If you can’t stand Frank Stella’s work past, say, 1975, and if his wall sculptures register as oversized whatsits that take up too damn much space, then congratulations. The Whitney’s overstuffed, six-decade “Frank Stella: A Retrospective” is exactly the affirmation you needed.
But if you ever doubted his lean, analytical paintings from the late 1950s and 1960s, if you considered them decorative or cold or plotted, then you’ll have to reconsider. Next to the bombast of the later works, those oldies are the only goodies, and they’re fighting hard for attention in the shadow of their unruly siblings.
If only this career survey had concentrated on the good stuff and cut the drivel, we’d have been content with a show half this size, with maybe a quarter of the 100 works on the checklist. In his latter years, Stella, 79, has developed grandiose notions of what painting should be, and those ideas have become increasingly self-indulgent.
How to explain it? He is a man who has had lots of luck. Though he grew up modestly, he was educated at the highest level of American privilege: secondary school at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts; college at Princeton. He visited New York galleries on the regular, rubbed elbows with the art-world boys’ club (and then became a member), and found works from his series of black paintings in a 1959 MoMA group show — the year he turned 23.
So he peaked young, delivering a good fifteen years of stimulating output that wrestled with what a painting should look like post–Abstract Expressionism. Stella deployed reason, plotting out concentric channels of paint with hints of raw canvas between them, like mazes or labyrinths. Though from afar they had a machine-made air, up close the feathering at the hand-painted edges hinted at Rothko; the hardware-store-bought paint nodded to Pollock. In the 1960s Stella wrapped his canvases around polygonal and other crazy shapes, pushing boundaries between art and object and bringing the object’s construction to the fore. At the Whitney, your eye will alight on the notched flaps of canvas Stella cut and stapled to fit his unusual wooden stretchers. And man, they really know how to light up a room — here the right-angled Creede II (1961) and starlike Plant City (1963) so enliven everything around them that a gallery bench never looked sexier.
But Stella’s good idea eventually got bloated, monstrous, even rude. His low-relief constructions made from multiple panels of wood and felt and paint worked out OK; they made sense. But sometime in the mid-Seventies, about the time he began a series titled for exotic birds and another for auto racetracks, his paintings became masses of painted swirls and swooshes that curled off the surface in unruly, if decorative, compositions. The best one can say about the leopard-print-like background and swooshes that make up 1976’s Inaccessible Island rail, 5.5x is that it uncannily anticipates the gestalt of 1980s interior decorating.
From there the works just got bigger and more domineering. 1990’s Raft of the Medusa (Part I) is over thirteen feet tall and nearly as wide and deep, a silver-colored accumulative mass hanging like a barnacle off a steel frame. (And what a tease for a title — a painting we’d rather be looking at!) Or the overworked banality of 2009’s K.81 combo (K.37 and K.43) large size, a mess of 3-D printed swirls and whirligigs attached to an aluminum tube armature. Face-on, we see something like a gargantuan olive speared by cocktail sticks; in profile, maybe some kind of robot insect. Again, the tease of it! Where is the equally massive martini to get us through this show?
‘Frank Stella: A Retrospective’
Whitney Museum of American Art
99 Gansevoort Street
Through February 7, 2016