The Year Before He Broke

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 painting.

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 jrose@fas.harvard.edu.