previous chapter
Frank Stella: A Way to Go
next chapter

Frank Stella:
A Way to Go

One of the most insistent gains of abstract expressionism is that it gets rid of the frame as limiting factor. It regains the canvas as surface—or literally imposes as significant surface anything on which the painting occurs. Instead of making the canvas, as it were, a view box or screen where something is then to happen, painters of this group forced the sense of limiting edge to give place to what was happening in the painting itself. Equally, accumulated senses of composition—for example, the Renaissance use of perspective as a vanishing point—were largely displaced. The senses of balance, of 'tops' and 'bottoms' in relation to 'weight,' were also revised. It would now seem inevitable that, in contrast to a nonfigurative painting that wants only to disguise the nature of its figuration, painting of this kind was most absorbed in that activity momently confronted as it, quite literally, occurred. What could be seen then and there was dominant, and if all the forms so discovered had counterparts in other visual contexts, they were nonetheless decisively found in the primary act of painting.

One aspect of this insistence is that painting loses its historical sense of picture , insofar as our sense of a picture seems to imply something which is referential. It is very hard to think of a picture without wondering, of what. So, again, abstract expressionism rids painting of having to be pictures of things, symbols, mirrors of some otherwhere present reality.

But what follows directly from these painters, both as mystique

Lugano Review , no. 1, 1965.


and example, is more confused. As Robert Duncan has usefully made clear, abstract expressionism has to do with energy embodied in the painting (felt ) rather than energy referred to (seen ). This fact makes the energy implicit in the character of the brush stroke, of the forms which it asserts by its activity, a dominant qualification of the painting itself. It explains Pollock's situation when he says, "When I am in my painting I'm not aware of what I'm doing . . . I try to let it come through . . ."

It is impossible to qualify what, then, will be significant about such 'being in the painting' except by looking at what comes of it. However, a sense of painting that wants to make itself significant by a random occasion of such energies—or looks for accidental discoveries of 'balance'—leads finally to an implicit chaos, which, in turn, yields only to taste and fashion. In other words, what follows from abstract expressionism, in direct imitation, too often depends upon an arbitrary process of discrimination, one that wants the thing to look like it looks like nothing.

It is interesting that it should be in what seems the antithetically disciplined formalism of Frank Stella, and those akin to him as Neil Williams and Larry Poons, that the gains of abstract expressionism are most used. For example, the interest in the materials possible to painting is continued, whereas the contemporary Action painters depend on those defined by the older men. Equally, the sense of the canvas, or whatever surface is used, is for Stella and the others noted a major preoccupation. Most relevant, the painting is not a reference to another reality—not even another painter's reality—but remains unequivocally its own occasion.

There are several senses of Frank Stella's work that seem to me useful. John Chamberlain speaks of him as having painted one line without stopping for the past ten years. What he finds interesting is that Stella has found in that apparent repetition the possibility of maintaining that line's activity. He is after it, like they say, and will not let go.

Neil Williams, on the other hand, told me of Stella's first use of Motherwell-like forms. As he said, there is this early parallel, but that then something began to happen. The forms became more formal, and in turn led to a linear context, so that—in Klee's vocabulary—the planar effect yielded to linear. But there must be a simpler way to put it. Suppose, for instance, one first sees a set of things as mass, e.g., bulky hills, large clouds, things occupying substantial senses of space. But then, as one goes on looking, that way we have of relating any such group of things, as occupying places


together, leads us to senses of their position, in such relationship. The hill's top is roughly the apex of a triangle which points to the cloud, itself an awkward rectangle—and so on, because all that I am trying to note here, is that lines are an adamant assumption in any reference to space. Therefore, it is simple enough to recognize how the movement from preoccupation with shapes, or mass, to line occurs. It is not really the out-line, or the 'edge' of the mass, that is the point here—but rather, that what one calls a shape is primarily an activity of line.

So then, as Williams spoke of it, there begins to be an increasing interest in the linear relation of forms—of how they develop into (for the example he gave) a sequence of rectangles moving from right to left, parallel, but each in turn of less length than that to its right, but with a common balance in their point of possible intersection supposing a line drawn through the middle of the canvas on the horizontal axis—and, again, so on, because this is to say, much more simply, that these rectangles begin to assert the lines of a triangle, and that those lines, in turn, begin to determine the possibility of what 'forms' they can take.

Suppose a square, or rather, make one, as Stella now does, and taking the canvas as its possibility, a square canvas in turn, what is implicit in the linear fact of that square that can continue to happen throughout the area which the canvas offers? What is a square, in fact, that it can be drawn with line, or that a line can draw one? And, having drawn one, is a second square enclosing it another line or—despite the apparent fact that it happens in another place, and of another size—the same one?

These are curious questions, and worth the emphasis simply that a first impression of Stella's work may lead one to think that color, and more specifically, the bands of color which he uses to locate line (itself to my knowledge never painted, but left as the surface of the canvas itself), are the significant activity. This same factor leads, at times, to senses of depth or volume which lend the painting the possible effect of an optical illusion. It may be that this aspect is relevant—akin to Op painting more generally—but I have, finally, the impression that it is rather how the line follows through such a variable, that is the point. In "Sharpeville" (1962) there can be a sense of 'looking in,' although it seems soon embarrassed by my own feeling that the line of the squares is always on the same plane.

Squares, as a formal possibility for the line, lead to a number of variations. However, these terms seem left as constant: first, the bands, or intervening colored areas between the lines, are left equal


in width—so that whatever occurs as qualification of that space is managed by color; and, secondly, the diagonals are insistent, very often implicitly as those lines which would pass through the angle of each square to meet at center, and also explicitly, as in "Meknes" (1964). The effect of this last is to emphasize the four triangles which the diagonals define.

Two forms are therefore present, which now move to a complex of relationships. These in turn seem to me to follow two distinct patterns, which are difficult to describe—but briefly, they seem as follows. Either the squares occur as they do in "Line Up" (1962), so that one of the diagonals will originate from a point the width of one band in from the edge of the canvas; or else they begin as a development from a central point, itself the intersection of the diagonals from the edges of the squared canvas, as in "Sharpeville." The situation of the triangles is modified in each case in a distinct manner. Either they seem to set up alternative positions and/or to displace the presence of the squares (as in "Line Up")—or else lead to an intensification of them (as in "Sharpeville" and others of like kind). Then there are further possibilities in the 'double image' of "Jasper's Dilemma" (1962), with its negativized, tonal parallels in the right-hand square balanced against the 'positive' of the left.

At this point the fact of the square canvas is itself a concern I think, in the sense that although it is a limit, the structure of the painting works to include that fact in the activity of the painting. I mean, simply, that the sense of backwall, or edge, is played against, and used at times to return one to the intensity of the center. But what is happening in the painting forces further qualifications; and the forms which are there become increasingly active, clearly, and are demonstrating other possibilities in turn.

The triangle, and the angles involved by it, lead the line to qualify not only the context of shape within the painting, but as well its actual circumstance in the actual shape of the canvas. There are a number of variations which lead to this—increasing play on the activity of the diagonals for one thing—in "Fez (2)" (1964)—, so that they are shifted to pass through the center at a point midway on each side of the painting, making in that way four squares within it, and the sequence of expanding squares, familiar from the earlier work, is here shifted on its axis to make an increased emphasis on the triangular, chevron-like pattern the squares effect as they move to the outer edge. The bands of color, limited to an orange and green, alternate from one to the other as they meet at each diagonal, and the whole effect of the painting is an expanding pressure


against that limit of edge, but one which also, paradoxically, returns to a balance as these bands grow shorter, approaching each of the outside angles of the canvas.

The frustration is really that it is a little specious to write of something which is so active when seen. Speaking now of what happens when the line begins to define the shape of the canvas itself, is even more so. But it is nonetheless what one has to do, simply that so much is so loosely assumed. The sense that 'function defines form' is familiar enough to people who have used hammers, or any so-called tool that has a specific thing to do. But that information does stay, oddly, an abstraction in that people reasonably don't want to be bothered when doing something, with how it happens they have something to do it with, etc. If one speaks of lines having similar possibilities, even necessities, it seems all the more vague. But there are so many simple instances. One, for example, that has always fascinated me, is that of moving the center white line, on a road, so that it goes off the road, and all the cars smash up in the ditch. Or take the friend who got a job once painting the stripe down the center of a village street, past a bar he was drawn to as he painted toward it, and finally the line hit the sidewalk—and the street likewise. Because where the line goes is where it is, and what locates itself with reference to that line goes too.

Line begins to have this unequivocal presence in "Haines City" (1964) in that the shape of the canvas is directly the form given it by the activity of the line, and the form it defines. The diagonals are, again, a center for this activity, but now the parts of the canvas which cannot be used are removed. In other words, not only has the activity broken free of the physical situation of a canvas within a frame—as abstract expressionism managed to do, insisting that the coherence of what was happening in the painting was quite enough—it has managed to affect all that context of surface qua 'picture' to such an extent that only such surface as is actively engaged by the painting will be admitted as a physical object. It has done this with line.

Last fall I was able to see Stella's show at Kasmin in London, and it was an extraordinary experience—for these reasons. First, line in these paintings not only determines the context of the canvas' shape; it further allows no other possible sense of such shape to begin with. It is moving on a ground that can only be felt as its activity. It does another thing as well. I was there with a friend, and as I was sitting on that bench seen in the illustration, she walked in front of the painting on the far wall. It was as if she reoccurred,


momently, i.e., her own size shifted and changed with reference to the lines she moved in front of—the painting was as much a defining object as she was.

But the lines, in any case, were going elsewhere, and it is not only the point, that they had this effect. Nor that they created 'architectural' effects (as she said) and seemed to make a volume. I think the fact that they had gained their own articulation, that they found shape as they moved—rather than as 'it' might—is the primary one.

What Stella himself secured seems to me a large possibility indeed. In his show at the Ferus Gallery in February relationships of triangular forms reoccur, and the shape of the canvas follows them, with a quiet, intense wit and care. After the more variable 'open' shapes of the Kasmin show, he comes to these with a line so sure he has only to follow it.


previous chapter
Frank Stella: A Way to Go
next chapter