Far different from the painted hurly-burly of Frank Stella: Painting in Three Dimensions, now showing in the lower-level gallery of the Nasher Sculpture Center, Stella's black canvases from the mid-20th century are subtle and economic. They are paintings that marked a turning point in the history of the medium. Like an American Voltaire with a paintbrush instead of a quill, Stella's terse canvases said so much through so little. Paintings such as "Die Fahne Hoch!" and "Zambezi," both from 1959, reveal an artist mindfully working and reworking the elements of painting in order to push it nearer to something else. Stella nimbly nudged painting toward its "objecthood," making it a three-dimensional thing rather than a two-dimensional flat plane. He achieved this transformation through the finesse of black strips of paint placed repetitively side by side with the white lines of the canvas' bare, flat surface visible between the bands. At two inches each, the bands were the exact width of the stretcher bars hidden behind the canvas. Stella succeeded in drawing attention to painting's physical structure--the skeleton to which the canvas is tightly bound. With these bare-bones monochromatic objects, Stella made painting seem pragmatic and of-this-world, pushing it toward a momentary but necessary demise that gave way to the industrial forms of Minimalism and, some 20 years later, painting's birth and rebirth evermore as something, one continues to hope, always more interesting.
Yet 20 years after his great breakthrough, Stella wasn't making more interesting paintings. As though stuck in a time warp, he was still mentally working through the question of painting's flatness circa 1959, continuing to defy Greenberg's declaration of painting's autonomy and separation from the cruddy and base three dimensions of sculpture. With his various modes of medium contamination, Stella's defiance of Greenberg so late in the game is almost condescending. The sculptural works showing at the Nasher adhere to the wall like paintings, are painted like paintings and are intended for one to see frontally like paintings. But their constructed and layered steel planes infiltrate the space of the meandering viewer as if they are works of sculpture. In "Pau" (1981) and "Diepholz II" (1982), two painting-cum-sculptures from the Circuit series, Stella pollutes the purity of painting by not only making painting that is sculptural (and vice versa) but also by referencing the everydayness of European racing circuits. Their large, shiny and colorful curlicue forms, also called "flexicurves," mimic the sharp and fast turns of raceways. They are painted in the bright, glittering and fluorescent palette of the 1980s. While this range of colors seems a nod to the fun and high jinks of popular culture, it comes across as jarring and garish. More humorous, and more truly Pop, would have been a burnt-out, painted-up and contorted miniature raceway appropriated from the fun-filled realm of Toys "R" Us.
The show's offset lithographs and screenprints from 1977, "Sinjerli Variations," are less jarring. The quietude and muted colors of these works on paper are in keeping with the powerful subtlety he wielded so well early on. Similar to the black paintings from the late '50s, he makes the flatness of paper perform for him. This time, though, his orchestration occurs by way of color rather than monochromy. Following his shaped canvases of the late '60s, the "Protractor Series," "Sinjerli Variations" show Stella's move from canvas to paper just before his departure from flatness altogether. Situated asymmetrically on each piece of paper is a circle containing colors divided and delineated by, once again, the white line. Stella named the series after an ancient Hittite city of the Near East, Sinjerli, where two walls formed a perfect circle. The painterly and vaguely expressive effect of the colors results from a complicated process of layering--running the prints successively through the press. With their intentional bleeds, inky overruns and asymmetrical placement of form, the prints are technical feats of mastery and easily the best work in the exhibition.
The work at the Nasher is phenomenal in another way. These pieces pose a profound philosophical conundrum. What to do with the artist who finishes just as he is getting started, the maestro who sings his swan song first, the human lodestar who, in dying the proverbial petit mort, shoots his load before the fun gets going? Looking at the work in the basement gallery of the Nasher, one has the feeling that Stella did his best work early in his career. His sculpture brings to mind the oft-told poem by A.E. Housman, "To an Athlete Dying Young," where the poet counsels his readers on the blessing hidden in a victor's premature death. Perhaps it is better and certainly more heroic, he tells us, for a triumphant athlete to be brought home in a coffin, for our memory of him will be forever ingrained by his win rather than the losses that life invariably brings.
While not going so far as to wish for death, we silently regret that Orson Welles didn't leave show business early on--that the prodigious enfant terrible of theater and film noir didn't stop before becoming the meager homme terrible of Paul Masson wine-hocking. (Please, no wine after its time!) What would have happened if Mozart hadn't died at the unripe age of 36? Would he have shrunk in the shadow of that great Romantic of invention, Beethoven? Or what if he had died even younger? Would we so easily hum and whistle the recognizable melody of "Twinkle Twinkle"? What if the roles of Picasso and his friend Casagemas were reversed? What if it were Picasso and not Casagemas who was the heartbroken bohemian who fatefully committed suicide in early 1901, thereby becoming the catalyst of another Spanish painter's self-realization? Would we be forever feasting on the somber paintings of Casagemas' Gray and Ochre periods rather than those of Picasso's Blue and Rose?
What we don't know is what we don't see--the work Stella has done since 1989. Happy to say, it has gotten better. With pieces such as "Die Kurfürstin" (1998) and "Friedrich Wilhelm Kurfurst von Brandenburg" (1998), he has shed the bright colors from his sculpture and increased their scale to a truly in-your-face room size. After a midcareer misstep, it seems Stella is swinging once again.