The craving for simplicity. People would like to say: ‘What really matters is only the colors.” You say this mostly because you wish it to be the case. If your explanation is complicated, it is disagreeable, especially if you don’t have strong feelings about the thing itself.
Frank Stella’s new paintings investigate the viability of shape as such. By shape as such I mean not merely the silhouette of the support (which I will call literal shape), nor merely that of the outlines of elements in a given picture (which I will call depicted shape), but shape as a medium within which choices about both literal and depicted shapes are made, and made mutually responsive. And by the viability of shape, I mean its power to hold, to stamp itself out, and in – as verisimilitude and narrative and symbolism used to impress themselves -compelling conviction. Stella’s undertaking in these paintings is therapeutic: to restore shape to health, at least temporarily, though of course its implied ‘sickness’ is simply the other face of the unprecedented importance shape has assumed in the finest modernist painting of the past several years – most notably, in the work of Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski. It is only in their work that shape as such can be said to have become capable of holding, or stamping itself out, or compelling conviction – as well as, so to speak, capable of failing to do so. These are powers or potentialities – not to say responsibilities – which shape never until now possessed, and which have been conferred upon it by the development of modernist painting itself. In this sense shape has become something different from what it was in traditional painting or, for that matter, in modernist painting until recently. It has become, one might say, an object of conviction, whereas before it was merely … a kind of object. Stella’s new pictures are a response to the recognition that shape itself may be lost to the art of painting as a resource able to compel conviction, precisely because – as never before – it is being called upon to do just that.
The way in which this has come about is, in the fullest sense of the word, dialectical, and I will not try to do justice to its enormous complexity in these rough notes. An adequate account of the developments leading up to Stella’s new paintings would, however, deal with the following:
1 The emergence of a new, exclusively visual mode of illusionism in the work of Pollock, Newman and Louis. No single issue has been as continuously fundamental to the development of modernist painting as the need to acknowledge the literal character of the picture-support. Above all this has tended to mean acknowledging its flatness or two-dimensionality. There is a sense in which a new illusionism was implicit in this development all along. [. . . ] But the universal power of any mark to suggest something like depth belongs not so much to the art of painting as to the eye itself; it is, one might say, not something that has had to be established so much as something – a perceptual limitation – that cannot be escaped, whereas the dissolution of traditional drawing in Pollock’s work, the reliance on large and generally rather warm expanses of barely fluctuating color in Newman’s, and the staining of thinned (acrylic) pigment into mostly unsized canvas in Louis’s were instrumental in the creation of a depth or space accessible to eyesight alone which, so to speak, specifically belongs to the art of painting.
2 The neutralizing of the flatness of the picture-support by the new, exclusively optical illusionism. In the work of Pollock and Newman, but even more in that of Louis, Noland and Olitski, the new illusionism both subsumes and dissolves the picture-surface – opening it, as Greenberg has said, from the rear – while simultaneously preserving its integrity. More accurately, it is the flatness of the picture-surface, and not that surface itself, that is dissolved, or anyway neutralized, by the illusion in question. The literalness of the picture-surface is not denied; but one’s experience of that literalness is an experience of the properties of different pigments, of foreign substances applied to the surface of the painting, of the weave of the canvas, above all of color – but not, or not in particular, of the flatness of the support. (One could say that here the literalness of the picture-surface is not an aspect of the literalness of the support.) Not that literalness here is experienced as competing in any way with the illusionistic presence of the painting as a whole; on the contrary, one somehow constitutes the other. And in fact there is no distinction one can make between attending to the surface of the painting and to the illusion it generates: to be gripped by one is to be held, and moved, by the other.
3 The discovery shortly before 1960 of a new mode of pictorial structure based on the shape, rather than the flatness, of the support. With the dissolution or neutralizing of the flatness of the support by the new optical illusionism, the shape of the support – including its proportions and exact dimensions – came to assume a more active, more explicit importance than ever before. The crucial figures in this development are Frank Stella and Kenneth Noland. In Stella’s aluminum stripe paintings of 1960, for example, iVi-inch wide stripes begin at the framing-edge and reiterate the shape of that edge until the entire picture is filled; moreover, by actually shaping each picture – the canvases are rectangles with shallow (one stripe deep) notches at two corners or along the sides or both – Stella was able to make the fact that the literal shape determines the structure of the entire painting completely perspicuous. That is, in each painting the stripes appear to have been generated by the framing-edge and, starting there, to have taken possession of the rest of the canvas, as though the whole painting self-evidently followed from, not merely the shape of the support, but its actual physical limits.
Noland too has shaped his pictures. [. . .] It cannot be emphasized too strongly, however, that Noland’s chief concern throughout his career has been with color – or rather, with feeling through color – and not with structure: which niakes the role that structural decisions and alterations have played in his development all the more significant. This is not to say that Noland’s colorism has had to maintain itself in the teeth of his forced involvement with structural concerns. On the contrary, it is precisely his deep and impassioned commitment to making color yield major painting that has compelled him to discover structures in which the shape of the support is acknowledged lucidly and explicitly enough to compel conviction.
4 The primacy of literal over depicted shape. In both Noland’s and Stella’s (stripe) paintings the burden of acknowledging the shape of the support is borne by the depicted shape, or perhaps more accurately, by the relation between it and the literal shape – a relation that declares the primacy of the latter. And in general the development of modernist painting during the past six years can be described as having involved the progressive assumption by literal shape of a greater – that is, more active, more explicit – importance than ever before, and the consequent subordination of depicted shape. It is as though depicted shape has become less and less capable of venturing on its own, of pursuing its own ends; as though unless, in a given painting, depicted shape manages to participate in – by helping to establish – the authority of the shape of the support, conviction is aborted and the painting fails. In this sense depicted shape may be said to have become dependent upon literal shape – and indeed unable to make itself felt as shape except by acknowledging that dependence.
Originally published in Artforum, V, no. 3, New York, November 1966.