Frank Stella and the Risks of Evolving Signature Style

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Zeltweg by Frank Stella, 1983
Frank Stella
One of Frank Stella’s early Black Paintings
Die Fahne hoch!, 1959 / via
(Click images to enlarge.)

The Abstract Expressionists were experts at branding their artistic styles. Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, for example, each began his career with highly stylized, but more or less figurative, Surrealist-inflected paintings. However, by the end of the 1940s, each had developed the triumphant signature style for which he is still immediately known, and all three stuck with only subtle variations on those signature styles for the remainders of their careers and into their apotheoses.

American artist Frank Stella came up in the first generation of New York artists after the Abstract Expressionists, and is still working today. Stella’s career, by contrast with the older artists, precociously began in the late 1950s with an iconic signature style, which remained basically consistent through a few subtle, but exciting, variations. Then, in the ‘70s, his work took a radical turn, abandoning that iconic earlier style for something—this is obviously subjective; it’s what the rest of this post is about—worse, alas. A retrospective show of his work from the past six decades is currently on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the museum’s first major monographic show in its new building.

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The paintings Stella produced during what I consider his golden age through the ‘60s are the several series focused on systematic compositions of stripes. The Black Paintings, the first work in this style, are deceptively simple, very smart images. These canvases continue some Abstract Expressionist strategies—all-over compositions, restricted palettes, etc.—but transform them into something new in a way that takes an important step toward the Minimalism (with which Stella is associated) and Conceptualism that would emerge as central to the art world by the end of the ‘60s.

Frank Stella, Plant City, 1963 / via
Frank Stella, Plant City, 1963 / via

Systematic compositions of stripes proved an extraordinarily rich signature style, with surprising possibilities for variation that kept Stella’s work fresh and dynamic. The rectangular designs (all the links in this paragraph are to sample images of Stella’s paintings illustrating my descriptions) that Stella executed freehand in the Black Paintings gave way to more complex arrangements with more precise, taped lines or on shaped canvases or with multi-colored paint or with shiny metallic paint or with protractor-derived curves or with jaunty irregularly shaped stripes.

Through all these variations, the work remains rigorous and austere, sophisticated and elegant. And then, in the ‘70s, Stella’s work began to look like this, which is none of those things:

Stella Eskimo Curlew
Frank Stella, Eskimo Curlew, 1976

To my eye, these more three-dimensional, aluminum paintings feel arbitrary and chaotic. “Arbitrary” and “chaotic” are by no means universally negative descriptors when it comes to a lot of art, but it helps when the artworks are about arbitrariness and chaos, which Stella’s are not. The striped works feel like an artist working through a complex—and, as it turned out, influential—idea about the limits of painting; the later, 3D relief works feel like something “bold” that would be suitable for a generic, if high-end, corporate office building lobby. I don’t mean that in a good way.

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Why does it matter if I like some of Stella’s paintings more than others? In many ways, it doesn’t. But implicit in my snooty dismissal of Stella’s post-stripe work is the suggestion that he ought not have let his style change and evolve, that he ought to have frozen his style and continued his career exactly the same way he began it. Fortunately, Stella does not look to me for advice. Still, I hardly want to argue that artists should let their work stagnate. So, in light of this, how do we assess Stella’s career?

One of the wall texts in the Whitney show addresses this directly—and demonstrates that my reaction to the work from the ‘70s is far from unique:

One expectation that is frequently imposed on artists—by writers and critics as well as the art market—is that their work should remain consistent and recognizable. Stella’s refusal to settle into a signature style has made him an anomaly. Early on, his exploratory approach proved shocking to some critics, who saw the Black Paintings as representing a purist ideal and viewed the new work as a violation. [. . .] As time has gone on, though, it has become apparent that Stella’s early works were simply one step in his wide-ranging explorations of what painting might achieve.

 

Stella’s fearless attitude toward change and his willingness to explore new forms, materials, and techniques has meant that his art has always responded to its time.

That statement over-sells things a bit by evoking “purity” and “violation,” substantially loaded words that make Stella’s critics out to be reactionary. However, there is a strong point about openness to change and artistic experimentation.

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But there’s stylistic evolution and then there’s stylistic evolution. It is valuable and important for artists to keep trying new techniques and exploring new ideas, but it matters what those new techniques and ideas are. A prestige actor like Alec Guinness can make Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai and then make the surprising career move of appearing in the different, maybe lesser, but still delightful Star Wars. Or a prestige actor like Cuba Gooding, Jr., can win an Oscar for Jerry Maguire and then go on to star in the definitely lesser, execrable Boat Trip. Both actors tried something different, but the substance of the difference affects their respective reputations. To his credit, Stella does demonstrate Guinness’s adventuresome spirit; however, he falls into the Gooding trap.

Nonetheless, on balance, that is better than never evolving. Probably.