Space to expand - how Frank Stella looks at abstract painting

Anyone - artist or viewer - who might be feeling somewhat jaded about the state and fate of abstract painting in the 1980s and beyond could do a lot worse than read Working Space, by Frank Stella (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.) from cover to cover. It presents the American artist's ``Charles Eliot Norton Lectures 1983-84'' in book form. The front cover is significant. It is a photograph of one of the artist's recent, burgeoning ``paintings'' (reliefs?), a buildup of shapes, of lines and pigments and brushwork, amounting to an event his studio can hardly contain. It suggests ad hoc procedures; a unique expansion of the planned suddenly growing into the unexpected. It is painting taking off. It has no sense of conventional boundaries or frame; it has excited, overlapping surfaces, and its upper reaches charge up to the rafters while its lower ones dive through some sort of trapdoor in the floor. It looks like the work of an artist who wants his art to take over the world and a fair portion of space as well. No wonder he titled his lectures ``Working Space.''

So this is more than just a stimulating cover. It visibly explains Stella's underlying message.

For the most part, virtually until the last few pages, he gives little overt attention to his own work. And yet it gradually becomes clear he is talking throughout about his own confrontation of ``the challenge of making art,'' even when he appears to be talking about other artists. But by the same token he is also considering the development of abstract art as a whole.

As he alights on chosen aspects of art history - Caravaggio, Rubens, Picasso, Kandinsky, Paulus Potter - exploring their relevance to what he perceives to be painting's problems and opportunities today, the image on the cover acts like an emblem. It symbolizes his own move since the late 1950s, when his ``stripe'' paintings brought him fame, from being a literal abstractionist to becoming a most remarkably imaginative, or even fantastic, one: from being a successor of Mondrian to - of all the unpredictable things - becoming a successor of Rubens.

What is fascinating about these lectures is that they reveal, with striking openness, the kind of thinking and feeling that have fired this astonishing change in his art - and very original thinking it is. Clearly he enjoyed surprising his lecture audience, and now his readers. He is like a firework: Here is no steadily unraveling argument, but a constellation of unexpected leaps, of seemingly outrageous eruptions descending on our comfortable view of art history, of provocative juxtapositions - of what he calls ``loose associations.'' His enlightening, fresh approach to anything from Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling to Kandinsky's late paintings - although it sometimes disappears into a temporary obscurantism of words - continually throws out alarming flares: his contention, for example, that ``compared with seventeenth-century Dutch painting, the light of Impressionism is murky and opaque.'' It is? Or that Cubism and Impressionism were ``bastions of pictorial conservatism.'' They were? Or that Kandinsky's despised late works have been misjudged and have, in fact, tremendous relevance for abstract painting today. Or his linking together of the ``Young Bull,'' by 17th-century Dutch painter Paulus Potter; the prehistoric cave paintings of Lascaux; and the graffiti of New York City. Or, most tellingly, his assertion that ``the necessity of creating pictorial space that is capable of dissolving its own perimeter and surface plane is the burden modern painting was born with. No one helped lighten this burden more than Caravaggio.'' Caravaggio?

His analysis of Caravaggio makes it impossible to look at that 17th-century Italian realist's art in quite the same way ever again. Caravaggio's great signal to future abstract painting, Stella argues, is that he ``exploded the surface and still contained the action.'' He showed - as compared with the Renaissance painters of the 16th century - how space in painting could be liberated from slavery to the sculptural or the architectural, how it could have its own space. Rubens in turn took up this spatial freedom wrought by Caravaggio. ``No one,'' says Stella, ``makes it clearer than Rubens how dearly painting wants to use all of the space that is available to the human imagination.'' And he suggests that ``we should see ourselves on a pedestal if we want to be true viewers of painting,'' because then we will be aware of ``the space all around us - the space behind us, next to us, below us, and above us - in addition, of course, to the space in front of us, which we have so often taken as being the only space available to us as viewers.''

He endeavors to grasp the nettle of the accusation that what abstract art lacks is the human element: that, for example, Mondrian and Kandinsky have plenty of ``pictorial dynamics'' in their paintings but a distinct absence of ``human dynamics.'' He is convinced that abstraction can, and actually needs, to rise to this challenge, which he finds particularly strong in Picasso's retreat to the lowlands of classical figuration after scaling the mountain of cubism.

Finally, the main point is hammered home: The superiority of abstraction still remains basically unchallenged, whatever its needs to revive and grow, because it has ``the best chance of any pictorial attitude to be inclusive about the expanding sum of our culture's knowledge.'' And there, instead of simply resting his case, the closed book necessarily refers the reader back to that image on the cover - Stella's own visualization of abstraction's ``unfettered expandability.'' Without that image, little of what he said in these lectures would have meaning. With it, his surge of words has a surprisingly persuasive and enlivening relevance.

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