Monday, August 20th, 2012

Frank Stella Evolves: The Scarlatti Series at Freedman Art

Frank Stella: New Work at Freedman Art

May 17 to September 27, 2012
25 East 73rd Street, between Fifth and Madison avenues
New York City, 212-249-2040

Installation shot of the exhibition under review. (c) 2012 Frank Stella/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Installation shot of the exhibition under review. (c) 2012 Frank Stella/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Ernst Häckel’s famous theory that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny – the development of an organism, that is to say, mirrors the evolution of the species – applies to Frank Stella in relation to Western art since the Middle Ages.  His severe but elegant  “pinstripe” paintings of the late 1950s and early ‘60s, together with the gentler aluminum and bronze paintings that succeeded them, can be seen as his Quattrocento period (and, not surprisingly, won much praise when a group of all three series was shown at L & M Arts earlier this year).

The brilliantly colored “Protractor” series, though freer in concept and execution than the paintings preceding them, were  — like them — clearly outlined and defined, just as the high Renaissance paintings of Raphael and early Michelangelo had been.  This was where I came in on Stella, writing about them when they were first exhibited at Leo Castelli in 1967 and I was in my first year of writing about art for Time.

Ever since, it has seemed to me, this artist has been in a prolonged Mannerist phase in which the hallmarks of his wild and wooly creations — increasingly three-dimensional, increasingly composed of many small elements, increasingly variegated in color— are agitation, the off-centered and the nitty-gritty of confusion: a modernistic counterpart of late Michelangelo, Bronzino or Parmigianino.

Now, at long last, I feel Stella has arrived at a new synthesis, just as Caravaggio and the Carracci stabilized mannerism to arrive at the baroque. I see a new serenity and stability in Stella (though I confess that until now I haven’t felt strongly enough about any work by him that I’ve seen since the sixties to examine it in detail). While this show is still endowed with the energy and diagonal thrust we associate with both historical mannerism & the historical baroque, at times there are harmonies of composition and color almost worthy of comparison with Velázquez.

Fittingly, this present show features ten works from Stella’s “Scarlatti” series, and recorded baroque music by this composer plays softly in the gallery. Each piece, which in relation to the wall behind it implies a canny combo of painting and sculpture, bears the Kirkpatrick number of a Scarlatti sonata

Frank Stella, k.161b, 2011. Mixed media, 20 x 20 x 20 inches.  Courtesy of Freedman Art.  © 2012 Frank Stella/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Frank Stella, k.161b, 2011. Mixed media, 20 x 20 x 20 inches. Courtesy of Freedman Art. © 2012 Frank Stella/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Stella has long been known for his advanced technology. I see technology as a better servant than master. The same applies to the armies of human assistants Stella employs (reputedly as many as Bernini). Merely because such resources enable him to achieve effects that shout “2012” doesn’t guarantee their esthetic excellence. Half of creation is knowing when and how to edit one’s creations.

This time the master abstractionist has curbed his excesses. The show’s curly, straight-out and splayed combinations of tubes and flatter shapes have been constructed with the aid of CAD software, often out of a brightly colored material called ABS (Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene), with further color sometimes applied in the studio. Mechanical and personal elements thus come together into new wholes, with widely-varied effects whose range can be indicated by three of the finest pieces.

One of the smallest greets the viewer upon entering the gallery. This is k.161b (2011), a shiny, sparkling all-green composition that sits on a little plinth of its own. It measures only 20 inches in all directions, but is an intricate composition of open and closed star shapes, with stick-like or sometimes leaf-like components harboring a form within that seems to have been inspired by a dog toy left in the artist’s studio.

Next to it, on the right, is k.37 (ABS Blue) (2012) which sprouts from (or hangs off) the wall to a height of almost nine feet and a width of more than five. At its perimeter are open, curly yellow and red tubes, mostly pretty narrow and leaving lots of space between themselves and a central element, like the paths of electrons circling a nucleus. This nucleus is more compact, and made out of slightly larger, curved but broader flat shapes in red, while and blue.  Graceful and expansive, free yet organized, k.37’s use of color is thus restrained and selective: to the red and yellow of the perimeter’s tubes and the tricoleur nucleus are added only subtle accents of aqua and silver.

At the far end of the gallery  is k. 359 (2012), a majestic monster, larger and denser than the others, which both sprouts off the wall and stand free on its own feet.  Projecting more than  six feet out into the gallery, its composition is incredibly complex. To the center left, in front, is a curved open shape with twisting, turning thin slats inside that make that area resemble a giant flower. An upwardly curved bundle of slats to the right looks like a giant sconce and in turn upholds a mass of curvilinear and twisted shapes somehow suggestive ofa giant chandelier. These effects might have been unbearably overdone if tinctured with Stella’s usual riots of color, but instead restraint shows itself through rendering the entirety of the piece in a mellow gray.  An exception are several narrow horizontal bands of a clear, transparent plastic that circle the entire sculpture tight against its body to achieve a marvelous unity out of dissonance.

Frank Stella, k.359, 2012. Mixed media, 124 x 111 x 77 inches.  Courtesy of Freedman Art.  © 2012 Frank Stella/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
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