The New Black: Brute Elegance on an Industrial Scale

When 23-year-old Frank Stella burst onto the scene in 1959, the flinty minimalism of his black stripe paintings was like a shiv plunged into abstract expressionism's colorful, passionate heart. These were paintings supposedly devoid of content or emotion: "What you see is what you see," he declared. Still, such titles as Die Fahne Hoch (Raise the Banner High), cribbed from the Nazis' "Horst Wessel Song," gave the lie to a strictly formal agenda. His later garishly polychromed wall reliefs, constructed from aluminum and steel mesh, take their enigmatic titles from exotic birds and passages in Moby-Dick.

Now the famous black is employed in a series of imposing sculptures: Stella bends stainless-steel conduits into broad spirals that guide the eye from shiny, expansive frameworks into the synthetic depths of dark carbon fiber slabs—a material, the artist points out, "first used for the Stealth bomber." The massive black sail in memantra (all titles for these works come from Margaret Mead's 1942 essay "Balinese Character") is embossed with an interlocking leaf pattern flowing from a central pupil; the tremendous weight of this 20-foot behemoth rests on intersecting steel pipes, a supporting cross reminiscent of the rock solid compositions underpinning Caravaggio's paintings. (The baroque master figured prominently in a series of Harvard lectures Stella gave in the '80s.) No attempt is made to cover up scorched welds or the heavy bolts connecting wide flanges, adding to the raw exuberance of the work. In the smaller, wall-mounted oekiran, refrigerator coils swirl, cornucopia-like, from an exhaust pipe, while bright-red and ochre rags, cast as thin, curving ridges, jut out like molted skin.

Pushing 70, Stella hasn't mellowed. As he continues to marry a profound knowledge of art history to the brute elegance of his materials, he remains an artistic movement of one.

 
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