Any consideration of Frank Stella’s work should begin with his own description of it. “What you see is what see,” he once famously declaimed, by which he meant it was pointless to contemplate whatever was happening inside one of his paintings because there was no “inside” to speak of. They were things hung on a wall, as blunt in their physicality as pieces of sculpture, which they came to resemble more and more as the decades wore on.
As this career survey covering 55 years amply demonstrates, Stella managed to wring increasingly ornate results from this formula, going from geometric abstractions to baroque gestural embellishments manifested as three-dimensional forms. But his work began as an essentialist rebuke to the fury of Abstract Expressionism, which had grown stale by 1959, the year he produced his breakout “Black Paintings” series at the tender age of 23. Those compositions, and the more exuberant, shaped canvases that would soon follow, rode in on the same wave of change as Pop Art—and given their graphic punch, you could say Stella’s paintings were a kind of Pop Art abstraction.
Stella’s reputation took off almost immediately, and it’s easy to see why. His early work’s logolike appearance was in keeping with corporate tastes at midcentury. More importantly, his paintings attracted the attention of one of the era’s most powerful gatekeepers: William Rubin, MoMA’s czar of painting and sculpture. Rubin held to a theory of modernism as a progressive chronicle in which the torch of important art had been passed from Europe to the United States. Stella’s paintings fit superbly into this narrative and, indeed, Rubin was so enamored of his work that he gave the artist not one, but two retrospectives. Stella was 33 in 1970, making him youngest figure to be so honored in MoMA’s history. The second survey followed 17 years later in 1987, the same year a stock market crash effectively ended New York’s reign as art capital of the world in all but name.
It’s been nearly three decades between that exhibition and this one, an indication, perhaps, of how much has changed since Stella was at the height of his fame. Not that he’s been forgotten, exactly, but his work has never had the same long-term cachet as Warhol’s—which just goes to show how secondary abstraction has become in the general scheme of things. All of this, though, only makes the notion of Whitney-hosted Stella retrospective that much more interesting. Here, instead of being presented as the hinge of a heroic story, Stella can be seen simply as an American artist. Not that Stella isn’t mindful of his place in art history: He considers his work an overt dialog between himself and great figures of the past going as far back as Caravaggio. But the fact is, America’s lack of deep historical traditions has always left a vestigial odor of parochialism and idiosyncrasy clinging to its art. That you can see this more clearly at the Whitney than anywhere else puts the eccentric course of Stella’s work in a very different light.
Stella was nothing if not methodical. He created bodies of work that followed one from the next, so changes in style appeared to happen in an orderly progression. This was helpful in obscuring the fact that these shifts weren’t terribly subtle, especially later on. The most fascinating thing about this show, however, is it dispenses with chronology to mix and match objects from different phases of his career in a syncopated clash of restraint and indulgence. Stella, who oversaw the installation, insisted on this particular approach himself, which makes sense, in that it creates more visual interest than dividing various periods into separate galleries. An exception, oddly, was given to works from the last 10 years, which are ensconced in a room with a spectacular view of the Hudson.
The scheme also has the virtue of reminding viewers that, yes, the same guy made all of these things, varied as they are. But it also shows the logical consistency to Stella’s efforts lies in its focus on surface, specifically a desire to disconnect the picture plane from representational associations by building up materials in ever dizzying layers. For Stella, painting meant bursting the constraints of format to leap into space. And this was true, even of the aforementioned “Black Paintings,” which weren’t shaped at all, but rather rectilinear and conventionally painted. Yet even here, bands of black enamel radiating concentrically from the center of the composition push your eye out to the edges of the painting and beyond.
From 1959 on, Stella’s paintings morphed into increasingly complicated configurations, the most compelling of which are the eye-popping “Protractor” series of the 1960s. In them, bright fluorescent colors and monumental scale meet to distill ’60s hedonism into abstract history paintings. The 1970s represented a watershed in Stella’s oeuvre, as he began to lever compositional shapes and elements into three-dimensional reliefs. The best known of these motifs were French curve cutouts employed in works such as the “Indian Birds” series. Undulating yet mechanical, they wryly recall the AbEx brushwork that Stella repudiated at the onset of his career.
Now nearing 80, Stella is still going strong, creating twisting, turning aggregates of steel and 3-D–printed plastic that suggest Calder and Malevich sharing a thrill-ride on the Steamin’ Demon at Six Flags. The youthful exhilaration of these pieces stand in sharp contrast to crepuscular timbre of the young Stella’s initial paintings. One might imagine a trajectory going in the opposite direction, tonally, but in Stella’s case, why should it? He’s lived long enough and large enough to see the impact he’s made. It’s true a case could be made that in the final analysis what he actually did was to leech the ideological and philosophical high stakes out of modernism to make it more market friendly. But then, he’s an American artist and that is the American way.