"What you see is what you see"1 is Stella's overriding philosophy about painting. Realizing that many viewers embrace traditional views of what constitutes art he remarked, "If you pin them down, they always end up asserting that there is something there besides the paint on the canvas. My painting is based on the fact that only what can be seen there is there."2 Essentially, Stella is restating what artists have been saying throughout the 20th century. "A picture, before being a warhorse, a nude woman, or an anecdote, is essentially a surface covered with colors arranged in a certain order."3 In other words, modern artists have rejected the idea that art must imitate nature, and in its place have substituted abstraction.
Stella began his early career in New York in 1959, just having graduated from college. During this decade, abstract expressionism had gained international fame through the work of American artists such as Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky, Mark Rothko, and others who became known as the New York School. The art movement evolved out of the depression and in response to World War II. In 1957, at the height of the mass production and commercialism that followed the war, the eminent art historian Meyer Shapiro proclaimed that these works of art were "the last handmade, personal objects within our culture. . ."4 And indeed, the abstract expressionist artists did place a high value on personal expression, attempting to inject human content into abstract form.
The abstract artists rejected the pictorial means of realism as well as geometric abstraction. The surface of their canvases were fields for spontaneous, personal exploration with bold, gestural strokes, splashes, and drips. The resulting "action paintings" recorded the artists' gestures and emotions, thereby documenting the process
of painting in the work of art. (Pollock is an example of a gestural painter.) Other abstract expressionist painters were referred to as color-field painters, because they relied more on color than gesture as the mode of expression. (Rothko is an example of a color-field painter.) The subject, although abstract, was crucial.
The Second could not Generation
Despite its international acclaim, abstract expressionism sustain itself. The free-drip painting technique became an art school commonplace, which second generation artists could neither master nor surpass. An analogy can be drawn between the Mannerist period of the 16th century, when second generation artists also resorted to making weak imitations of the Renaissance masters or rejected their styles entirely in favor of radically different approaches. Second generation imitators of abstract expressionism received the ridicule and scorn of the press, who suggested that a monkey could drip paint as well. John Canaday, who was art editor of the New York Times, took it upon himself to be a self-proclaimed critic of the second generation, declaring that, "the best abstract expressionists are as good as they ever were. . ." but then proceeded to slash the "freaks" who followed.5
STELLA AS A YOUNG MAN
In 1959, Frank Stella at age 23 arrived in New York just having graduated from Princeton University. New York was not a "friendly" place in the late 50s for second generation abstract expressionists. Little wonder in this atmosphere of critical contempt that the perceptive, talented Stella would reject abstract expressionism to search for a style that would survive the fate of abstract expressionism. Therefore, he rejected not only the "look," but the ideology of abstract expressionism. As an art student, he learned abstract expressionist technique, but found it to be anxiety-producing. However, he did discover by using a predetermined system embodying symmetry, that painting could be tranquilizing. This was the beginning of what would prove to be years of exploration for the young artist, in which he investigated the very nature of painting like a scientist searching for a solution to a problem.
In a lecture to the art students at Pratt Institute in 1959, Stella outlined his method of investigation.6
He set up two problems
for himself. One was to find out what a painting was
and the other was to find out how to make it
. Discovering "what a painting was" was hardly as simplistic as it suggests. The question he was really asking was, "What is a painting in the 20th century
?" The first step was to identify the problem. The second was to find a solution.
Problem I was how to free himself of relational painting (the balancing of various parts with and against each other). The solution to Problem I was symmetry (to make it all the same).
Problem II was how to avoid the traditional illusionism of painting (creating depth). The solution to Problem II was to eliminate the illusion of depth by creating a regular pattern.
His method involved using housepainter techniques and tools and eliminating gesture, painterly brushstrokes, illusionistic space, and modulated color.
The result was paintings that had the scale of abstract expressionist paintings, but devoid of emotion and complexity. Instead, they were marked by impersonal regularity, a pre-determined pattern (that would eliminate decisions in the painting process), and infinite extendibility (suggesting that the paintings were a fragment of a larger whole).
One crucial aspect of Stella's exploration was his belief that an artist learned by looking and imitating other painters. From the abstract expressionists, he borrowed an heroic scale and emphasis on all-over pattern without a focal point. But of even greater importance to Stella was Jasper Johns, whose influence is quite obvious in Stella's choice of motifs. Stella immediately grasped Johns' target, flag, and circle motifs, translating them into purely abstract terms. Stella said that what struck him about Johns was, "the way he stuck to the motif, the idea of stripes, the rhythm and interval, the idea of repetition."7
THE BLACK STRIPE PAINTINGS
Stella's notorious black stripe paintings, which were the first to be exhibited in New York in 1959, documented the results of his experimentation. They were viewed with a mixture of curiosity, distaste, and the suspicion that they were the prank of an impudent, smart-aleck. The paintings' only motifs were repetitious black stripes and the only obvious design principle was symmetry. They seemed monotonously simple and impoverished. Carl Andre, a friend and contemporary artist, explained that in the stark, black paintings Stella had just excluded "the unnecessary . . . Frank is not interested in expression or sensitivity. He is interested in the necessities of painting."8
Although the black stripe paintings were devoid of anything that could suggest emotional content, they were not mechanical in the sense that most "hard edge" paintings were. This is because Stella painted the stripes freehand with a brush leaving unpainted canvas between. The result was soft, irregular edges that conveyed a subtle but vibrant shimmer. Stella continued this practice right into the late 60s when he painted the museum's picture, indicating its great importance as an element in his painting.
DEVELOPMENT IN THE 60S
During the 60s, the black stripes gave way to vibrant color and variety of form, although Stella continued to employ symmetry and stripes or bands as a motif. He approached his painting in series, introducing only one new element within any group of paintings, but exploring numerous variations on a theme. Color was introduced into his work around 1962, a time when he had perhaps exhausted the possibilities of pure form. Nonetheless, Stella's chromatic paintings of the 60s can be viewed as a counterpart in fine art to the psychedelic art of the popular culture.
TAHKT-I- SULAYMAN, VARIATION II
Tahkt-I-Sulayman, Variation II
is one of a group of paintings belonging to the "protractor" series, an ambitious undertaking that Stella began in 1967. For the first time, Stella incorporated the circle as a motif, resulting in semi-circular forms resembling protractors. The artist conceived of a group of 93 architectural-scale paintings. Each group of 31 was to be executed in one of three basic surface designs, which he called the interlace, the rainbow, and the fan. The MIA painting is of the rainbow design, indicated by the Roman numeral II in the title. The difference between this rainbow design and the interlace design of Tahkt-I-Sulayman, Variation I
is apparent in the diagram on p. 797.
All three designs were inspired by the abstract geometry of Islamic art and by the Celtic interlace (such as that seen in the Book of Kells). Although the designs were pre-determined, there was considerable room for experimentation and variation in the 31 paintings within that group. The MIA painting is a variant of the rainbow group in which Stella locked the circular forms into the confines of squares, resulting in a rectangular painting. In other variants, Stella allowed the inner circular forms to actually determine the outer shape of the canvas. In these compositions, forms appeared to flow freely into space. Throughout the decade, Stella alternated back and forth between the development of free-forms and the more restrained enclosures.
The painting was named after an ancient Parthian sanctuary in Azerbaijan, Persia dating to the 1st century A.D. All that remains of the sanctuary today, which translates as "The Throne of Solomon," is a circular wall made of enormous stones that once surrounded a sacred fire.9 An aerial view of the wall seen by Stella on his travels to the Near East in 1963 prompted his interest in the circle. The artist's use of the circle was a purely formal one, however, and does not have a symbolic reference to the ancient site itself. Titles were quite arbitrary to Stella. In another series, he named the paintings after his friends and in another the towns in New Hampshire. We have to remind ourselves of the admonition Stella gave us, "only what can be seen there, is there."
The simplicity of the basic forms (circles, semi-circles, and squares) and the symmetrical arrangement of the composition disguises the complexity of the design. Our initial impression is that we can instantly comprehend the entire composition. The curving bands of color cross over and under each other, yet they never suggest the illusion of deep space, because one band of color is never placed consistently behind another. They are not so much overlapped as they are inter-woven. Even when our eyes are lured momentarily into believing we see the illusion of depth, they are brought right back to the surface.
Each of the semi-circles appears to pass under a square, and because the color is identical on both sides, we read it as a completed circle. This occurs with one exception. At the center, we are tempted to read the two semi-circles as a completed circle and thus as the focal point (like a target). But at the same time, we realize that he denied us the right to draw that conclusion by making the semi-circle on the right a different color from the one on the left. Thus the painting can be read not only as a whole, but as two independent halves, which are identical in form, but varied in color. (Hold up a paper so that you can only see one half at a time.) Because the painting is broken up by small squares, each small section can also be read independently of all others, like a bunch of individual boxes stacked upon each other in a row. Nonetheless, after we have analyzed the painting into parts, the tendency is to look at it once more as a whole (components of equal importance without a focal point). Stella's stated intention-to create an object which is flat and symmetrical, which can be viewed dispassionately for a moment, and grasped structurally-seems to be achieved.10
While the basic arrangement of forms in this painting is somewhat discernible, the ordering of colors is not. Forms repeat, but the placement of colors seems arbitrary and unpredictable, although we can be certain they were pre-determined. Stella mixed his own paint, combining acrylic11
and fluorescent (Day-Glo) pigments to achieve a range of colors, varying widely in intensity and hue. A single coat of paint was applied with a brush to an unprimed canvas resulting in colors with a transparent, less substantial quality.
The positioning of colors greatly enhances or diminishes their impact. In some areas, intense complementary colors border each other, creating powerful, shimmering contrasts. In other areas, pastel colors are placed side by side. Even though some colors advance and others recede, the illusion of deep space is denied, because Stella has arranged the colors so that as one advances, it is balanced by another that recedes, thereby keeping colors flat and on the picture plane.
Stella's palette includes a wide range of hues, tints, shades, and intensities. The exact shade is never used twice. Some are very similar, but upon closer examination you realize that they differ ever so slightly. For example, three of the squares that frame the circular forms are gray, but each has a hint of another color-blue, green, or violet. Or is that an illusion? Do the gray squares appear to be of different shades because of the colors that border them? Stella's painting is like a complex puzzle that invites endless speculation.
Stella consciously attempted to avoid using colors that would evoke associations with elements of the natural world. (Green should not stand for grass, or blue for sky etc.) This is one of the reasons why so many of the colors are harsh and dissonant intermediaries that radically depart from the colors we usually associate with nature. Within the implied "center circle", colors range from fluorescent-pink and neon-yellow on the periphery to pastel pink and blue on the inner bands. The brown and blue bands are saturated colors, but they are bordered by pastel tints of pink and beige. To the right of the center, half of the inner-most circle is a powerful advancing red, which is countered on the left by a receding, though equally, intense gray. Through this intricate interplay of colors, Stella creates a delicate tension that enlivens the composition and prevents it from being static. Form is what lends unity and stability to the composition, but color is what makes those forms dance!
Like the unpainted strips of canvas in the black stripe paintings of 1959, Stella also reserved thin unpainted strips in this painting that act as "breathing spaces" for the colors. He placed masking tape between the colors, deliberately choosing cheap tape that paint thinner would eat through, thereby giving the edges a soft irregularity. Stella's reason for doing so, as was true of the earlier works, was to avoid the mechanical look of conventional geometric and "hard-edge" painting, which he thought had a hard brittle quality.
STRETCHERS AND THREE- DIMENSIONALITY
An art historian once suggested that the reason Stella used deep stretchers (three inch) on his canvases was to give them a third-dimension and thereby emphasize the picture as a three dimensional object. In truth, Stella began to build stretchers with 1 x 3s for economic reasons.12 The lumber was cheap and easy to butt together to form the corners. After the fact, he noticed that the deeper stretchers lifted the paintings off the wall, causing them to cast a slight shadow, and consequently giving more emphasis to the surface of the canvas. As his work developed in later years, it was also observed that the width of the three-inch stretcher conformed to the three-inch bands of color in the paintings, suggesting that the two were directly related, a point Stella vehemently denied. Whether or not there is a link between the two is debatable. However, if we consider the fully three-dimensional paintings by Stella of the 80s and 90s, we might conclude that the three-inch stretchers were an early indication of what was to come.
NEW KIND OF SPACE
The complexity of design that underlies the seeming simplicity of Stella's painting is the result of Stella's search for a new kind of "space" appropriate for abstract painting. He believed that it was absolutely necessary to remove illusionism from his painting for his purposes. After a long process of experimentation, he accepted the fact that although he had pared down the suggestion of illusionary space, he could never totally abolish it. Overlapping forms and the tendency of colors to recede and advance created the illusion of space, but it could be controlled by the use of regular pattern, resulting in absolute symmetry.
STELLA AND MODERN ART
By 1969, a decade of Stella's art had established him as one of the most influential painters of the 1960s. His work represented a fresh response to the achievements of abstract expressionism. From the monotonously simple black stripe paintings of the 1950s to the exuberant three-dimensional paintings of the 1990s, Stella progressed from what might be called "lean geometry" to "baroque complexity." Tahkt-I-Sulayman, Variation II
remains an important landmark in the development of this major American artist. Stella's own words best describe his path:
"My main interest has been to make what is popularly called decorative painting truly viable in unequivocal abstract terms. Decorative, that is, in a good sense, in the sense that it applied to Matisse . . . Anyway, it seems to me that at their best, my paintings are so strongly involved with pictorial problems and concerns that they are not conventionally decorative in any way."13
This painting can be used on a wide variety of tours such as:
- Visual Elements
- 19th- and 20th-Century Art
- Art of America
- Math and Art
- How Was It Made?
a. Tone is a basic component of music, as color is of painting. We often use the terms tone and I. Visitors who have difficulty grasping abstraction may find it helpful to relate visual art to music. Both artists and composers create compositions by using a basic vocabulary (tones or visual elements) in endless variations. Although we experience music primarily through hearing and painting through sight, both art forms also stimulate the other senses.
b. If Stella's painting were a song, what do you think it would it be? [A Bach fugue, a Gregorian chant, a march, a waltz, a lullaby, hard rock, jazz, blue grass, etc.] color interchangeably. We say we want to "tone down" a color. Which color in the painting do you think is the loudest? The softest? The highest pitch? The lowest? Combinations of colors (the protractors) could be compared to chords. Which are the most harmonious and pleasing? Which the most dissonant? Is there a melody or is it atonal?
c. Rhythm in music is related to pattern in painting? Is the rhythm regular or uniform? Are the intervals between patterns even or not? Do rhythms repeat themselves or are they random? Are there any accents? Is the tempo fast or slow?
II. Stella said he wanted to make a painting that was flat and symmetrical that the viewer could grasp in a instant
a. Is the painting flat? Why or why not? Is it symmetrical?
b. What did Stella do to make it flat? Which colors advance? Which recede? Where do forms overlap? Is any one semicircular form consistently under another? Where do forms appear to be interwoven?
III. To place Stella's work within the context of the 20th century on a Modern tour, compare the composition, brushstrokes, and use of color, line, and shape with other paintings in the collection
a. Compare and contrast Stella's painting with an abstract expressionist work such as Guston's Bronze or Kamrowski's One Less to see what he rejected and what aspects influenced him.
b. Compare and contrast the geometric abstract of Stella's painting and Mondrian's Composition with Red, Yellow, and Blue. Then examine Magritte's The Promenades of Euclid to discuss how artists have employed geometry in very different ways.
c. Contrast the decorative qualities of Stella's painting with those of Matisse's White Plumes.
d. On a Visual Elements tour, compare Stella's use of pattern to that of a variety of different works in the collection. What does pattern contribute to the aesthetics of each piece?
e. Stella's painting is a rich source (encyclopedic) to use when discussing color on a Visual Elements tour. For the youngest children, you might make a game of "name that color". For slightly older students use the painting to discuss hue, value, and saturation. You might compare Stella's use of color to that of El Greco in Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple or other paintings where color is a dominant element. What does the range of values contribute to each painting?
- William Rubin, Frank Stella (New York: Museum of Modern Art), 1970, p. 42.
- Rubin, p. 41.
- Maurice Denis, quoted in George Heard Hamilton, 19th and 20th Century Art (New York: Harry Abrams), p. 124.
- William C. Seitz, Art in the Age of Aquarius, 1955-1970 (Washington: Smithsonian Press), p. 7.
- Seitz, p. 20.
- Robert Rosenblum, Frank Stella (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1971), p. 57.
- Rubin, p. 12.
- Seitz, p. 31. The turbulent years of the 60s in which Stella came to maturity as an artist were the ones that witnessed the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, humankind's first steps on the moon, the Feminist movement, the Woodstock music festival, LSD, the assassination of Jack and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, discotheques, bell-bottom trousers, long hair, the sexual revolution, the Watusi, and the Chicken, not to mention the Beatles. The fact that these elements have not entered into Stella's work in a direct way is significant and confirms Andre's statement that Stella had no interest in personal expression or social commentary.
- Spiro Kostof, A History of Architecture (New York: Oxford Press, 1985), p. 223.
- Rubin, p. 75.
- Seitz, p. 16. Acrylic resin pigment was invented by Leonard Bocour in the 1930s but was not generally introduced as a popular painting technique until the 1960s. Its impact on painting was comparable to the introduction of oil paint in the fifteenth century. Vastly different effects could be achieved. Unprimed canvas could be used in conjunction with acrylic paint to produce a stained, translucent effect. Heavily diluted acrylic could be poured on the canvas to cover huge surfaces and produce an effect more like water color. Acrylic also dried extremely quickly, to permit working over it almost immediately.
- Phillip Leider, "Literalism and Abstraction" Art Forum, (December, 1970), p. 47.
- Rubin, p. 149.