Walking into “Frank Stella 1958,” the special exhibition currently at
the Sackler Museum, reminded me of the surprise I got when I heard one
of my friends, who plays guitar in a punk band, playing Mozart on a
violin. It wasn’t that the delicate strains of the violin concerto were
completely unrelated to the straight-up, snarling chords of his punk
songs, nor even that one was necessarily better than the other. It was
just that, man, I didn’t know he could do that!
But I’m getting ahead of myself. To understand why the year
1958 (from which the more than 20 works in the show date) was a crucial
one for Frank Stella, you need to know what he did in 1959. That year
he made his famous “black paintings”—works that essentially consisted
of geometric patterns of thin white lines set on black backgrounds.
These paintings were extraordinary for several reasons. They
reduced Stella’s role as a painter to the absolute minimum of applying
black paint to an empty canvas—the white “lines” were actually thin
strips of bare canvas showing through the gaps between stripes of black
paint. Furthermore, the geometric pattern of lines—dubbed “deductive
structure” by critics—was derived from the rectangle of the canvas, a
frank acknowledgement of materiality directly opposed to traditional
The paintings in “Frank Stella 1958” show the beginnings of
the reductiveness that culminated in the black paintings. Most of them
explore the same very basic composition: a combination of horizontal
stripes with rectangular shapes. In a succession of works, Stella
explores the different ways that these stripes can be made and the
different ways the rectangles can interact with them.
One gets the sense that this experimentation is both very
disciplined and very thorough, and it was no doubt thanks to this
extended research that Stella was able to arrive at the elegant
simplicity of the black paintings. They represent the same combination
of stripes and rectangles reduced to a bare minimum; the stripes and
the background are created simultaneously through the application of
only one color, and the rectangular element becomes the canvas itself
and so does not need to be painted at all.
But there is also another side to the 1958 paintings. As
narrow as their focus may be in some senses, they still exhibit a
dazzling range of technique. In one of my favorite paintings in the
show, “Coney Island,” a composition of red and yellow stripes with a
bluish rectangle hovering in the center, Stella uses at least two
different hues of yellow and three shades of red to give the stripes a
mesmerizing glowing effect. The blue rectangle has both white and black
paint mixed into the blue, and this variation in tone makes the shape
nebulous, almost misty, so that it seems to be floating just in front
of the canvas.
The edges of rectangle have also been painted and repainted
again and again. In places the blue clearly lies on top of the
background stripes, in others the red and yellow creep into the
rectangle, and in some the blues, reds, and yellows dissolve into each
other, so that it’s impossible to tell if the stripes are on the same
plane as the rectangle, pass behind it, or even jump in front of it.
Ironically, these painterly qualities were probably the least
original dimensions of Stella’s 1958 work. They were the main link
between his painting and the abstract expressionism that immediately
preceded it, and presumably it was Stella’s desire for true originality
that let him to the reductive rigidity of the black paintings.
But the ultimate lesson of “Frank Stella 1958” may be that
the 1958 works collected here are better paintings than the
history-making works of 1959. Much of the power of “Frank Stella 1958”
lies in simply raising this issue, however, and it by no means needs to
be settled here. Whether the 1958 paintings are actually better than
the black ones, just a stage in their evolution, or altogether
different, they are simply a delight to look at—a pleasant surprise
conveniently located right down the street.
—Staff writer Julian M. Rose can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.