On an anecdote by R. Krauss. With M. Fried, F. Stella, Velásquez, and M. Tobey

In an article published in Artforum (1972), Rosalind Krauss recounts this anecdote:

One day, while the show “Three American Painters” was hanging at the Fogg Museum at Harvard, Michael Fried and I were standing in one of the galleries. To our right was a copper painting by Frank Stella, its surface burnished by the light which flooded the room. A Harvard student who had entered the gallery approached us. With his left arm raised and his finger pointing to the Stella, he confronted Michael Fried. “What’s so good about that?” he demanded. Fried looked back at him. “Look,” he said slowly, “there are days when Stella goes to the Metropolitan Museum. And he sits for hours looking at the Velazquezes, utterly knocked out by them and then he goes back to his studio. What he would like more than anything else is to paint like Velázquez. But what he knows is that that is an option that is not open to him. So he paints stripes.” Fried’s voice had risen. “He wants to be Velázquez so he paints stripes.” 

It was only recently, while narrating the piece of dialogue to a painter friend, that I felt some real emotion; I did realize how much sincerity, renunciation and, yes, emotion, there is in this episode. The story doesn’t say though whether what Fried said corresponds exactly to his friend Stella’s mental states, but we can suppose that it does, because we’ll assume that he wouldn’t venture into such, yes, intimate, ammunition-free territory. 

The exhibition Krauss refers to is the eponymous one organized by Fried in 1965, featuring works by Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski and Frank Stella. I find this anecdote, which might seem secondary, to be also eminently revealing of an obvious fact, like a medical observation: “you can’t paint like they used to”. It’s impossible for Stella to paint like Velázquez, even if he could. Because if he could (he’s “knocked out”, so he can’t) it would be at once anachronistic, even kitsch. But why? Because we’re no longer live in 17th-century Hispanic, but in New York, during the 60s of the 20th century. You might say: “But some painters, even in those years, didn’t abandon figuration”. No, they did not. To which I’d ask: Which ones? On the American side, you might suggest Edward Hopper, and I would dare say: “A catastrophic poster made paint, and, by the way, he stole almost everything from Guy Pène du Bois”. Who else? Walt Kunh? No. Kuniyoshi? No. Leon Kroll? No. Thomas Hart Benton? No. John Steuart Curry? No. Grant Wood? No. Jack Levine? No. Ivan Albright? No. George Tooker? No. All these North American figurative painters are of no interest. Certainly, some of them produce honest work, but all in the continuity of a predominantly pre-Manet painting (as far as figuration is concerned), which is embarrassing. Stella knew this perfectly well. American figurative painting was of no interest in the first decades of the twentieth century, although Winslow Homer was certainly the most interesting figurative painter, but going back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth is not very enticing. Fortunately for Stella, there’s Mark Tobey, who, in 1944, painted this:

Mark Tobey, “Remote Field”, 1944, tempera, pencil, and ink on board, 71.3 X 76.3 cm, MoMa

We had to wait for more than thirty years for a painter to emerge on this side of the Atlantic who was as free and gifted as Paul Klee (ceteris paribus), in other words, a painter who did not allow himself to be voluntarily locked into a style, however fleeting, be it commercial. And that, for an artist like Stella, born in 1936 and still alive, must have been a life-saving oxygen cylinder! 

Mark Tobey, “Wild Field”, 1959, tempera on board, 67.8 x 70.2 cm, MoMa

And what about this fantastic gouache?

Mark Tobey, “Space Wall”, 1960, gouache on board mounted on board, 14 x 14.6 cm, MoMa

It has nothing to do with Frank Stella, but, as I’ve suggested, it’s oxygen, and, moreover, it shows one of the possible paths to invention, novelty, just creating something unprecedented; not to boast, but to justify the adventurous life that every artist’s life necessarily is (which doesn’t happen when you repeat the past, of course). What did Stella do in 1966? This, for example:  

Frank Stella, Untitled, 1966, Watercolor, marker, and pencil on paper, 61 x 47,6 cm, Marianne Boesky Gallery New York / Aspen

It’s a beginning, at least, considering the technicality Stella would later deploy, but then, all things must begin sometime, mustn’t they? In these golden-yellow, pale-pink and green doodles, did Stella find “inspiration” in Tobey? This is by no means certain. Note that Tobey’s doodle (the one just above) is more rigorous, and, incidentally, the notion of  “doodle” is not, in my eyes, pejorative — when it’s intelligible because the purpose is there (Twombly did this very well). Clearly, Stella is looking for forms and ideas, which he will develop a little later. But it’s already here, in nunce. And it won’t take long:  

Frank Stella, “Clinton Plaza, Black Series I”, 1967, estampes et multiples, lithograph Édition : Ed. of 100 Taille : 55,9 x 38,1 cm, Caviar20, Toronto

« So he paints stripes » (Fried). Stripes are coming! Between ’67 and ’68, Stella refined: 

It’s not that yet, because there’s still some romanticism in this still “impure” black — too much white in it. But you see, a year later ↓ it’s settled; no more romanticism, but an increasingly “machinic”, and therefore depersonalized approach (Duchamp legacy) : 

Frank Stella, “Itata”, 1968, colour lithograph on paper, 41,3 x 56,8 cm, Galerie Ludorff, Düsseldorf

It is, to quote a great American philosopher perfectly unknown in France, i.e., Tyler Burge, the difference between “individualism” and “mentality”, with the artist as a ready-made exemplar — well, the one who meets the specifications… What’s it all about? Stella, as if by magic, seeks to de-psychologize art, in such a way that, looking at “Itata”, one might well suspect a machine at work. But it’s not such, of course. Hence the phrase that every art lover knows: “What you see is what you see”, signed Stella. What does this phrase, now a gimmick, mean? It means this: When you look at a Stella work, don’t look for the upstream biography, a little psychological history, an ersatz heroism; no, just look and bounce, like a mental ping-pong ball. But here’s the devil’s advocate: “All of art history to get to this?” Fried: “He wants to be Velázquez, so he paints stripes.” Right. Stella is not Velázquez, that’s a fact, because Fried would almost be mistaken in committing an anachronism (he wants to be Velázquez). Besides, one could argue that, as far as Stella is concerned, we can’t freeze on his stripes, which couldn’t possibly sum up Stella’s entire oeuvre. Right. Having said that, what more is there to say? Let’s respond to the devil’s advocate: “Art history is not a constant ray of light from the cosmic confines, it’s a construction; not necessarily a social construction, but an intellectual and equally mysterious one. Applying Velázquez to Stella means nothing, because we’re a long way from the 17th century, just as the 17th is a long way from the 20th. So no comparison is possible. It’s worth noting that you can put Galileo in dialogue with Einstein, but not Velázquez with Stella. Why not? Because there is a filiation between Galilean, Newtonian and Einsteinian theories, whereas no such filiation can be found between Velázquez and Stella.” 

In other words, in order to evaluate Stella’s art, and in particular the Stripes series, we need to put it in competition with other artists from the so-called contemporary art movement, which began, coincidentally, at the very beginning of the 1960s. It would seem, therefore, that Stella is one of its pioneers, which is also to say that the language Stella deploys and employs still speaks to us. In this respect, has he “told” us all about it? No. Stella’s morphological — or, if you prefer, eidetic — language has yet to be deciphered, because, yes, it’s still young. In this sense, and since Stella’s stripes, nobody has done it better. 

NB. In Fried’s essay in the exhibition catalog, he refers to Noland as a “modernist painter”, but Noland was one of the first, a pioneer, to “enter” contemporary art. Hence it’s no longer a question of modern art… 

Refs. Rosalind Krauss, “A View of Modernism”, Artforum, 1972 /// Tyler Burger, « Individualism and the mental », Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 1979 //// Krauss’s article can be found in French in L’originalité de l’avant-garde et autres mythes modernistes, Macula, 2000. As for Burge, I believe the article has never been translated, like so many other American nuggets of intelligence… 

Léon Mychkine

writer, Doctor of Philosophy, independent researcher, art-critic, AICA-France member


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