Opinion

An Open Letter to Frank Stella on the Occasion of His Whitney Retrospective

Frank Stella, "Marrakech" (1964), fluorescent alkyd on canvas, 77 x 77 x 2 7/8 innches, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert C. Scull, 1971 (© 2015 Frank Stella/Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York)
Frank Stella, “Marrakech” (1964), fluorescent alkyd on canvas, 77 x 77 x 2 7/8 innches, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert C. Scull, 1971 (© 2015 Frank Stella/Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York)
Dear Frank Stella,

Your object-paintings choke me. Besides your great black and silver works, the Whitney Museum’s walls and walls of painting-as-relief-sculpture are hammy and smothering. Worse, their literal heaps of jutting materiality block me from engaging with effective imagination or speculative participation. There is nothing to be imaginatively negotiated with here. Only protruding stuff (that smacks of synthetic cubist collage) to be physically avoided.

The gaudy, hackneyed formalism of your work does not provide many hopeful occasions for thinking through the complex issues around the state of contemporary painting. It has taken a predetermined position in support of a narrative of art based on the false choice between figurative and abstract form, choosing exclusively the latter.

Frank Stella, "Die Fahne hoch!" (1959), enamel on canvas, 121 5/8 x 72 13/16 inches, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of Mr. and Mrs. Eugene M. Schwartz and purchase with funds from the John I. H. Baur Purchase Fund, the Charles and Anita Blatt Fund, Peter M. Brant, B. H. Friedman, the Gilman Foundation, Inc., Susan Morse Hilles, The Lauder Foundation, Frances and Sydney Lewis, the Albert A. List Fund, Philip Morris Incorporated, Sandra Payson, Mr. and Mrs. Albrecht Saalfield, Mrs. Percy Uris, Warner Communications Inc., and the National Endowment for the Arts (© 2015 Frank Stella/Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York; digital Image © Whitney Museum)
Frank Stella, “Die Fahne hoch!” (1959), enamel on canvas, 121 5/8 x 72 13/16 inches, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of Mr. and Mrs. Eugene M. Schwartz and purchase with funds from the John I. H. Baur Purchase Fund, the Charles and Anita Blatt Fund, Peter M. Brant, B. H. Friedman, the Gilman Foundation, Inc., Susan Morse Hilles, The Lauder Foundation, Frances and Sydney Lewis, the Albert A. List Fund, Philip Morris Incorporated, Sandra Payson, Mr. and Mrs. Albrecht Saalfield, Mrs. Percy Uris, Warner Communications Inc., and the National Endowment for the Arts (© 2015 Frank Stella/Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York; digital Image © Whitney Museum) (click to enlarge)
I know, I know, you have prided yourself on being an object painter. But your dreary diagrams (that follow way too closely the painted patterns of the Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel) are uninteresting as a form of effective art. Your paint-within-the-lines corporate formalism ceased to make the slightest sense in this complex, fuzzy, info-world a long time ago. How can you, the creator of the elegant Black Paintings “Die Fahne hoch!,” “Arundel Castle,” “The Marriage of Reason and Squalor II,” and “Jill” (all 1959), also have been satisfied with making the garish “Marrakech” (1964)? As I walked through your retrospective, I became increasingly bored by the cleverly cut padding that tilts your output in the direction of bombastic spectacle, such as “Zeltweg (V), 4.75X” (1982).

So yes Frank, by all means, chuck swirling stuff into my eyes if you want to, but you will probably get better as an artist if you think hard about how you handle authorial aggression. All art has to do to be interesting is to offer the sensitive record of one person’s frail consciousness, one person’s interpretation of public events that involve others — like cyber invasions of privacy, like the melting fury of escaping war; morality and ethics, in short. I noticed that your abstract forms do not involve the pains and dreams of others. They only have going for them that worn out avant-garde commitment to the idea that a visual shock — in your case, one that pokes me in the eye — produces a more sensitive, perceptive, insightful, and enlivened person. It does not. It jades and blinds.

stella-erdbeben
Frank Stella, “Das Erdbeben in Chili [N#3]” (1999), acrylic on canvas, 144 x 486 inches, private collection (photo by Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)
I apologize for using this comparison Frank, but your big bravo works like “At Sainte Luce!’ [Hoango] [Q#1]” (1998) and the 144-by-486-inch “Das Erdbeben in Chili [N#3]” (1999), with their swerves and clashing color paradoxes, have a Donald Trump-like air of faux-hair transgression about them. There’s a 1%-trumpeting grand hoopla to these works (increased by their corporate lobby proportions) that is Trumpish and anti-Occupy arrogant. Personally, if bluffing, high-macho bombast is your thing, I’d rather look at Hermann Nitsch’s bloody smears.

So Frank, sorry, but your rather brutal, jaded, bizarre geometric object paintings fail to reach the depth of my visual imagination. They are missing something important and profound, a subjective feeling of melty-filminess suggestive of biological and sexual curiosity. And that is everything.

Sincerely,
Joseph Nechvatal

Frank Stella: A Retrospective continues at the Whitney Museum of American Art (99 Gansevoort Street, Meatpacking District, Manhattan) through February 7, 2016.

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