The work wasn’t arranged chronologically. This was a surprise, and I think helpful. Instead of categorizing in terms of series (Black, Protractor, Polish Village, Exotic Bird …), you were invited to actually look. This was helpful for people like me who had always acknowledged Stella's work as a feature of the cultural landscape, without ever have the least curiosity about what it might mean. It never crossed my mind to ask how or why his work mattered to me. I wasn’t quite sure that it did matter.
Moreover, you were challenged to see continuities between the so-called minimalist paintings up to the mid-1970s and maximal sculptural constructions that came after.
And the continuities were there.
The first thing you learn is that Stella was never minimal. There was a room with the 24-feet-wide De la nada vida a la nada muerte from 1965 hanging next to The Blanket from 1988, demonstrating that Frank was into big, loud, widescreen extravaganzas from the get-go.
All his work is extroverted and public. It’s not a private meditation offered after the fact to the public, but a high-energy performance aimed wholeheartedly at the viewer. His work is so essentially and exclusively audience-oriented, it probably vanishes when nobody is pays attention.
Which is to say it’s the opposite of the qualities I look for: introspection, quietness, and privacy. But despite my disqualification, I enjoyed the show.
I liked seeing how Stella kept true to his original literalism even as his forms and colors went from simple to complex: here’s this stripe of one color, now it’s a plank, here’s this plane, here’s this tilted plane, crumpled plane, … here’s this monumental structure looming over you.
The same motifs generated different moods: the black were defeated, the metallics were angry, the fluorescents were giddy.
The colors alone are almost too much (see Effingham II below). It’s physical. You can barely look at some of the paintings. They shout. Matisse can shout too, but Matisse envelopes you, Stella assaults. But the impersonality and “lack of depth” keep things genial. They’re not tanks, they’re mardi-gras floats (note the use of glitter).
From the beginning he didn’t bother to erase the pencil guide-lines on his canvases. You can also see traces of compass-points. And then he blew up forms of protractors and French curves. Running through the work up through the 1980s is a celebration of the tools of drafting, mechanical and freehand drawing at the moment when they are about to become obsolete.
I wonder what I’m going to think after seeing the Agnes Martin retrospective next April. They share motifs and details, but she didn’t feel the need to give up stripes. And, to me at least, she’s easily the more complete artist. But Stella merits as many stages as he wants.