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.
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.
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.
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.