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Frank Stella: From the Studio

By now, Frank Stella’s illustrious, long career is very well documented. We know by heart the story of his early development of proto-minimalism; his transition to making elaborate decorative paintings; and his construction of metallic relief sculptures. And of course we have his fine, highly personal book, Working Space (1986), which relates that development to the prior history of early modernism. The story of Stella’s art is, arguably, the story of late twentieth-century American painting. What more can he possibly do at this point? And how might his style in old age add to our picture of this artistic period? 

From the Studio at Yares Art, a visionary art dealer, offers an original, surprising answer to these questions. The show includes an almost uncountable number of small tabletop and wall-hung sculptures from the past three decades. The largest installation is on the wall immediately to the left as you enter the gallery, and then there is more to see on the other, smaller walls and on the floor in the other rooms. Beyond the Reef (2023), a large painted work, is also on display. Because there is no checklist available as a handout, and neither a catalogue nor wall labels, one is encouraged to see this vast installation of varied individual units as a total work of art, a grid with numerous multicolored, elaborately worked elements. What’s involved here is an odd exercise in visual perception. Often the elements on a grid are subordinated to that all-over structure. Here, however, the myriad small sculptures are diverse in style, makeup, and material, with contrasting colors and structures. But when you try to focus on these individual elements, you experience a kind of visual vertigo. This is why although I initially started to photograph the individual works to document my review, I soon gave up, for there was just too much to see. And what mattered, so I came to believe, was the experience of the entire total work, and not just a focus on the details of its numerous components. 

In Working Space Stella provides a genealogy for his earlier paintings, linking them to the Roman altarpieces of Caravaggio. Now, however, a different allusion to old master artworks, which are not included in Stella’s book, seems apt. What’s most relevant to his present aesthetic are the various ideal baroque canvases of busily hung picture galleries. In the three versions of Giovanni Paolo Panini’s vast painting Modern Rome (1757), for example, we see sculptures by Michelangelo and Bernini, and an ensemble of the other masterpieces, which visitors on the grand tour came to visit, all assembled in one imaginary gallery. Such pictures were popular. Just as Panini showed the total effect of modern art in Rome (he devoted a separate painting to ancient Rome), so the artist (or his dealer) here presents the most memorable recent art made in the US, Stella’s own. From the Studio offers us his own view of late American modernist abstraction, a vision created entirely of these miniature works from his studio. Installed in grids, it focuses attention on the structure of his art, and not the details of its development. To extend the parallel, just as Panini showed modern Roman art in that Italian setting, From the Studio is installed in the former David McKee Gallery, which once hosted many modernist exhibitions. 

In the end, I am not entirely convinced by the exhibition’s pictorial interpretation of our recent artistic history. Too much has happened, I think, to believe in Stella’s imperial statement of the importance of his abstraction. But as always, I am in awe of his artistic ambition. The structure of From the Studio is immensely suggestive. The grid, Rosalind Krauss wrote in 1979, “is what art looks like when it turns its back on nature.” And for that reason, it is “an emblem of modernity.” In her text we find a suggestive key to this exhibition, in which small works from several decades of Stella’s development are set on grids. Is that the entire story of modernist American art? I think not, but it is an important part of that narrative. As always Stella, even in his later years, is a virtuoso at mastering artistic change.

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