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) (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.

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.

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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Joseph Nechvatal

Joseph Nechvatal is an artist whose computer-robotic assisted paintings and computer software animations are shown regularly in galleries and museums throughout the world. In 2011 his book Immersion...

45 replies on “An Open Letter to Frank Stella on the Occasion of His Whitney Retrospective”

  1. A totally well-reasoned rationale for why the author doesn’t enjoy looking at Stella compositions. I mean, who DOESN’T need that “subjective feeling of melty-filminess suggestive of biological and sexual curiosity” to be present in the art they enjoy? I wonder how the author imagines Mr. Stella could incorporate this classic subjektivegefühldermeltyfilminessdaraufhindeutetbiologischensexuelleneugier aesthetic ethos into his work? Suggestions?

      1. Confused leftism, I must say. Frank Stella is obviously formalist, obviously academic, but a bit more than that. Many of his peers have remained minimalists, Stella tried to break out of them and not simply make paintings asserting their object-ness. Though maybe still “corporate funk”, there’s at least some “funk” to his later “garish” paintings. Nothing “biological” or “sexual” in his works? I disagree, but then again what can you argue with someone who holds the Viennese Actionists as crowning achievement?

        Then again, we’re talking about a retrospective in a major modern art museum and an opportunity for the art market – no surprises.

        1. I did not hold the Viennese Actionists as a crowning achievement. I was being flippant/snarky. My leftism is lucid.

    1. Bear in mind that the author is an artist whose own work looks like the sort of formulaic stuff you’d see in a law office or architectural firm as the most banal sort of Eno-light ambient wallpaper. He’s just bitterly envious of the dynamism evident in Stella’s work, whereas his own is staid and boring, and pretty much impossible to create (for him, but not for a virtuoso painter) without computers.

      1. Your review inspired me to do a google search of this author’s work.

        It reminded me of the generic bland beige-and-grey abstract pieces I used to see all the time when I worked as a custom framer and had a big order for a condo, hotel, or corporate office.


  2. I’m glad I stopped my art education before I “understood” work like this. I’ll take a Jersey Joe RIME painting over any Stella piece. Guess I just prefer skill, thought, effort and excitement over… whatever these are.

    1. Ironically, if you were to look at the entirety of Stella’s work – he’s one of my primary influences – you’d see he’s an extremely skilled and imaginative artist. his metal sculptures of the 1990s and 2000s are beyond awesome.

      I took at look at Jersey Joe RIME’s work. It’s awesome. Still, stuff like that is comparable to Yngwie Malmsteen being compared to J.S. Bach.

      1. Checked out the metal sculptures. As far as color goes Stella’s work it’s just a visual mess but I really dig a lot of the monochromatic work.
        Apples and oranges I know, but these are just the 2 artists I was checking out today and color/composition wise I preferred the unknown guy to the “legend”. RIME’s recent stuff on canvas has a high level chaotic balance rather than just being thrown together. Same in John Chamberlain’s work – he’s curating the chaos.

        1. To each their own, obviously, but I think John Chamberlain’s work is revolting. Not saying it IS revolting, only that it disgusts me.

          1. Chamberlain brings in the notion of disintegration of the metal he uses.Also the haunting of the car crashes that shaped the metal he uses.

  3. I find it deeply ironic that the author of this review, the most arrogant review I’ve come across on Hyperallergic, accuses Stella’s work of appearing ‘arrogant’.

    Pot, meet kettle.

    1. Agreed, entirely. And this author is wholly tone deaf to how this piece is being received, which is overwhelmingly negative.

  4. Very weak criticism. I mean, for one don’t offer up judgements like you are Robespierre eating cake and holding the King’s head in your hand. That would make one’s prejudicial preferences way too transparent, and therefore your argument seen as suspicious by those you are supposed to be convincing. At least make an attempt at dancing with another interpretation. With other interpretations you can prove or disprove your point.
    Secondly did you know anything about Frank Stella before penning this? This is a rhetorical question as it is obvious, from using trashy statements like “swirly stuff” or equating it with Donald Trump’s hair, you do not. Even if you don’t like the work but understand the logic behind it, it is hard to dismiss it altogether.
    Please either learn how to write good criticism or quit. And ,whichever path you take Mr. Nechvatal, I also implore that you look a little longer and a little past your own nose.

    1. For that read the New York Times. Description as opinion. I danced and he stepped on my toe. Do you know anything about me before penning this, Glenn? I am offering an alternative, a critique, to material stuff just protruding off a wall. If you are satisfied with that, I am satisfied with your insults. Carry on.

      1. You said this piece was not a review, and yet now you call it a critique. Here is a definition of “critique”: cri·tique
        1.a detailed analysis and assessment of something, especially a literary, philosophical, or political theory.
        synonyms: analysis, evaluation, assessment, appraisal, appreciation, criticism, review, study, commentary, exposition, exegesis

        Whoever called you arrogant, was right on the money. And your bitterness is as plain as a nose on a face.

      2. I don’t care who you are. This article should not be about you. Clearly you found a way to make it so.

        Incidentally I googled you and your work and it appears that you make “fuzzy stuff” to put in our eyes, Bravo.

        1. Hi Glenn. You put forth a false comparison between my preference for quietude and Stella jutting bombast. I googled you and see that you make Stella-like high relief paintings that protrude off the wall, like his. So no surprises.

  5. I don’t love Frank Stella but it’s hard to fully credit Joseph Nechvatal’s review which seems too personal / emotional and not a very objective & rational critique of Stella — which is certainly possible. It is also hard for me to take Nechvatal’s sense of taste as serious and informed when his own work offers a “digital anus.” Sorry but I can’t trust Nechvatal to tell me what’s good art.

  6. Dear Joseph Nechvatal,

    Pardon my forthcomingness with this letter, but who cares if Frank Stella’s “object-paintings choke you”, are “hammy”, “smothering”, and “their literal heaps of jutting materiality block” you “from engaging with effective imagination or speculative participation”? This is not some big name artist showing his latest or greatest paintings in the tastefully designed commercial palace of some equally big name dealer, whose only goal is to line pockets, his own, his dealer’s and the collectors who will sell the work off for profit in a few years before the artist’s ashes have cooled enough to seal the urn. This isn’t some gallery show to which hoards of art tourist pilgrimage by the bus load on crisp Saturday afternoon so they can tell their friends “I saw the latest paintings by … at …”. The direction of your criticism seems to reveal that you, like those Saturday afternoon gallery hoppers, seem to have forgotten the difference between a museum, a commercial gallery and a non-commercial gallery.

    This is a museum retrospective.

    Museums are not galleries, even for artists still living and creating. Museums are archives. They are mausoleums housing both permanently and temporarily works of art to be viewed through the transitional lenses of the works’ critical relevance at the time of its inception as well as its significance to future discourse. The works they house are not meant to be viewed through single lens, hipster horn rims.

    An argument which passes judgement upon art work exhibited in museums using the critical framework by which one would rate, pass judgement upon, or analyze contemporary art work exhibited in both nonprofit and for-profit galleries or exhibition venues is not just weak; such an argument is lacking in critical validity.

    In your open letter to Mr. Stella you write:

    “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.”

    Although you and Mr. Stella have and continue to produce contemporaneously painting by which you both believe to be provocative of thoughts surrounding the ‘complex issues’ of contemporary painting, need I remind you that Mr. Stella’s ‘contemporary painting’ is not your ‘contemporary painting’; and neither of your’s or his is mine.

    This is a museum retrospective.

    The work exhibited in a retrospective is no longer relevant to contemporary discourse in the way new work from the same artist exhibited in an exhibition of recent work is. The work in a retrospective is like the taxidermy lion in a natural history museum. We can approach it and study it in ways we cannot otherwise do to the lion in a zoo or roaming on the savannah. Art included in a museum retrospective is just a stop along the artist’s journey exploring the complex issues of his or less likely her, choosing. As viewers we can only take the work as such, studying its relevance, its success and failure from a distance. From that distance we can then critically question the work’s relevance to the discourse of its time and the discourse of today; then we can apply lessons we might learn from its success and failure to the contemporary art we encounter beyond the crypt.

    By no means is this to say that we cannot ask those questions of relevance or apply those lessons learned from an artist’s retrospective to new work the same artist might produce and exhibit outside the museum. In fact, I think it would be an incredibly valuable thing to do. It is not about the questions we ask, it about how we ask the questions we are asking.

    With this Dr. Nechvatal, I send the suggestion you lobbed to Mr. Stella back your way[1]. You too might become a better artist and writer on art if you think harder on how you handle authorial aggression. Perhaps it is time to delve further into your consciousness for the personal frailty you masquerade as sensitivity to others. I do not mean to imply that your own understanding of those complex issues surrounding contemporary painting are of lesser validity or in any way invalid. I am saying don’t push your complex issues onto others in areas where they have no critical validity, such as a museum retrospective of another artist.

    So yes Joseph, by all means, do this and someday maybe you too will have your museum retrospective. Maybe it will even be at the Whitney!


    Robyn Thomas

    [1] “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.”

    1. Hey Robyn. Even as I guess you are trying to be cheeky, I am happy to respond to you, as your address is substantial. I care very much. You say, “This isn’t some gallery show to which hoards of art tourist pilgrimage by the bus load on crisp Saturday afternoon so they can tell their friends “I saw the latest paintings by…”” Sure it is. It is a big carnival cocaine spectacle. If you can’t see that there is nothing I can say to persuade you. You have drunk the cool-aid.
      I’m sure you can appreciate that Museums also wish to “line pockets” as you say. You say I have “forgotten the difference between a museum, a commercial gallery and a non-commercial gallery.” No I have not. I came up through non-commercial spaces, but they are few and far between now (sadly) and there is less and less difference between a museum and a commercial gallery. You must know that. I did “study its relevance” and found it close to nonexistent. Your statement “Perhaps it is time to delve further into your consciousness for the personal frailty you masquerade as sensitivity to others” is pretentious. As if you have insight into my consciousness. I said clearly what I think. If you and others disagree, that is no surprise. You have institutional power at your back.

  7. Hi All. Just in from Public Image Ltd Johnny Rotten concert, catching up on the glorious comment thread here. I’m not impressed. Granted this was a polemic gesture, but I never imagined such a reactionary response.

    1. The fundamental problem with the article and your response to comments to it (e.g., “I’m not impressed”) is that it revolves around you rather than any central subject the reader would naturally find important or interesting. Stella is an important artist, but any single person’s opinion of him (informed, reasoned, or otherwise) is not important and makes a for poor subject. But since you seem to understand Stella’s work less than the average reader, your chosen subject – your passing opinions – was an unfortunate one. It’s perfectly fair and even worthwhile for people to comment on just how bad this piece of writing is. In the future you should, in keeping with the responsibilities of a publishing writer, write something the reader will have benefited in having read.

  8. I have appreciated Nechvatal’s willingness to engage in a dialog with the commenters.He kindly read one of my blogs when I linked to it in an earlier article that he wrote on Hyperallergic. I can understand his anger about the show. I tried to restrain my paranoia of being entrapped by the work, the museum, the art world and business cabal behind it.Stella’s work is inimitable and like Picasso you can’t fault him for a lack of resourcefulness. But there is something out of joint about this retrospective.Sometimes,like Hamlet we see things that others don’t that drive us mad. An anonymous commenter on this blog comment sections implies that it is advanced science that the complainers just don’t get.It is art for the space age while we plebeians still have to walk the streets of NY. I have subsequently come around to “getting his work” but it is the society that it so perfectly embodies that bothers me.In any case here is the dialog taking place on Henri Art that is less hyperallergic to Stella.

  9. Dear Hyperallergic,

    I saw a Frank Stella show circa 1990, when he was really hitting his stride with his big aluminum relief paintings, and I remember being impressed with their Mardi Gras-like exuberance. If, however, I had known then that the spectacular would be modern art’s one real axis of growth for the next quarter century — be it the visual spectacle of Stella, or the emotional spectacle of Mike Kelley, or the numerical spectacle of Ai Weiwei — I might have had some reservations. And here, I think, is a big part of the question Dr. Nechvatal is asking in his letter: where has the poetry gone? The glittering facade we have in abundance; not so much the mysterious and meandering watercourse.

    G. W. Smith

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