Commentary Magazine

Beyond Abstract Art?

For many observers, Frank Stella has claim to be one of the two or three most important and original abstract artists to have emerged on the New York art scene in the fertile, tumultuous years of the early 60’s. And among those who dissent from this estimation, few would deny that he has enjoyed one of the most impressive careers. At present, Stella belongs to that small circle of living artist—it numbers no more than a dozen—who have achieved unshakable international acclaim and who regularly command prices that are, well, stellar. But even at the beginning of his career, Stella’s work elicited that blend of critical responses which, again and again, has proved an irresistible recipe for success: not unadulterated praise, but enthusiastic admiration from certain select dealers, critics, and curators, leavened with just enough hostility and misunderstanding from other quarters to make him desirably avant-garde and controversial.

It may not be out of place, then, to begin by observing that Stella’s remarkable success has not been solely a matter of genius declaring itself. It is hardly immaterial, for example, that when Stella began painting, while still a secondary-school student at Phillips Academy in Massachusetts, he was befriended by his teacher, Patrick Morgan, and his wife, Maud Morgan, both of whom were painters with important connections in the New York art world; or that while he was a student at Princeton University, Stella’s art teachers—including the painter and art historian William Seitz, the critic Robert Rosenblum, and the abstract painter Stephen Greene—took a keen interest in him and reportedly considered him Princeton’s most brilliant art student; or indeed that one of Stella’s best friends from the late 50’s was Michael Fried, whose own considerable career as an art critic began with widely remarked essays that championed Stella and his brand of pared-down abstract painting.

I am not suggesting that such contingencies—or contingencies like his being married for several years to Barbara Rose, who became an influential critical voice in the 60’s—“explain” Stella’s success. Yet they are, I think, the sorts of things that can be said to smooth one’s entry into the more advanced precincts of the New York art world. Stella’s entry began soon after he graduated from Princeton, in 1958, and moved to New York. For a start, he was introduced to the prominent art dealer Leo Castelli, who straightaway offered to show his work. And because such expressions of interest tend to be contagious, it seems only natural that Dorothy Miller, Alfred H. Barr’s chief assistant at the Museum of Modern Art, should also have wanted to exhibit the young artist’s work. As it happened, Stella’s oeuvre was at that time too small to furnish both exhibitions. He thus found himself faced with the enviable choice of beginning his career by participating in a group show at the Museum of Modern Art or having a one-man show at Castelli’s gallery. After deliberation, he chose the former. But in the end Stella really had it both ways: he made his debut at Miller’s “Sixteen Americans” exhibition in December 1959, with four of his so-called “black paintings” and, the next year, had the one-man show at Castelli’s.

Stella’s black paintings were a sensation. Several bear portentous titles like The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, Arbeit Macht Frei, and Die Fahne Hoch—the latter two echoing Nazi slogans—though Stella’s less extravagant titles (Delta, for example) happen to describe the works a good deal more literally. Painted entirely in a dull black enamel, they are large, rectangular canvases displaying tidy chevrons, boxes, or other simple geometrical patterns formed by thin, slightly wavering lines of unpainted canvas. Appearing at a time when painting was still dominated by the explosive, gestural canvases of Abstract Expressionism, Stella’s black paintings with their deliberate simplicity sounded a new note in painting and have been credited with heralding the rise of Minimalism.

Stella’s work has been subject to dramatic shifts, which have taken him from the Minimalist paintings of the late 50’s through the iridescent, irregularly-shaped canvases of the 60’s, to the huge, brightly-colored aluminum and fiberglass three-dimensional constructions that have become his signature pieces in recent years. But however radical Stella’s permutations, since 1970 or so he has come to occupy a secure place in the mainstream of established taste. The ultimate ratification of this position came a few years ago when Stella was invited to give the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard University for the academic year 1983-84. Previous incumbents of the Norton chair include T.S. Eliot, whose Norton lectures became The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, Igor Stravinsky (The Poetics of Music), Lionel Trilling (Sincerity and Authenticity), Northrop Frye (The Secular Scripture), and many others of similar repute. Stella, born in 1936, is the youngest Norton professor appointed to date. He is also only the second painter—his predecessor being Ben Shahn, whose lectures were The Shape of Content—and the first abstract painter to be so honored.

The recent publication of Stella’s Norton lectures, Working Space,1 is thus an event of considerable interest, not only because of his standing in the art world but also because he has repeatedly distinguished himself as one of the most thoughtful and articulate artists of his generation. Among other things, Stella has always been very good at explaining what he is up to in his painting, even—indeed, especially—when insisting that he is up to nothing beyond the mere application of paint to canvas. Until now, though, his reflections on art have been mostly confined to interviews, brief statements prepared to accompany a show, and the like; the Norton lectures afforded him an opportunity to set forth his personal artistic credo more systematically and to reflect critically on the situation of contemporary painting.

Near the end of Working Space, Stella describes the book as “my insistent defense of abstraction”; certainly, the fate of abstraction in late 20th-century painting is a guiding concern throughout the book. But whether these sundry reflections on the evolution and future of abstract painting really add up to anything like a defense of abstraction—whether, in fact, they remain true to the spirit of modernist abstract painting at all—is a more difficult, elusive, and, finally, a more troubling question.



Stella begins by sounding an alarm: contemporary American painting, especially abstract painting, is in crisis. It no longer exhibits the freshness, the vitality, the sense of risk and exploration that it did as recently as the late 60’s. Its gestures, no matter how extravagant, seem tired and conventional. More and more, contemporary abstract painting impresses us as shallow, arbitrary, in some deep sense artistically beside the point. Not, Stella hastens to add, that recent efforts at representational painting—he is thinking foremost of neo-Expressionism—have fared better than abstraction. “Realist painting today,” he complains, “is built on a retrograde base of Surrealist illusionism.”

A chief cause of the malaise, Stella tells us, is that abstract painting has fallen out of touch with its past. It has great difficulty imagining a pertinent history for itself that extends back much beyond Mondrian and Kandinsky; the genius of past painting—the genius of Michelangelo, for example, or Titian or Caravaggio—exists merely as a kind of art-historical fact, no longer as a challenging inspiration. In part, of course, this failure to inhabit the past follows from abstract painting’s deliberately polemical relation to the canons of traditional representational painting. But for Stella, the problem is that by cutting itself off from the past, abstract painting has also in effect edited itself out of the future; lacking a living tradition to draw upon, it now finds itself also lacking a credible future.

Thus the principal task that Stella sets himself in Working Space is to extend and reinvigorate the history of abstract painting so that it, in turn, will be available to nourish future artistic aspiration. To this end, the book attempts to trace the development of a coherent set of pictorial concerns from Caravaggio through the work of such modernist painters as Picasso, Malevich, and Kandinsky, concluding with the recent efforts of Abstract Expressionism, Colorfield painting, and the kind of abstract construction that Stella himself has been working with since the 1970’s.

Now, the painting of Caravaggio and other early 17th-century masters may seem an odd point of departure; notwithstanding the call to recover a lost dimension of pictorial history, one might well ask why we should look to such staunchly realistic painters to refresh the desiccated abstract painting of the late 20th century. But it is one of Stella’s most daring contentions that the present crisis in abstract painting parallels the crisis that followed the death of Titian at the end of the 16th century. In Stella’s view, the 17th-century solution to its crisis is directly relevant to the concerns of contemporary abstract painting. “Something emerges from the churches in Rome,” he writes, “that speaks directly to the genius of the great painting of the 17th century and at the same time to the struggles of 20th-century abstraction.”

For Stella, the versatile genius who provides a solution to both artistic crises is Caravaggio—who, indeed, emerges as the presiding hero of these pages. Stella’s first two chapters are explicitly devoted to his work, and the remaining four chapters repeatedly return to savor his genius. According to Stella, not only did Caravaggio create “the kind of pictoriality we take for granted when we call a painting great, a kind of pictoriality that had not existed before,” but he also “changed the way artists would have to think about themselves and their work; he made the studio into a place of magic and mystery, a cathedral of the self.”

In Caravaggio’s “confrontational, projective illusionism,” Stella discovers above all the birth of the kind of bold spatial manipulation, the kind of “working space,” that he misses in contemporary painting. Such “working space” is less a passive field upon or within which the artist works than an active, enveloping, seemingly transitive medium: a space that itself may be said to “work” by appearing to violate the boundary between real and pictorial space. In The Conversion of Saint Paul (1600-01), for example, we see the stunned Paul fallen backward off his horse, his arms upraised, and Caravaggio’s ingenious lighting and foreshortening make both the God-struck Paul and the horse’s right front hoof seem to spill palpably out of the canvas into the viewer’s space.

It is in this sense that for Stella great painting does not merely illustrate space, populating a neutral picture plane with shapes or figures, but must seem to create space, to create “the sensation of real space.” “Fanciful as this space may be,” he tells us, “it has the cast of reality”; it imparts “the sensation of real presence and real action.” Herein lies the origin of what Stella describes as “the Godlike nature of creation in painting.” And so expert is Caravaggio at creating space with this “special, self-contained character” that Stella extols his achievement as a “miracle.”

Precisely this “miracle” of “created space” is what Stella finds missing from contemporary abstract painting, which, especially since the late 60’s, has displayed “surface coherence at the expense of pictorial energy.” In effect, then, Stella calls for a new Caravaggio, for a painter whose self-conscious pictorial drama will revive painting’s tie to the past and breathe new life into contemporary abstraction; and though this worthy successor to Caravaggio is never explicitly named, one is somehow not surprised that Stella’s list of desiderata makes the author of Working Space the only serious contender for his mantle.



Stella’s sometimes extravagant way of putting the matter may obscure the extent to which his interpretation of Caravaggio remains quite traditional. For example, in his classic Caravaggio Studies (1955), Walter Friedlaender, too, emphasizes the prominence of “forms projecting toward the spectator” in Caravaggio’s mature painting. Indeed, Friedlaender’s description of the effect of Caravaggio’s handling of space is remarkably akin to Stella’s, even down to the diction. “We no longer look into a fictitious world set apart by design, color, and light,” Friedlaender writes, “the entire construction seems to come physically toward us as if entering step by step into our world. We are made the recipients of the miracle.”

Nevertheless, there is a crucial difference between Friedlaender’s and Stella’s interpretation of the Lombardian master. Both stress the projective spatial illusion that stands at the center of Caravaggio’s achievements. But for Friedlaender, the beguiling illusionism that Caravaggio practices upon the beholder is undercut by a reality outside the picture plane, the autonomy of the artist’s space is broken by an acknowledgment of a dimension beyond art; Stella, by contrast, underscores the autonomy of Caravaggio’s art, the “special, self-contained character” of his pictorial space. Friedlaender’s Caravaggio remains an essentially religious artist, in the service of a reality that transcends painting and that “keeps the worshipper in a state of humble awe”; Stella’s Caravaggio is the artist who “made the studio . . . into a cathedral of the self.”

The difference says a great deal about the underlying nature of Stella’s own artistic program, at the heart of which lies the contention that great painting seeks to create a space that is not so much an imitation as a rival of reality. By creating the illusion of autonomous, self-contained space, the artist is able to communicate a sense of reality convincing enough to defeat, if but fleetingly, the contingency and transience that saturate everyday experience. Though admittedly elusive and “hard to see”—admittedly even unrealizable in practice—the promise of real presence that pictorial illusion conjures is, according to Stella, at the center of our attraction to great painting. It is in this sense that he can suggest the artist is “blessed.” “Here we feel the true liberation provided by art,” Stella writes. “We can sense being something, someone, other than ourselves.”

Setting forth this notion of an autonomous “working space” is the main “theoretical” or conceptual point of Stella’s Norton lectures. But what he presents is less a systematic treatise than an art-historical sampler, a series of more or less related, more or less personal, reflections on his pantheon of artistic icons by means of which the notion of working space is elaborated. And in this sense, considered as a kind of elevated table-talk, Working Space is a trove of casually brilliant remarks about painting and various painters. For such a short book there is a good deal of “filler,” but it tends to be filler of rare quality.

Many of the passages Stella devotes to Caravaggio, for example, or to Annibale Carracci, or to some contemporary American painters are the product of a restlessly sensitive aesthetic intelligence; and his main conceit, inviting us to compare the situation of contemporary abstract painting with the situation of late 16th-century Rome, is as illuminating as, finally, it is perverse. His Caravaggio may in fact conform only imperfectly to the historical personage of that name; but as a metaphor for a certain species of spiritual artistic yearning, Stella’s Caravaggio dramatically crystallizes a whole range of contemporary artistic problems.



Unfortunately, though, Working Space is also full of much that is questionable, misleading, or even patently false. Many of Stella’s pronouncements are little more than chic verbal gestures, ill-equipped to bear close scrutiny. This category includes throwaway obiter dicta as well as more fully developed discussions of particular painters. To the former belongs Stella’s observation, made in the course of his comments on Rodin’s “flowing, erotic marble limbs,” that “It is very hard for abstraction, or abstract figuration, to be sexy, and if it’s not sexy, it’s not art.” But in what sense can abstraction ever be said to be sexy? It is difficult even to make the idea intelligible, to say nothing of granting assent. And the more general suggestion, that “if it’s not sexy, it’s not art,” is simply an instance of a critical reflex that has become practically de rigueur in fashionable writing about art and literature these days: the reflex that automatically endows everything with a patina of eros, hoping thereby to invest it with added piquancy and allure.

This taste for the extravagant or titillating cliché is equally evident in some of Stella’s more elaborated digressions. One of his more tedious gambits—tedious because so predictable—is to suggest that the art works he discusses are at bottom self-referential, that they have more to do with the grammar of artistic production than with their ostensible subject matter. Discussing Titian’s excruciatingly powerful painting The Flaying of Marsyas (c. 1570-76), for example, Stella assures us that the painting

is more accurate about showing the personal costs inherent in the mechanics of painting than it is profound about describing the human condition in 16th-century Italy. By stripping away a surface created by the artist’s gifted touch, Titian reveals the blood-filled sinew and bone of pictorial technique, showing us how difficult it is for the artist to nurture and manipulate the body of his creation without mutilating it.

Titian’s shockingly graphic depiction of the torment of Marsyas, heavy with the themes of hubris and divine retribution, is thus dissolved into a metaphor for the painter’s activity of painting.

Stella’s interpretation of Titian also illustrates his tendency to confuse us with untenable dichotomies and comparisons. Thus, do the alternatives in a consideration of The Flaying of Marsyas really lie between “the personal costs inherent in the mechanics of painting” and a description of “the human condition in 16th-century Italy”? Or consider his observation that “Today, running around and dripping paint on bare canvas does not carry with it a sense of aesthetic excitement, does not create enough of a pictorial sensation or illusion.” One might well agree with the first part of this statement, that “running around dripping paint on bare canvas” is not the artistically engaging pastime it is said to have once been; but it is far from clear that the “aesthetic excitement” in question was ever necessarily a matter of pictorial “illusion.” In fact, as happens again and again in Working Space, Stella has here grafted his obsession with pictorial illusion onto an artistic movement whose chief concern with illusion was how to dispense with it.

Perhaps Stella’s most memorable excursion along these lines is his discussion, in the last chapter of the book, of Paulus Potter’s 1667 painting, The Young Bull. The painting is an aggressively naturalistic depiction of a bull, a cow, a few sheep, and a cowherd, grouped en famille as it were around a romantically gnarled tree. Stella slyly suggests that “The attraction of Potter’s bull is the attraction of innocence.” That is fair enough, as far as it goes, though most viewers would want to add that the “innocence” of Potter’s painting is essentially the mock-innocence of kitsch.

In any case, Stella’s primary reason for introducing the Dutch painting is to claim that it “has served as a model, as a kind of inspiration, for the development of abstract painting,” including, he tells us, some of his own paintings: “One always loves paintings that are like one’s own. In this case Potter’s Young Bull is a faithful image of a painting of mine from 1975, Leblon II.” For the benefit of the skeptical, Leblon II is reproduced in the book; it is a polychrome, irregularly-shaped, abstract construction—“mixed media on honeycombed aluminum”—of 80-by-116 inches. But not even Stella’s ingenious COMMENTARY can convince us that Leblon II has anything in common with The Young Bull, let alone that the 17th-century nature study has served as anything like a “model” for the development of abstract painting.

Indeed, Stella’s discussion of The Young Bull cannot but strike us a kind of mad divertissement, a divertissement that reaches giddy, surrealistic heights when Stella suggests that the “sense of disjointed, awkward pictorial space surrounding the markings and figures” in The Young Bull ties it “to the animation of Lascaux” on the one hand and “the graffiti of New York” on the other. It is hard to know which is more absurd here, the suggestion that the primitive cave paintings of Lascaux have anything at all to do, pictorially or spiritually, with contemporary urban graffiti, or that either is meaningfully related to Potter’s bucolic sentimentalism.



Considered individually, such objections are perhaps not particularly telling; none really demonstrates more than that Stella’s approach to art history is at least as “creative” as his approach to his own painting. But taken together, and considered with Stella’s identification of spatial illusion as the central imperative of contemporary abstract painting, they suggest a sensibility thoroughly committed to an aestheticized view of art. For in essence, Working Space is a brief for a certain species of pictorial illusionism; and Caravaggio comes in for such extravagant praise precisely because Stella considers him “a totally successful illusionist.”

That Frank Stella should be the author of such a brief is extraordinary. For one thing, it would appear to represent a radical departure from his own earlier convictions about the vocation of painting. In a much-quoted 1964 interview, Stella complained that he was always getting

into arguments with people who want to retain the old values in painting—the humanistic values that they always find on the canvas. If you pin them down, they always end up asserting that there is something there besides the paint on the canvas. My painting is based on the fact that only what can be seen is there. It really is an object. . . . If the painting were lean enough, accurate enough, or right enough, you would just be able to look at it. . . . What you see is what you see.

“Only what can be seen is there”: in other words, at this time Stella was adamantly against illusionism in painting, adamantly against what his early champion Michael Fried once castigated as “theatricality.” Working Space represents a more or less complete reversal of that early position.

Stella’s embrace of pictorial illusionism not only sets him against his own earlier artistic project, it also sets him at odds with the dominant tendency in modernist abstract painting in this century. “The aim of art,” Stella insists near the beginning of Working Space, “is to create space—space that is not compromised by decoration or illustration. . . . This is what painting has always been about.” There is a great deal that could be said about this passage. As Stella himself is quick to acknowledge, it leaves out of account practically all art before the Renaissance, before the development of the kind of sophisticated spatial illusionism that the perfection of one-point perspective made possible; indeed, Stella claims that art before the Renaissance “remains qualified in our eyes” precisely because of its “undeveloped illusionism.”

But the “undeveloped illusionism” that Stella disparages need not be regarded as a liability. For example, in Art and Scholasticism (1962), the French philosopher and aesthetician Jacques Maritain tells us that:

When on visiting an art gallery one passes from the rooms of the primitives to those in which the glories of oil painting and of a much more considerable material science are displayed, the foot takes a step on the floor but the soul takes a steep fall. It had been taking the air on the everlasting hills: it now finds itself on the floor of a theater—a magnificent theater. With the 16th century the lie installed itself in painting, which began to love science for its own sake, endeavoring to give the illusion of nature and to make us believe that in the presence of a painting we are in the presence of the scene or the subject painted, not in the presence of a painting.

For Maritain, the development of the kind of spatial illusionism that Stella champions, though it marks a perfection of artistic technique for its own sake, also signals the beginning of painting’s spiritual decline.



Maritain’s vignette epitomizes one traditional modernist response to the question of pictorial illusion in painting. Its essential aesthetic point is formulated in a more secular context by the critic Clement Greenberg, who may be considered the great, albeit unnamed, antagonist of Working Space. In his influential essay “Modernist Painting” (1960), Greenberg identifies the rejection of illusion as a main feature of modernist art. “Realistic, illusionist art had dissembled the medium,” Greenberg observes,

using art to conceal art. Modernism used art to call attention to art. The limitations that constitute the medium of painting—the flat surface, the shape of the support, the properties of pigment—were treated by the Old Masters as negative factors that could be acknowledged only implicitly or indirectly. Modernist painting has come to regard these same limitations as positive factors that are to be acknowledged openly.

Greenberg wishes to salvage the independence of painting every bit as much as Stella does; and his emphasis on the formal and material qualities of art helped inaugurate an approach to painting that Stella’s own criticism continues to follow in many respects. (See, for example, Stella on Titian’s The Flaying of Marsyas.) But unlike Stella, Greenberg holds that trafficking in pictorial illusion serves to bind modern painting to an aspect of its heritage that has become aesthetically bankrupt.2 Before the ascendancy of modernism, Greenberg notes, it “looked as though [the arts] were going to be assimilated to entertainment pure and simple, and entertainment itself looked as though it were going to be assimilated, like religion, to therapy.” In his view, it is only by preserving a critical, self-questioning, attitude toward its own vocation that painting—indeed, that modernist art generally—can avoid being reduced to an elevated kind of entertainment or “therapy.”



At the deepest level the question that Working Space poses is whether Stella’s vision of “creating space” does not turn its back on the fundamentally critical nature of the entire modernist enterprise. As Greenberg notes, modernist painting does not reject recognizable objects as such, but “the kind of space that recognizable, three-dimensional objects can inhabit”—exactly the kind of “working space” that Stella advocates. Brooding about “the relationship of abstraction to the meaning and future of modernism,” Stella acknowledges that “Modernism is the painting of the 20th century, and abstraction forms the core of its pictorial growth and strength”; as we have seen, he even describes Working Space as his “insistent defense of abstraction.” In fact, though, the abstraction that Stella has in mind is a kind of renegade abstraction, an abstraction manqué. For what Stella advocates is using the gestures of abstract painting to weave illusionistic, essentially figurative, fantasies. In the end, Stella wants to have it both ways: he wants the effect of reality without having to bother with the commitment to the truth-beyond-painting that allegiance to reality demands.

As many of the passages quoted in this article suggest, Working Space often exhibits a fervent, even religious, rhetoric that Stella uses to characterize the aesthetic power he attributes to illusionistic pictoriality. Yet it is difficult to know how one is to understand such rhetoric, for the truth is that an element of irony is seldom absent from Stella’s presentation in Working Space. There are few pronouncements about the nature or vocation of painting that he does not hollow out or cast doubt upon. One effect of this ubiquitous undercurrent of irony is to grant his argument an almost impermeable air of sophistication and complexity; but at bottom the irony also masks a confusion about the aesthetic substance of painting.

Near the end of the book, discussing Kandinsky’s occult speculations about the nature of art, Stella pauses to ask, “Is theosophy making abstraction trivial, or is the spiritual impulse being caricatured by abstraction”? Given Kandinsky’s infatuation with spiritualism, this is certainly a legitimate question. But one would like to apply it to Stella’s own meditations on the “miracle” of Caravaggio’s art, the “Godlike nature” of artistic creation, and so on. The alternatives Stella offers Kandinsky—trivializing abstraction or caricaturing the spiritual impulse—may well be the alternatives facing his own presentation in Working Space.




1 Harvard University Press, 177 pp., $30.00 (cloth), $14.95 (paper).

2 Greenberg's rejection of illusion, and his famous insistence on “flatness” or two-dimensionality in painting, is worth reconsidering in the context of Stella's own recent work. “Three-dimensionality is the province of sculpture,” Greenberg notes, “and for the sake of its own autonomy painting has had above all to divest itself of everything it might share with sculpture.” Essentially the same point was made by the German writer Wilhelm Worringer in Abstraction and Empathy (1908—a charter document in the literature on abstractionmdash;when he observed that abstraction by nature requires the “strict suppression of the representation of space.” Stella has repeatedly insisted that the effect of his latest three-dimensional constructions is fundamentally “pictorial,” not sculptural; but it is a nice question whether we experience these sprawling, multicolored armatures and cutout projections as painting or whether they are not really a kind of relief sculpture.

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