Frank Stella: A Retrospective, which opened yesterday at the Whitney Museum of American Art, is a brilliantly curated, blatantly overhung masterstroke of an exhibition that turns the artist’s weaknesses into strengths and his strengths into powerhouses. With something close to 100 works across the museum’s sprawling fifth floor, the show proves that too much Stella is just the amount you need.
The proceedings start off with a bang — “Das Erdbeben in Chili [N#3]” (1999), a 40-foot-long acrylic-on-canvas from a phase of Stella’s career when his imagery was approaching unchecked chaos, is the first thing you see when you enter the show. As the overture to the exhibition, the painting’s unrelenting, anarchic forms and clashing, high-key color (the title translates as “The Earthquake in Chile”) seem calculated to mark the distance the artist has traveled since his breakthrough Black Paintings launched Minimalism in 1959.
While this picture can hold the room (to say the least) on its own, it is nevertheless bookended on the left by “Pratfall” (1974), a soothing arrangement of grisaille concentric squares, and on the right by a set of six untitled digital renderings of smoke rings from the late 1980s — a real anomaly.
The grouping of these works create a disjunctive context: the disparities between the two paintings are accentuated even as their proximity suggests a kinship; the gelatin silver prints of the smoke rings, despite their distinctive subject and form, in fact underscore a commonality among the three introductory pieces, reflecting the warm grays of “Pratfall” while supplying the basis for some of the spiraling, amorphous shapes explored in “Das Erdbeben” and other late works.
The interlocking motif, rather than chronology or series, is the organizing principle of the retrospective, which covers nearly sixty years of Stella’s career. The show was installed by the curators (listed in the press release as Michael Auping, Chief Curator, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, in association with Adam D. Weinberg, Alice Pratt Brown Director, Whitney Museum of American Art, with the involvement of Carrie Springer, Assistant Curator, Whitney Museum of American Art) with the cooperation and assistance of the artist.
Given their art historical importance, it’s surprising that the show includes only four classic 1959 Black Paintings — “Die Fahne hoch!,” “Arundel Castle,” “The Marriage of Reason and Squalor II,” and “Jill.” But maybe not. If Stella’s point is to stress the continuance of abstract painting in a variety of guises, it would make sense to play down his early success.
What’s worth noting, however, is the tightly packed hanging of the shaped and striped paintings from the first half of 1960s. These include the copper-colored, right-angled “Creede I” and “Creede II” (both 1961); the fluorescent red-and-orange “Marrakech” (1964); the screaming-yellow “Palmito Ranch” (1961); “Marquis de Portago (first version)” (1960), a notched canvas in aluminum paint; and the ocher, star-shaped “Plant City” (1963).
One effect of the close hanging is the temptation to read the installation as a single, multipart work; this creates a lively dialogue among the individual paintings but, on the downside, also gives rise to questions about the aesthetic sustenance they offer without an assist from a related work. It’s an arrangement that suggests, to put it bluntly, that the Black Paintings are austere and magisterial statements whose component parts (thin intervals of bare canvas between rigid strokes of paint) do not necessarily translate into other shapes and colors without courting decorativeness.
While the formal invention that went into the works of the early-‘60s prevent that from happening for the most part, especially in the notched, aluminum-colored canvases (which approach the gravity and rigor of the Black Paintings), there is a marked drop-off in intensity that continues with the Protractor series and other multicolored, shaped paintings — an attenuation that Stella himself acknowledged. In a quote from one of the exhibition’s wall texts (which originally appeared in the catalogue for the exhibition Frank Stella, 1970-1987, held at the Museum of Modern Art in 1987), he says:
There’s a power in the stripe paintings that the newer ones will never have; on the other hand, there is an energy—and a kind of florid excitement—in the newer work that the stripe paintings didn’t have. I don’t think you can do it all at once. That’s why you’re lucky you have a lifetime.
A chronological installation would have acerbated the painful transition that Stella’s work underwent in the early-to-mid-‘70s, as blocky planar reliefs, painted mostly in flat colors (such as the generic “Kamionka Strumilowa IV,” 1972), gave way to more variegated forms and surfaces. But by playing fast and loose with time, the exhibition provides a shortcut to the evolution of Stella’s three-dimensional works (which he continues to call paintings).
Without moving from your spot in front of “Kamionka Strumilowa IV,” to cite one example, you can pivot to your right to take in a series of maquettes for the French-curve-based Exotic Birds series, made five years later out of flattened and cut soda cans, and then skip five more years with another quarter-turn to the right, where you’ll be face-to-face with the ludicrously complex “Zeltweg (V), 4.75X” from 1982, a clangorous agglomeration of serpentine shapes and French curves in etched magnesium, covered with splashes and squiggles of paint. A methodical, decade-long search is thus rendered as jump-cut flare-ups of inspiration.
Similar connections flit across stylistically diverse works throughout the exhibition; even rooms that seem to be set up as studies in contrast can harbor transformative possibilities. In one such juxtaposition, outstanding examples of the Moby-Dick series, dating between 1986 and 1988, whose billowing forms reach deeply, even dangerously, into the viewer’s space, hang close by a pair of shaped Day-Glo paintings from 1966 titled “Effingham II” and “Moultonville II.” The two sets of works bear neither surface similarities nor formal concerns, but the flamboyant spatial projections of the three-dimensional pieces call attention to the thingness of the brightly colored canvases, a measure of physical heft that might otherwise be lost in the dazzle of their color.
The breadth of the Whitney’s floor space, which is divided into generous spatial configurations by freestanding walls, presents unobstructed views across multiple rooms while retaining the potential for surprise (along with more than a little showboating, as in the gallery full of giant, unpainted metal sculptures, including the spectacular, aluminum-and-steel “Raft of the Medusa (Part I),” 1990), allowing free rein for Stella’s lumbering, beautiful monsters.
There’s a lot here that rewards extended looking — a single work like “‘At Sainte Luce!’ [Hoango] [Q#1]” (1998), a tour-de-force of painting techniques, with each of its dozens of parts variously sprayed, smeared, brushed, slathered, stippled, gouged and incised in juicy, sumptuous color, is endlessly fascinating. I stayed at the exhibition close to three hours, feeling a peak intensity of engagement that I have rarely experienced in a contemporary retrospective. But I also reached a point of exhaustion with the randomness of the forms and the uniformity of scale, and realized that the most potent work produced a sense of awe but not exhilaration, a crucial difference.
Stella excels at spectacle — even his Black Paintings possess a theatrical quality in the skill and planning that it took to create their unerringly precise pinstripes between bands of enamel. And implicit to spectacle is an appreciable lack of emotional involvement. His art in this regard mirrors his passion for car racing — it overpowers the competition and overwhelms the viewer, but there’s very little about it that speaks to the emotions.
I’ve avoided citing Stella’s catchphrase, “What you see is what you see,” but ultimately that’s the source of each work’s success or failure. The artist’s materialist stance ups the ante; every piece must become essentially a world unto itself. When it falls short of that threshold, as with much of the work from the late 1960s and early ‘70s, it can feel cold and banal.
But a remarkable number of works manage to fuse extreme complexity with excessive visual pleasure, and the exhibition makes a strong case for a body of work that can be both populist and formally high-minded. Stella’s ostentatiousness and bravado, like Anselm Kiefer’s, may be a turnoff to some, but his commitment to invest contemporary art with an epic dimension — in sharp contrast to the monumentalized kitsch of Jeff Koons, whose own retrospective closed the Whitney’s uptown Marcel Breuer building last year — is something worth thinking and arguing about.
Frank Stella: A Retrospective continues at the Whitney Museum of American Art (99 Gansevoort Street, Meatpacking District, Manhattan) through February 7, 2016.