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Frank Stella at the Whitney: Reviewing the reviewers

Frank Stella’s show at the Whitney has drawn art reviewers from around the world, all commenting on the styles, colors, materials and meaning of the art produced by  the Smithfield Valley’s most prominent horse breeder.  We here review but a few of the reviews, which will no doubt number in the hundreds.  

The Guardian’s Jason Fargo crossed the Atlantic and came away saying it is an epochal show covering 56 years of the work of this “afrightening prolific artist.”  Just 120 works are on show, not all meeting Fargo’s approval.  The retrospective, however, “allow[s] us to conceive of Stella’s career as a single, unceasing effort to grapple with painting’s potential.”  Fargo doesn’t say whether Stella succeeded in reaching that potential.  Perhaps he thinks it’s too early to tell. 

The Whiteness of the Whale - photo by Carola Lott
David Ebony, The Observer’s reviewer, used words like “spectacular” and such phrases as “principal heir to the heroic scale and grand gestures of Abstract Expressionism.”  Ebony describes the exotic birds series as “often enormous in scale, some over 12 feet high or wide, . . . bombastic objects [that] are sometimes decorated with graffiti-like scrawls in gaudy colors and glitter.”, an art site that pulls no punches, calls the show a “brilliantly curated, blatantly overhung masterstroke of an exhibition that turns the artist’s weaknesses into strengths and his strengths into powerhouses.” 

Roberta Smith, the New York Times’s senior art critic and one of the most respected members of the art critic fraternity, describes Stella’s migration from his minimalist black paintings to his next phase in these words: “Mr. Stella began by painting himself into a corner—defining his medium so literally that there seemed nothing left to do in it—and spent most of his career blasting his way out.”  She described the installation as “alternately dazzling, oppressive and nuts.” 
Smith quotes Wallace Stevens’s poem “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction” saying that great art must have three requirements: “It must change/ It must be abstract/ It must give pleasure.”

Mr. Stella, one of the most literate artists at work today, must know these words. Regardless, his own supreme fictions have fulfilled them, and with a risk-taking extravagance and momentum that have few equals. It seems clear that, even at 79, he is still not done.

The New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl calls Stella’s “fealty to abstract art as a cause and an ideal” similar to Caravaggio’s service to the “militant piety of the Counter-Reformation”  and finds Stella’s cause “frail by comparison.”  He questions the “cogency of his early triumphs,” referring to the black stripe paintings that caused a sensation when exhibited at MOMA in 1960.  He attributes to Stella a grandeur that I doubt Stella ever aspired to:  “Stella wanted to maintain the grandeur of post-Renaissance Western painting, ” a pretty ambitious agenda for somebody who just made lots of paintings.  Schjeldahl seeks truth and meaning in art and can’t find it in Stella’s later works.      
Art News is less demanding.  Reviewer Phyllis Tuchman observes that “ for almost 60 years, Stella has shown us what it means to make abstract art, to be uncompromising, to be intellectually rigorous, to not be afraid to take risks. His work never became dull, uninteresting, or banal. If anything, it can be faulted for its excessive razzmatazz.”  She concludes her article with a sentiment that I can warm to:  “If Frank Stella has magisterially showed us how to make abstract paintings, he’s also eloquently shared with us how to keep going and get old gracefully.”

One of the most illuminating of all the articles is an interview done by The Art Newspaper in which Stella talks frankly and openly, putting all the hyperbole generated by the intellectual reviewers to rest.  It’s all about making paintings.  It’s something Stella can do awfully well.   

This writer admits that his appreciation of Stella’s talents goes back to his school days some 60 years ago, when he and Stella took an art studio class together.  It was then evident that Stella could paint, whereas this writer could not.