Frank Stella

#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.


#31. Ken Carpenter writes on Three New York Shows: Burri, Pollock, Stella

Alberto Burri, “Rosso plastica (Red plastic)”, 1962, plastic (PVC), acrylic and burns on black cloth, 65 x 100 cm, private collection, © Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini Collezione Burri, Città di Castello / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2016 / SIAE, Rome Photo: © Kunstsammlung NRW

Alberto Burri, “Rosso plastica (Red plastic)”, 1962, plastic (PVC), acrylic and burns on black cloth, 65 x 100 cm, private collection, © Fondazione PalazzoAlbizzini Collezione Burri, Città di Castello / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2016 / SIAE, Rome. Photo: © Kunstsammlung NRW

Alberto Burri: The Trauma of Painting was at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York from Oct. 9, 2015, to Jan. 6, 2016, and is at the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf from March 5 to July 3, 2016.

Jackson Pollock: A Collection Survey, 1935-1954 is on at the Museum of Modern Art through May 1, 2016.

Frank Stella, A Retrospective was at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York from Oct. 30, 2015, to March 7, 2016. It will be at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in Texas from Apr. 17 to Sept. 4 and the De Young Museum in San Francisco from Nov. 5 to Feb. 26, 201


Alberto Burri was one of the giants of European matériel painting. The enormous exhibition, Alberti Burri, The Trauma of Painting, which at first occupied almost all of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and is now at the  Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf, presented numerous works from not quite a dozen series in the artist’s richly varied career. The exhibition was accompanied by a thoroughly researched catalogue of 279 pages. It argues persuasively that Burri’s artistic vocabulary emerged directly from his life experience.

Take for instance the “laborious sewing… stitching” and folding of Burri’s Sacchi (sackcloth paintings). Burri lived in Città di Castello, a mere half-hour’s bike ride away from Piero della Francesca’s Madonna del Parto in Monterchi, with, as Burri’s friend Sandra Blow recalls, its “mobile folds” of drapery “scrunched and tucked by laces.” The artist’s extensive military experience in Ethiopia, Yugoslavia and Tunisia, much of it as a doctor in the medical corps, required him not only to suture battle wounds but also to sew repairs in his own uniform. The exhibition curator Emily Braun writes, “Burri undoubtedly had images of combat wounds seared into his mind, not to mention the muscle memory of suturing actions.”


#24. Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe writes on “Marginalized but not Demystified”

Frank Stella, “Die Fahne Hoch!”, 1959, enamel paint on canvas

Frank Stella, “Die Fahne Hoch!”, 1959, enamel paint on canvas

Marginalized but not Demystified

It is years since someone curated a show called “Greenberg’s Dilemma” and an old man came in and looked around attentively before approaching the desk to ask “What’s the dilemma?” The person there was Amy Lipton, who was a partner in the gallery, and the old man was Clement Greenberg. He left dissatisfied and while I don’t know what Amy might have said I’ll make two guesses. I expect Clem was ready to dismiss any thought of abstract painting being without a purpose or of uncertain historical usefulness. He was probably expecting something about irony, given the date of the story (1986,) and may have pointed out that abstraction can no more be ironic than can music. The extent to which either could conceivably be ironic would be the extent to which you were recognizing an interpretation of a reference, a critical comment on a quote. You would be reading the work rather than letting it be there more like a person than a page, an active phenomenal presence as opposed to a written message.

That is, however, what those in power in the museums and elsewhere want. Painting as a dead surface with signs on it, Warhol’s rather than Pollock’s or Cézanne’s version of the pictorial field, where the surface is itself alive. It seems to be only by treating the medium in this way that abstract painting is considered a feasible enterprise by the establishment at the moment, a confirmation that things have not changed but rather consolidated over the past quarter-century or so. The claim is that painting is now “demystified,” but this turns out to mean only that it has been stopped. One may do something with the idea of abstract painting, defined as a utopian project whose teleology has been exposed but which lives on as a dead reminder of itself with which people may do things of art historical significance, which however means that it may only consist of illustrations of a version of history which it may not undermine or criticize. Isabel Graw, by far the liveliest of the writers associated with the approach to art known as institutional critique, which now appears to be in charge of all the institutions, is quite explicit about this although she does not put it that way. Critical of Greenberg for not thinking that sheets of paper with writing on them are as flat as any painting, she sees painting as having been demystified by institutional critique and it is in those terms that she herself has to insist that the surface of painting is as inactive as a page, and like one activated only by what goes on it.[1] She has written by far the most useful account of how intellectual and commercial value combine and are mutually supportive in the contemporary art world, or market. I am in particular very interested in what she has to say about the relationship between the painting and its viewer given that we see paintings as beings rather than things. To share a space with them is more like being with a person than with a table or a rug. However, I think she is prevented from acknowledging the complexity of this aspect of abstract painting because of her insistence on limiting it to being what institutional critique insists it must be, a dead medium for which new uses must be found and they will be about writing and reading not about painting and seeing. Painting may not be active, but must instead be activated, its innate capacities considered unsuitable for contemporary requirements.


#8. David Sweet writes on 1966 and the New Pictorial Economy

Richard Diebenkorn, Woman in Profile, 1958, Oil on canvas, 68” X 59”. Image, with artist’s signature, from Dunn International catalogue, 1963.

Richard Diebenkorn, “Woman in Profile”, 1958, Oil on canvas, 68” X 59”. Image, with artist’s signature, from Dunn International catalogue, 1963.

Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series seems to have been initiated as a response to two paintings by Henri Matisse; View of Notre Dame and French Window at Collioure. Both date from 1914 but had never been exhibited before being included in a Matisse retrospective in 1966, organised by the University of California and shown in Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston, but not New York.[i] I want to argue that Diebenkorn recognised something important about these paintings. He saw that they introduced and valorised a particular pictorial economy, characterised by simple means and finite quantities.

Despite the difference in age, the works were similar to a kind of painting then being made in America. The same year Frank Stella’s Irregular Polygons and Barnett Newman’s Stations of the Cross series were also shown. Anyone who saw the three exhibitions would have faced an interesting triangulation; the Matisses, like the light from a new star arriving fifty years after the event, an ambitious late career statement from a major Abstract Expressionist and a set of unconventionally configured canvases from a 30 year old star of the New York art scene.

These coinciding exhibitions arguably constitute an important cultural moment, and one can imagine the impact on a sample viewer of the combined experience. It would be clear that the terms of a new pictorial economy had been constructed, validated and even historically provisioned, by obviously successful, high net worth examples. It would also have offered evidence for the possibilities of abstraction made under the auspices of this economy. What I want to suggest is that it is impossible to fully understand abstraction’s contemporary potential, and past achievements, without recovering this moment and absorbing an appreciation of the associated pictorial economy into our critical apparatus: So there.