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by Phyllis Tuchman
"Frank Stella 1958," the touring survey of 20 works made by the celebrated contemporary painter in the year that he graduated from Princeton University, is a gem of an exhibition. Now on view at the Menil Collection in Houston, the show opened in early 2006 at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum in Cambridge and appears at the Wexner Center in Columbus later this fall. For those seeking insight into the origins of Minimalism, that avatar of the late 20th-century avant-garde, "Frank Stella 1958" is not to be missed. 

Almost 40 years ago, during his senior year at Princeton and then, following his graduation in June 1958, while he was living first on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and later on West Broadway in what is now SoHo, Stella practically singlehandedly set the course that his Minimalist friends and colleagues would later follow. The exhibition traces the artist’s rapid evolution until, at the end of the year, he executed his first three "Black Paintings." It’s exhilarating. A beautiful mind is much in evidence.

In 2004, a pair of museum shows provided ample examination of Minimalism -- "A Minimal Future? Art as Object 1958-1968" at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and "Singular Forms (Sometimes Repeated): Art from 1951 to the Present" at the Guggenheim Museum. "Frank Stella 1958" takes a different approach, emphasizing focus over breadth, immersing viewers in a body of work as if they are right there in the studio with the fledgling artist at the threshold of his career.

There are canvases the color of Howard Johnson’s most popular flavors of the day, peppermint stick and pistachio. There are "action paintings" animated with drips and scrawls. There are abstractions with stripes going this way and that. Try as you might, though, you won’t find anything overly influenced by either Jackson Pollock, whose memorial exhibition was held at the Museum of Modern Art two years before, in 1957, or Willem de Kooning, whose quasi-landscapes were a star attraction in "Nature in Abstraction" at the Whitney Museum in 1958.

Stella was looking elsewhere. The exhibition includes two wood constructions that suggest he took a glance at Robert Rauschenberg’s "Combines," then almost a decade old. The Stella sculptures are funky, to say the least, and would have looked great in the "Art of the Assemblage" exhibition that William Seitz, Stella’s professor at Princeton, was to organize a few years later at MoMA. Initially, they seem like oddballs in Stella’s oeuvre, but in fact Minimalism didn’t have sleek beginnings. It had a detritus phase.

Then there are the abstractions with rather silly, hand-written phrases, which Stella admittedly made in response to Robert Motherwell’s series of paintings containing the hand-written words "je t’aime." Stella scrawled "Mary Lou Loves Frank" on a 7 x 7 ft., horizontal green-and-black striped canvas, and added the words "Your Lips Are Blue" to another large, proto-Kenneth Noland stripe painting. These graffiti-like messages introduce a note of adolescent high jinks into an Abstract-Expressionist realm typically governed by solemnity.

Another surprise is Stella’s restriction of his palette to two colors. Ordinarily, bi-color abstractions wouldn’t seem unusual. But Them Apples, a vertical painting on homey cardboard and wood, has the pink of a late 1950s Cadillac -- and it was during the ‘50s Detroit introduced the two-tone car. Is this a proto-Pop example of Ab-Ex macho? Stella said he used commercial enamel because it was cheap. It was Donald Judd, a few years later, who explained that he chose his colors based on the paint jobs of that year’s automobiles.

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.

At that point in Stella’s work, it can be said that Jasper Johns meets George Balanchine. As Harvard University art historian Megan R. Luke points out in the accompanying exhibition catalogue, Stella saw Jasper Johns’ first solo show, held during January 1958 at the recently opened Leo Castelli Gallery. One might note as well that Stella was in the audience at City Center for Agon, one of Balanchine’s "black and white" ballets in which performers made patterns while wearing rehearsal clothes of white t-shirts and black tights. Agon premiered on Dec. 1, 1957, and Stella saw it about a year later.

"Frank Stella 1958" is organized by Fogg Art Museum curator Harry Cooper and Megan R. Luke. Several times in her essay, Luke suggests Stella was taking cues from Donald Judd. This seems unconvincing -- in 1958 Judd was still making fairly ordinary abstractions. In 1958, before he executed his first "Black Paintings," Frank Stella already had his bona fides as a Minimalism master. It was years before others caught up.

PHYLLIS TUCHMAN publishes regularly in the Smithsonian, Bloomberg News, Town & Country and other journals.