Frank Stella is an old (20th century) master of abstract art, Martha Russo is a new (21st century) master of abstract art, but they both have something in common: the belief that an abstract work of art has no limits -- that its forms spill and spread into the environment, suggesting its inner abstract character. The idea of "boundless abstraction" first surfaced in the water lily murals of Monet -- for Greenberg they were abstract in all but name, and set the precedent for Pollock’s all-over mural paintings -- and was extended by Kandinsky, however hesitantly, in his early works, particularly the famous First Abstract Watercolor (1911, scholars now say 1912 or 1913). There the eccentric continuum of petite color and line perceptions moves beyond the technical boundaries of the work, suggesting an infinite flux of uncontainable visual sensations. Pollock’s implicitly boundless mural abstractions are the climactic statement of "abstraction as total environment," correlate with the idea of the "environment as totally abstract."
Abstraction came to dominate thinking about the environment as well as art, and the triumph of abstraction signaled by such opposed movements as Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism confirmed that it had become a generalized mode of perception and cognition: only when art and the environment were perceived and understood in abstract terms was their presence convincing. That is the point of van Doesburg’s five-step transformation of a naturally appearing cow into an abstract construction that seemed to have no relation to a cow, yet was an epitomizing summary of it in abstract terms. Duchamp’s readymades, which are everyday objects found in the environment, and given a little twist (or "assistance," as he said), can be read as abstract artifacts), however manqué. With the triumph of abstract visual thinking, every dumb thing reads as abstract art: thus the "surprise" of art, suddenly self-evident and extraordinarily present in the banally evident and ordinarily present.
It became de rigueur to see and understand things abstractly -- it was the modern take on them. To distill and convert old appearances into new abstractions was to modernize them. Sol LeWitt’s photographs of urban geometry -- manholes and brick walls -- makes the innate and intimate abstractness of the urban environment explicit, while suggesting the interchangeability and simultaneity of abstraction and the representation of reality. Mondrian came to prefer urban architecture to natural landscape because the former was overtly abstract while the latter was only subliminally abstract -- he spent the first part of his career extracting that abstractness, no doubt to convince himself that the abstract was "real." He came to regard his art as a "representation" of the "abstract real," in the (mystical?) belief that only the abstract was (really) real. Abstract art became the only "correct" and "real" art because it revealed the abstract truth, which made it seem "scientific" -- certainly Mondrian had what could be called a "scientific esthetics," as his preoccupation with precision suggests -- or at least an "experimental esthetics," for his oeuvre is a series of changing esthetic experiments designed to demonstrate the reality of the abstract.
Viewed as a whole, Stella’s oeuvre can also be regarded as a series of esthetic experiments designed to demonstrate its reality, and inescapability. Increasingly, his works have challenged the environment -- come off the wall and into the environment. In certain installations -- I am thinking of one a few years back in the Locks Gallery in Philadelphia -- his abstractions have overwhelmed it, and become the environment. We walk through his abstract wonderland the way Kandinsky imagined one could walk through an abstract painting, likening it to the gloriously colorful Russian Orthodox churches he had walked through in his youth. Stella’s new sculptures in the Paul Kasmin gallery are not as overwhelming and all-encompassing, but they spring into the environment -- the surrounding space -- like whirling dervishes, challenging the space to the extent of dominating it, asserting their physical presence and complexity with an expressive power that makes the simple empty space seem beside their esthetic point.
They in fact have an intricate space of their own, bound by swiftly moving lines that dramatically flex their muscles in broad curves and unexpected angles, and that however binding seem to be expanding, suggesting the eccentrically curved universe of the space-time continuum. As virtually every work shows -- whether in the K17, K43, K51, K54, K81 and K97 series shows (all 2008 and all "lattice" variations in different metals) -- the luminous line surrounds a colorful core of curved planes, suggesting an atom splitting into uncontainable fragments. To call Stella’s sculptures constructions is to miss the point: they are deconstructions of sculpture into paradoxically painterly fragments. They are sort of two-dimensional expressionistic paintings that expand into three-dimensional sculptures -- expressionistic constructions, if one wants, or constructions that have become expressionistic, thus reconciling the old Constructivist idea of the artist as engineer and the old Expressionist idea of the artist as driven by inner necessity. They thus acquire the "convulsive beauty" that Breton demanded from Surrealism, and that for him was the essence of modern and with that abstract -- he admired the convulsiveness of Kandinsky’s early breakthrough abstractions -- beauty. It is an amazing epitomizing feat that takes abstraction to a new level of intimate immediacy and unconscious power. Stella has fused expressionist intensity, constructivist calculation, and surrealist absurdity in works that read as the grand climax of modernism.
But most crucially, at least from the point of view I am trying to develop here, the new sculptures seem to unravel: their boundaries break down, suggesting they are ready to spill their abstract guts into the environment. The works come undone even as they are done: lines dangle loosely in space, spinning centrifugally out of control, exposing the conflicted core of the work, which seems about to explode. Lines twist and turn in space, as though testing the limits of the work, and denying that it has any. Sometimes the lines are colorful squiggles -- radiantly blue or green or red -- that seem to play freely in space, as though independent of the core, however much they sometimes intersect with it. Diagonals sometimes thrust through the core like spears, implicitly extending infinitely into the space beyond it, while serving as an intrusive axis, thus intensifying the rolling planes that dramatize the core. It is as though the core ego holds its own -- maintains a precarious integrity -- despite the onslaught of its own explosive impulses. Mondrian said that "intensification" is one of the goals of art, and Stella has given abstract art an intensity it never achieved before.
Stella’s masterpieces are cognitively as well as emotionally demanding, all the more so because they have a swiftness that makes them seem ungraspable as a whole -- they stretch the limits of "dynamic equilibrium" to the breaking point. Russo’s three "nomos" installations, as she calls them (one on the wall, one on the floor, one in a high corner of the Allan Stone gallery space), "grow" and move much more slowly. Made of porcelain and mixed media, they in fact look like hollow reeds or the tendrils of an undersea creature -- animal or plant? -- groping for prey: the spectator. Their "feelers" reach into space, compressing it in their proliferation. They have no boundaries, however nominally contained. One can imagine them spread across the whole floor and wall and ceiling -- filling the space, trapping the viewer in their entanglement.
Some have bits of color, but all are bleached white, perhaps like dead coral -- Russo’s sculptures have ecological implications, even as they threaten to overwhelm the environment in a way not dissimilar to Stella’s sculptures. Russo offers us a new species of organic abstraction, while Stella shows us that constructivist abstraction can be organic while remaining an engineering feat. Is it safe to say that Russo represents the "naturalistic" future of abstract sculpture, while Stella ingeniously summarizes its "formalist" past, however calculatedly informal his sculptural look? Both clearly give abstraction the unfamiliar new look it badly needed, rescuing it from familiarity and decadence, showing that its esthetic and expressive possibilities remain limitless, however difficult to imagine and realize. It is still an environment that can facilitate creativity, if one has the creative brilliance of Stella and Russo.
"Frank Stella: Polychrome Relief," Oct. 1-Nov. 7, 2009, at Paul Kasmin Gallery, 293 Tenth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10001.
"Martha Russo: nomos," Sept. 17-Oct. 17, 2009, at Allan Stone Gallery, 113 East 90th Street, New York, N.Y. 10128.
DONALD KUSPIT is distinguished professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.