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a red river and a black castle in 1958

Frank Stella – Red River Valley

Frank Stella’s “Red River Valley,” one of the works he created in 1958 before embarking on his Black Paintings.
© President and Fellows of Harvard College

Frank Stella – Morro Castle

Frank Stella / Morro Castle / 1958 / Kunstmuseum Basel

Yesterday I got an email from Brian in North Carolina in which he mentioned the Frank Stella 1958, the touring survey of 20 works made by the celebrated contemporary painter in the year that he graduated from Princeton University, organized by Harry Cooper and Megan R. Luke that began at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum and traveled to the Menil Collection in Houston and the Wexner Center in Columbus back in 2006. While I did not see the show, I remember reading the review in the NY Times and decided to see what I could dig up this morning. Below are some excerpts from three reviews.

Exerpted from Frank Stella 1958 by William Corbett in the Brooklyn Rail
Harvard’s Fogg Museum has long owned “Red River Valley,” the catalogue’s cover image. At 7’ 7” x 6’ 7”, it is the scale of New York abstract painting at that time, and it bears the signature flecks and drips of the period. From a pattern of alternating green and black stripes, a red column appears at the right and tapers toward the painting’s top. You can see the blue and black underpainting, like mud in a river, beneath the column and the uneven stripes. The image has a clumsy, awkward appeal—homely and hand-wrought. It is a painting you can sink into, read and roam around in. Fraught with emotional associations, “Red River Valley” is a painting that says more than, “What you see is what you see.”

It is also a painting, like all the others in this show, that seems to have failed for Stella precisely because it succeeded. We’ve seen paintings like these before and since—the work of Jack Tworkov comes to mind, as well as Sean Scully (although, had he been interested, Stella’s cheap paint would not have allowed for Scully’s lavish handling, a world in itself). You can see this “failed success” most clearly in “Morro Castle,” the direct antecedent of the black paintings selected by Dorothy Miller for MoMA’s “Sixteen Americans” show. Here the stripes drift off-center, like lines in a handwritten letter that the writer had been unconcerned and/or unable to keep straight. As with “Red River Valley,” the stripes form an image and invite an interpretive reading. They could depict boxes within boxes or an architectural plan of a stepped plaza or perhaps an abstracted imagining of the real Morro Castle, a fort at the entrance to Havana’s harbor.

What Stella did nowhere in 1958 was make the sort of annihilating black pictures that brought him instant fame. These objects, elegant as a banker’s (or gangster’s) suit, take painting into the realm of architecture. They have an authoritarian force that Stella seems to acknowledge with titles referring to Nazi Germany, even once labeling the pictures as having “a certain fascist element.” The landscape references found in the work from 1958 have been obliterated, along with the window figures in “West Broadway,” “Grape Island” and “Coney Island.” It may be that the part of Stella that looked out onto the world had been purged by these paintings, freeing him to pursue what he saw inside himself: that which could not be read but would stand still, obdurate and implacable, courting no viewer. [Read more...]

Excerpt from A BEAUTIFUL MIND by Phyllis Tuchman on artnet Magazine
In “Frank Stella 1958,” we can see an artist poised precisely on the threshold between Abstract-Expressionism and Minimalism, a moment when compositions of brushily painted stripes could be replete with meaning. The multifarious Ab-Ex space fills with slimmed-down, gestural stripes. Box-like shapes loom in the center of some canvases, move to the corners and then disappear, unneeded. The work becomes monochromatic, the canvas field filling with horizontal blue stripes or stripes of mustard yellow. The bands turn black, skewing and turning to form geometric patterns. And we are there, at Stella’s epochal “Black Paintings,” a source for much Minimalist sculpture as well as many formalist paintings to follow. [Read more...]

Excerpted from A Vivid Back Story for a Stella Legend by Roberta Smith in the New York Times
“Frank Stella 1958″ suggests, completely inadvertently, that the obscurity of the Black Paintings may be partly their own fault. They and Mr. Stella’s subsequent striped shaped paintings are the most implacable and withholding of his production and, in many ways, the least characteristic of his sensibility. They are handsome works of great historical weight, but they don’t seem to have held the artist’s interest for very long, so why should they hold ours? All the more reason to examine what came before the Black Paintings, to better fathom what followed them. [Read more...]

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April 15, 2008   1 Comment