The indestructible art of Frank Stella

Since 1959, when, as a recent Princeton graduate, Frank Stella stunned the art world with large, symmetrical swaths of black enamel streaked across undyed canvas, it has been as much a part of New York art as Rockefeller Center is of urban architecture—charmingly austere, built to last. He went on to invent several styles, notably sharp, geometrically shaped canvases in glamorous synthetic colors, each piece projecting a once-and-for-all éclat. Its final phase was neo-baroque, with mostly metal, often wildly intricate reliefs and sculptures. He said he was inspired by Caravaggio, although you wouldn’t guess it. But Stella was essentially unchanged. At every step there was one stubborn principle, expressed in his famous words: «What you see is what you see». His gospel was formalistic, forbidding interpretation.

Arriving at the pinnacle of American hegemony in world art for all time, Stella was the miraculous poster child of a new breed of artist: post-bohemian, college-educated, professional from the start. The Museum of Modern Art and the Leo Castelli Gallery were arguing over which venue would get to debut Stella’s Black Paintings as a group. (MOM Art people recognized at first sight that the work was revolutionary, both for what it did not do and for what it did. Stella flaunted his self-confidence with such sardonic titles for his black paintings as «A Wedding of Wit and Dirt» and the recklessly provocative «Die Fahne Hoch!». («Raise the flag!»), the anthem of the German Nazi Party. Power was the object and the modus operandi.

During the 1960s, Stella shook up the standards of modernist abstraction much like Bob Dylan did with folk music and electrified the medium. His influence waned somewhat in the 1970s as the art world turned to conceptual fashion. But no uncertainty hindered Stella’s progress, a career arc that suggested, and still does, an irresistibly Apollonian art history, rejecting alternative trends. Defying death, he possessed—and retains—an otherworldly authority that will not consent to any ambition that is not absolute. An earlier era might have provided him with a suitably noble tomb. This is how Frank Stella will live on as a residual pressure, hard as nails, in the minds of everyone who cared or will care about the art of the last six decades. ♦

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