Frank Stella 1958
Arthur M. Sackler Museum
Harvard University Art Museums
February 4—May 7, 2006
In his famous quote regarding the futility of people’s seeking layers of meaning in his black paintings, Frank Stella uttered what was to become the rallying cry of Minimalism—“What you see is what you see”. Our response to his proclamation is that we think Stella protesteth too much. In “Frank Stella 1958”, the intriguing exhibition recently held at Harvard’s Sackler Museum, (and soon to be seen at the Menil Collection and the Wexner Center for Arts—dates below) Stella appears to be clearing the surface of its decorative elements. The progression is from his Coney Island series (e.g. Grape Island)—the colorful flag-like paintings which constitute his early homage to Jasper Johns—to the widely acclaimed black monochromatic paintings. This change is all the more affecting because in 1958 it came after confident early paintings that speak of the joys of picnics where the living is easy.
It should be noted, however, that the four flag paintings are more than mere weigh stations; they are strong color field painting in their own right. Indeed, in retrospect, they appear to have influenced artists as diverse as Sean Scully and Daniel Buren. But, some time during 1958 these seductive flag paintings begin to bother Stella. They are quickly followed by two monochromatic paintings that overpaint the flags, turning them into yellow (Astoria) and blue (Blue Horizon) surfaces with only the faintest traces of the original stripes and rectangles left.
Are these mere stylistic moves? We think not. Rather, we propose, that Stella has performed an act of purification. He has painted out the trivial, hedonistic elements so that he can move on to more serious problems. But, what kind of problems? Is Stella simply out to reduce painting to objecthood as it has been claimed? We propose a different scenario for Stella circa 1958-60. Beginning with “Delta” and “Morro Castle,” the two black paintings in this show, Stella produces mysterious black presences that loom like Stonehenge and the monoliths in the movie 2001. Such works have more in common with Samuel Beckett’s aesthetic in Waiting for Godot than with Donald Judd’s cool industrial minimalism. Compare, for example, Stella’s “what you see is what you see” with Beckett’s comment, “Why people have to complicate a thing so simple, I can’t make out.”
In both Stella and Beckett, there is a dark, uncanny simplicity. (Stella has acknowledged that his early work was influenced to a degree by Beckett.) Their work is perhaps best described by a line from Matthew Arnold’s cri de coeur in Dover Beach for a world of faith replaced by a culture of science. We are offered an art where “on a darkling plain ignorant armies clash by night”. In retrospect, Stella and Beckett’s minimalism needs to be seen in the shadow of the Holocaust—in a time when Adorno proclaimed that there could be no poetry. More aptly, there could be no poetry as in the past. What Stella and Beckett gave us was a new poetry, one stripped of simple pleasures and consolations — no more picnics in the park. Stella in 1958 was testing both himself and us. Indeed, the following year, Stella referred to one set of black paintings with a phrase that denotes a bold attempt to paint the unpaintable; he called them his “final solution paintings”.
In sum, if Beckett made us “wait for Godot” in his 1956 U.S. premiere, Stella made us wait breathlessly for his next chess move after Morro Castle. We propose that the stakes were much higher than deciding whether Stella best fit the Greenbergian or Minimalist camp. There was, we believe, another layer that Stella could not himself confront at the time. He took us to the edge of a dark abyss. And then he recoiled. What would soon emerge were works that offered more “certitude and joy” — paintings more Matisse than Beckett in feeling. But what a magnificent moment of black doubt Stella shared with us in 1958.