    I think that Stella chose to take on the issue of objecthood because it was, for him (assuming that he didn’t see it as a mere career move) the only way in which he, at that moment in history, could imagine a future for serious painting – which means that he lived at time when the relevance of painting, or indeed of art generally, was in serious doubt. Stella’s decision to make pictures explicitly in series immediately after (which in my judgment are Stella’s highest achievement) is implied in the tensions at work in the black paintings – that’s an idea that requires a separate essay.


  3. Yet more of the tired and facile old stuff from Mr Sweet. If Sweet had been following with any close and unbiased attention the argument between Robin and myself that has been going on over the past five years from comments on abstractcritical and abcrit, including the Poussin Gallery Vimeo of 2012, he would have picked up on the fact that there is indeed a “dialectic”, and that I am arguing for, if not the “integrity” of the picture plane, certainly the re-established unity of the picture plane as the central aim and discipline of painting as I understand it, “turbid ebb and flow” or not. (Why is this phrase in scare quotes, and whose is it?).
    What I want is the simultaneous presence and “equal intensity, –clear, demarcated, out there, resistant to the eye” (Adrian Stokes) of the entire presented image; and when I talk of surface unity I mean the same thing, not literal surface, not the “final literalisation of the canvas surface” (pace John Holland on Jasper Johns), but the pictorial completeness of the picture plane as identified with surface. Sweet’s paragraph which begins “the fact that paintings are materially flat” — and contains the line ” the surface is an extension of the material domain occupied by the pigment” is sheer sophistry. Only in a literalist mentality.
    Coincidentally I found myself in a recent talk echoing the remarks of Helen Frankenthaler quoted subsequently on abcrit that I don’t want the before and after, the first this, then that record of the paintings making to be legible in the final outcome, as it is in relief in depth pictures.
    The “ebb and flow”, or the “push and pull” which only the reciprocal pressure of colour on colour will allow is a much richer and more challenging world than the black on black or white on white painting of the pseudo-avant garde — and it is facile to state that “‘depth’ can be easily induced”, for if it is, it is at the expense of a coherent and vibrant abstract picture. As Hofmann puts it — ” it is the conceptual completeness of the plastic experience that warrants the preservation of the two-dimensionality
    Incidentally, Greenberg did not maintain that painting was about flatness and the delimitation of flatness. All he said was that these were the MINIMAL CONDITIONS for the existence of a pictorial art.
    OK , I’m stuck with Hofmann, but better that than to be stuck with the tired old Friedian justifications for a hair splitting distinction between Stella the literalist and Stella the depicter of flatness? Indeed yes, what does that mean?


    1. 1. ‘turbid ebb and flow’ is from ‘Dover Beach’ by Matthew Arnold.
      2. It’s Dr. Sweet, if we’re being formal.


  4. P.S. One thing at least Robin and I are in agreement about, is that this way of talking about painting is dead in the water. I answered all the semantic bollocks about “flatness” way back in 1974 in “Principle, Appearance, Style” , Studio International, June. In that article I also quoted from Darby Bannard’ s “Pollock, Still, Newman, Touch and Scale in American Abstract Expressionism”, and” Hofmann’s Rectangles”,the first disagreement with the Greenbergian theses within that circle, and a good deal of sense on the matters in hand. Prof. Sweet is way out of date .


  5. Pierre Soulages!?! Where the hell did he come from? “Depicting flatness” is a masterstroke of delusion; and “the pictorial appearance of flatness” might be yet crazier. Why would you want that?

    AND… Stella’s depiction of flatness on a par with Cézanne’s solidity! AND… you credit him with the preservation of the picture plane that those annoying old masters (and Hofmann) contrived to destroy. But wait… have you actually looked at those Stellas? I mean, rather than just think about them? I know it’s a bit of a bore to actually look at the work, but flat they are not, however you care to define it. The pseudo-morality of your argument around and about the ethics of flatness blinds you to the obvious – that these paintings are comprised of rather nasty optical perspectives of diminishing shapes. You could, I suppose, argue that these simple perspectival motifs are in tension with the picture-plane; and you might argue that such tension is analogous to the way that Cézanne’s strong engagement with three-dimensionality, depth and space is in tension with his paintings’ two-dimensional construction and organisation; but you’d have to be desperate to do it, and it would be scant fare indeed for painting. How do you go forward with this, David? You just can’t dine out on stripes forever. They are over, and other ways must be found to advance abstract painting, embracing along the way (and benefitting from!) all the difficulties, miss-steps and criticisms that a conceptual theory of painting cannot provide. Painting, even (perhaps especially!) abstract painting, is capable of so much more than you vainly attempt to lead us to believe.

    To quote: “The problem with ‘paint on paint’ methodologies is that though ‘depth’ can be easily induced, it is at the expense of the integrity of the picture plane.” Well, as Cézanne demonstrates, that “loss” can, with hard work, be recovered in a way that electrifies the painting. You can’t do anything on a canvas without destroying flatness (even Newman at his most minimal is not really flat), and it is not worth trying to talk your way out of it. Cézanne and Pissarro and Tintoretto all provide ambitious examples from the past of how to reconcile space and flatness to the advantage of their art. We can’t copy their methods or styles, but we can follow their notable examples in new and inventive ways. And I think I agree with Alan (!) that if all parts of the painting are brought out to their fullest, and brought to bear upon the total effect of the work, it is possible to very nearly reconstruct the original integrity and wholeness of surface AND have something fantastic to look at.


  6. David Sweet, please forgive my rather simplistic way of understanding, but are you basically saying that painting ‘flatness’ is better than painting layer upon layer in an abstract work? Do you not think that finding something new to express has to be a personal activity for painter or sculptor (rather than going down the flatness route) and that what you see is what’s been chosen? Why should one way be better than another, surely the outcome of the process has to stand up to scrutiny?
    Have I misunderstood what you have been trying to say?


    1. Well it’s just possible what I’ve written doesn’t make a lot of sense, Noela. Maybe you could concentrate on the Greenberg quote. He put it pretty well. He was talking about the Old Masters’ sense of ‘the enduring presence of flatness’ combining with their contradictory intentions to create vivid illusions of depth. Wrangling that contradiction was, and still is, vital to painting’s success. Even when paintings contain no illusionistic or perpectival space, the enduring presence of flatness still has to be depicted, or ‘argued’, as I try to say.


      1. Still not really sure why ‘flatness’ has to depicted, do you mean ‘smoothness’ of surface? There was a lot of smooth blending going on in old master paintings to create a greater sense of reality.


  7. Obviously this essay is directed towards a particular constituency of Abcrit contributors, to which I myself am most likely seen to belong, that being the Tintoretto and Pissarro invokers who disregard the “integrity of the picture plane”. Yet I would have thought that those who are championing Hofmann, Cezanne or Pissarro are clearly thinking a lot more about the picture plane, or whatever we want to call that two dimensional aspect of painting, far far more than Stella even, as revealed by his later works that show absolutely no regard for planarity as he literally protrudes into actual space. And even in these stripe works from ’59, he cannot really be concerned with surface integrity when he is creating such overbearing optical illusions.

    As far as the actual work of the necromancers is concerned, I do not see where the proverbial swags of Tintoretto, Pissarro or Hofmann are being jacked. Certainly no Soulages in sight. He belongs to that big bad world of contemporary abstraction, the image makers, who care not for any sort of frontal pressure, just a sleek and sexy design that looks good in reproduction.

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    1. Harry, included in a set of 2016 works on your website is one called ‘Cargo’. (I think that’s its title) It looks different from all of the others because it contains elements that explicitly argue for flatness and the integrity of the picture plane. The grey area towards the left is particularly important. It looks like it has been arrived at by ‘tonking’, a technique invented by Henry Tonks, who taught at the Slade in the thirties. It involved laying an absorbent material like newspaper or fabric over areas of excess oil paint to remove pigment prior to repainting. The effect is to establish a ‘negative’ area, which looks flat, compared to the activity around it.

      In the case of ‘Cargo’ a few areas seem to be made through this method. You may have created that effect another way, but what matters is the subsequent phenomenological shift that has been achieved. ‘Cargo’ looks different, and its contents function dialectically when compared to all of the other paintings of yours that I have been able to find. This means in that one painting you have been able to work with rhythms that flow through the contours of the shaped areas, rather than grouping small stabs and accents into passages of fused pigment bundles.

      I wouldn’t mention this just because it supports my thesis about flatness, though it does. I thought I’d point out that ‘Cargo’ is by far your best work. Of course, I hasten to add, ‘in my opinion.’


      1. David, the painting I think you’re referring to does look very different from the others. This is most likely due to it’s being an acrylic work on paper, whereas the others you would have seen have been done in oil on either wood or canvas. It is made up of very thinly applied, fluid acrylic in combination with some heavier segments, which might be creating some of that mottled effect as the thinned paint struggles to grip to the thicker non absorbent surfaces beneath. It has been probably been soaked and wiped a way a few times too. So it has been made with a very different approach to the others, and I agree that that grey area does serve to enhance the cavernous section in the middle that recedes quite dramatically but returns to the eye because of its luminosity.

        I’m glad it interested you. I rather liked it when I did it and I quite like it still, but for whatever reason I have been unable or unwilling to follow up on it and make anything else that operates in a similar way.

        If it supports your thesis that is fine, I don’t mind. You have my blessings. But I (and I think others) are struggling to understand just what you mean by “arguing for flatness”, “depicting flatness” and “the integrity of the picture plane”. Is flatness really “argued” for in Stella? Do you actually just mean flatness in a literal sense, as in no peaks, no impasto? Is for instance the grey part in “Cargo” a depiction of flatness, to offset the other goings on? Can it actually be separated from its function within the whole thing? I’m not sure it can, so it becomes an element within a form/space/thing that is moving in and out and across, rather than one isolated “depiction”. In my more clustered works, I would say that there are also quieter parts that are probably off setting or enhancing other more lively elements, but they are smaller in relation to the whole work and so less explicit.

        I suppose I just don’t see the necessity of arguing for the integrity of the picture plane. I actually find that notion rather stifling. For every mark or form you make you’d have to then worry about whether or not it maintains the integrity of the plane. How do we actually decide these things? For this sort of painting, those things are largely outside of your control, and it supposes that we are all going to recognise this integrity of the surface when we see it. It’s an unnecessary check on experimentation.

        P.S. The painting I assume you mean by “Cargo”, which can be seen here… http://cargocollective.com/harryhay/2016-G-S-G was not its title, but the name of the provider that my site runs off of. I think there is a confusingly placed caption somewhere. But I’m happy to run with it, so thanks! Cargo it is.


  8. I am not convinced that when he started out Stella was much concerned with flatness at all, because I suspect he knew, after looking at a lot of modernist paintings, that by 1959 it was no longer something that needed to be established (or depicted or argued) for painting. He could take flatness for granted. He clearly was interested in the relationship between the physical limits of the picture and what is contained within those limits, which is why he ended up with the parallel line format, which reiterate the physical limits of the support. There is nothing “within” the picture that needs to deny or suspend or negate or hide the picture’s physical existence (as an object). In order to achieve that kind of peace, he had to make pictures in which nothing, no detail however small, could possibly be seen as arbitrary or as anything but absolutely necessary to the painting’s being what it is. Nothing is hidden, nothing is contrived, nothing may be seen as appealing to taste or authority or as posturing or seducing or gesturing or attracting or any other rhetorical feat that had earned second generation abstract expressionist painting its bad name. In other words, nothing could be seen as arbitrary, and everything had to be essential, determined. Each of the paintings had to be an absolute and seamless realization of its conception, a declaration of the artist’s total responsibility. (This is not an argument for any picture’s being good or bad or a suggestion of how art “should” be. It is a description of how certain art was.)


      1. Well, then you have misunderstood. Stella’s whole approach pretty much rules out anything genuinely abstract and visually alive occuring. He’s a literalist who doesn’t see, and therefore cannot make use of, the illusion that naturally occurs in painting. And for any work to be even approaching “an absolute and seamless realization of its conception” means that it is not only conceptual art, but also a thorough bore.

        David (or Carl, for that matter) cannot tell us a single thing about this work that makes looking at it worthwhile or compelling.


  9. I seek felt quality in art over all other attributes, which I have not personally found in any Stella yet. (Newman, though…!) In describing Stella’s visual strengths, it sounded to me like Carl had nailed the definition of your bias, which apparently he then screwed by using the term “conception”. For all the reading I’ve done at abcrit, I’d expect to better understand what you seek from abstraction, in and of itself. I’m left to wonder If the non-conceptual abstraction you are espousing isn’t the equivalent of the proverbial white whale or, less tragically, the white elephant.


      1. So I assume we can both lump how we feel about each other’s feelings. It’s clear enough that I meant “felt quality” as a sensory experience. Sensing quality is not so very vague an endeavour, although talking about it generally is. And no matter what you actually mean by “abstract content”, more of it does not make better art. Which is why I wonder (honestly, and ready to be shown wrong) if it’s not a dead-end approach. Granting the benefit of my admitted doubt, I call your penchant for the chimera that would be “genuinely abstract and visually alive” art a “bias”, and not cant or dogma.


    1. Rob, how did I screw it up by using the word “conception”? I’m trying to understand why Stella’s early paintings exist as instances of a series. Seriality seems to be a distinctly modernist phenomenon, and is found to greater or lesser extent in impressionism, cubism, abstract expressionism, Louis, Noland, etc., but never so clearly as in Stella’s early work. There is a format (which I called “conception”) and there are instances of it. The relationship between the two seems to me one of absolute realization because any one instance displaces or eclipses each other instances in its realization of the conception, which I could also refer to as the “medium”, although none is a less complete or comprehensive statement than any other. This is another way of saying that every detail of each instance is essential to, what it is and that no detail is arbitrary. Each of them seems to say that nothing other than our acceptance of it as an instance determines whether its series is worth realizing and how far it may go on in generating further instances, until it is exhausted, at which point it is over and done, forever. To say that nothing other than our acceptance of it allows it to exist as an instance of the series is to say that its significance is not dictated to us and that we are momentarily free, because each moment displaces all other moments and that’s what present-ness means. This is a “felt quality”, because if it’s not felt in the presence of the painting, you cannot be persuaded to feel it or understand it; the picture simply doesn’t exist as an instance but as a mere illustration, or object.


  10. Rob,
    I’ll stick my neck right out and say, yes, absolutely – the more abstract content, the better the art. It must be properly abstract, visual/physical/spatial, not metaphorical or literal, and it must be proper content and not subject matter. The problem I have with these Stellas is precisely that they have next to no abstract content. That whole minimalist, reductionist thing is very much a question of taste and not much else, however you dress it up with philosophy.

    If you can keep on looking at a thing, getting more and more out of it, and providing that it all relates together in some way, what’s not to like? (Obviously Carl is not going to go for this idea, because it does not address his need for his kind of instant “presentness”, but it seems to me if a work of art is totally engrossing over a period of looking, its very present indeed.)


  11. Carl. I only noted that Robin had taken exception to your ‘conception’. I think the word confuses your argument because it can be taken to indicate a couple of different moments in the order of creation, which seems to be the crux of your interest in seriality. Not to mention Robin’s contention regarding its post-mo’ist meaning. Also, seriality isn’t so distinctly modern; casting technologies predate by an epoch most of the art under consideration here. As aside, I do wonder if our look back at an artist’s trajectory of output over a lifetime isn’t seriously skewed by the lens of our hindsight, and if that heady knowledge doesn’t further distort how we look at (feel about) our own studio projects. I tend to think present-ness is something to practise as I sculpt instead of something to sculpt. Maintaining blind ignorance about what came before (yesterday/yesteryear) while keeping abreast of my own changing taste… but what a crazy-zen effort.

    Robin. You may have (probably have) addressed this before: does your ‘abstract content’ occur anywhere–in any other field or discipline of jhuman endeavour, or in observable nature–does it occur anywhere other than in/as art? Is there a corollary?


    1. The short answer – no.

      I have in the past made a case for some kind of “abstract-ness” being present in figurative art, and even in the sights and organisations of nature, but I think I have abandoned that position, because for what I now think of as abstract content of a kind that will be the driver for progressive abstract sculpture, the conditions are too specific to allow for such broad analogies to be of much use.

      In sculpture, three-dimensionality, spatiality, physicality, and a degree of discovered visual intentionality seem incontrovertibly to form a large part of those conditions. But I don’t see this as prescriptive – once the focus is on those things, the door is opened for all kinds of content to happen that has never even been considered before as being within the scope of sculpture. “Abstract content” may be a contrivance, but it should be one that liberates; it can, for example, enable a liberation from decisions of “taste”, which are not generally robust.


  12. You mistrust your taste? I feel it is only taste, only the culmination of my lifetime of aggregated sensory experiences that I can rely upon to know, to appreciate, make judgments and decisions about such formal attributes of sculpture as three-dimensionality, spatiality, and physicality, and, and… (although I’m not sure my taste’s helping me with ‘discovered visual intentionality’). Why should I want liberation from taste?


    1. It is not so much that I mistrust my taste, more that I recognise that abstract sculpture’s potential is much bigger than anything I can get my head round at any one time. I would rather rely more on the development of some kind of robust sculptural content to lead me (and my taste) by the nose (and on the hoof) into something new that still fulfils those previously mentioned conditions.

      I think there is a continuing problem with abstract art that is dependent to a large extent on the exercise of an individual’s aesthetic judgement. It seems to me that such a reliance narrows the options and limits the possible freedoms. Abstract sculpture has to evolve beyond its simplistic early forms, most of which are no longer viable, and bring on board new options in the content that can be tried and tested. Some things in sculpture are just dead in the water, like these Stellas. I have nothing against the exercise of taste, other than that it is inadequate for the job of moving things on.

      (Interesting to note that Carl thinks these Stellas ‘bypass’ taste. I think the opposite – that they are entirely dependent upon a narrow-minded version of it.)

      And importantly, three-dimensionality, spatiality, and physicality are not ‘formal attributes of sculpture’; they are necessary conditions for the content to prosper, and inseparable from it.


      1. I think that the early Stellas bypass rhetoric, whether it be the rhetoric of representation or of late abstract expressionism (which provided the artistic context in which Stella found himself in 1959). Someone might say that Stella is simply contributing more rhetoric but I don’t agree with or accept the cynicism implicit in that judgment. (Part of the appeal of modernism is its willingness to leave itself unguarded.)


      2. I say taste is the horse, you say it’s the cart. You claim to be looking way ahead, I feel any gain to be had will come from looking way back. But neither of us has the reins. Our ideas are strong while our terms are weak, so the rhetorical exercise has been interesting & generally fun. Thanks for taking my comments seriously.


  13. Robin – I mean that at some point in the history of painting and sculpture, it was dawned on people that our ways of representing the world didn’t make the world present to us (didn’t provide us with access to reality) but instead contributed to its distancing from us. Those ways came to seem merely rhetorical, methods of persuasion rather than media of conviction.


    1. Well, that just throws up so many questions; but I’ll merely say that looking at a great deal of old figurative painting, from Giotto to Matisse, seems a lot more real and a lot less rhetorical than the experience of looking at Stella, particularly if you define “rhetorical” as something designed to have a persuasive or impressive effect, but which lacks meaningful content. Surely his work is all style and no substance?


      1. A work of art strikes me as “rhetorical” when it seems designed (by the artist) to have a persuasive or impressive effect. This generally occurs by its having or wishing to convey an excess of “meaningful content.” Among abstract paintings, Mark Rothko’s pictures (for example) have this sort of effect on me. I would say that the concept of ‘style’ has no application at all to Stella’s early pictures.


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