Artist of patterns

Frank Stella’s work is all about getting rid of conventional ideas – especially where art is concerned.

Frank Stella sits in front of his ‘Łunna Wola II’ (1973) at the ‘Frank Stella and Synagogues of Historic Poland’ exhibition at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw (photo credit: MAGDA STAROWIEYSKA / COURTESY POLIN MUSEUM)
Frank Stella sits in front of his ‘Łunna Wola II’ (1973) at the ‘Frank Stella and Synagogues of Historic Poland’ exhibition at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw
LEGENDARY PAINTER Frank Stella, 79, likes to talk. But it’s hard to make him speak about what his paintings might mean.
He doesn’t like to talk about his perspective on topics that have broader significance.
Which isn’t surprising. In his nearly sixdecade career, Stella has managed to create works that, he claims, avoid philosophical or emotional illusion – works in which, as he has famously said, “What you see is what you see.”
But the problem is that most of us don’t see what we see. We see what we want to see. Or what we don’t want to see. Or what someone else wants or doesn’t want us to see. And Stella’s ongoing challenge is for us to look more carefully and experience the object before us on its own terms – pointing to a greater significance in his work.
Stella has been challenging viewers from his first works – and has been recognized for this in more exhibitions than can be enumerated.
In addition to a major retrospective inaugurating the new Whitney Museum building in New York’s Soho, Stella has recently opened a show of his so-called “Polish Synagogue” paintings at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, which runs until June 20.
The exhibition represents a fitting combination of subject and place – but don’t expect the works to make it easy to see the connections.
The reason why Stella, who was born to and raised by Italian-American parents, chose to paint Polish synagogues destroyed in World War II – and how this connects to a museum that gives the history of Polish Jewry going back a thousand years – isn’t necessarily obvious.
And, since it’s Stella we’re talking about, trying to answer it means looking first not at historical facts, but at the history of his work and its engagement with the world.
Stella extends the challenge in his art to his dealings with the world. He fights against easy thinking – so he puts obstacles in our way to catch our attention. There’s an integrity to this purposeful placing of stumbling blocks, which are really attempts at clarifying what we see and say. We stumble on something because we don’t notice our surroundings. Stella makes us stumble, in part, so that we can see where we are.
Part of his approach is to never really tell us that this is what he’s doing. Instead, he talks almost strictly about the literal actions he takes in painting.
“It’s an integrated process,” Stella tells The Jerusalem Report. “The way marks go down [on a canvas] is pretty straightforward.
The paint can be hard or loose. The process of making images is the problem of making marks on a surface.”
If it were that simple, there’d be plenty of Frank Stellas. But there aren’t – suggesting there’s more to what he’s doing than merely “making marks.” And, yet, he would argue, there isn’t – that this is yet another attempt to put more into the painting than is really there.
Here we can maybe catch a glimpse into Stella’s art – the gap between what he says about his works and what his works actually do to viewers. The hint to Stella’s “success” – not as a cultural figure, but as an artist – is that his works have an effect. They do something to people that other “marks” don’t achieve. Like it or not, Stella is doing more than “making marks.” He’s creating works that do something to people.
Stella took the “problem” of marking a canvas to the extreme – but he framed it through patterns. And these patterns he abstracted from his surroundings.
Two of his early works – “East Broadway” (1958) and “West Broadway” (1958) – already point to the way his thinking about painting depended on patterns and variations, both visually and conceptually.
Each painting shows what suggest themselves as abstracted buildings using patterns of stripes – one dark and another light – “East” with yellow and black and “West” with orange and green. Each painting also includes a rectangle that suggests an opening in the structure – “East” with a “door” connected to the bottom of the painting and “West” with a “window” connected to the top.
The flipped symmetry of up and down, east and west, light and dark – along with the use of a large rectangle breaking the pattern of the stripes – already begins to spell out some of the tensions Stella would continue to develop and vary for the rest of his career.
They also show how quickly Stella was able to “essentialize” or abstract his ideas.
“East Broadway” still looks somewhat like a building, but if not for “West Broadway’s” title, it would be harder to understand that it has some root in real structures.
Yet, these works also show how grounded Stella was by his surroundings. In 1958, he first rented a living and studio space on the Lower East Side near East Broadway, and later, in what is now Soho near West Broadway.
These “abstract” paintings actually reveal themselves as urban landscapes reflecting the places where Stella actually lived.
“[Place] is one of the things you live with,” he admits. “You can say it’s taking the world and making it into an abstraction.
But actually places are real.”
As a classic example of “urban landscapes,” Stella gives Piet Mondrian’s famous “Broadway Boogie Woogie” (1942- 43). That work, too, created a pattern – but it remained confined to a more classic notion of canvas. According to Stella, “pure abstraction is totally about geometry,” and his vision expanded the scale of geometric patterns to overtake the canvas.
This seems to have brought Stella to his famous “black stripe” paintings in 1959 – in which, as art critic and founder of “Artforum” magazine Philip Leider once pointed out, “the space between is not white, but bare canvas.” These, in turn, turned into his “irregular polygons” – expanding the size and role of the canvas until it, too, became part of the patterned work.
Pattern is of ultimate importance in Stella’s work. It traces the movement of his thought while also connected to deep tendencies in everyday action.
PATTERNS ARE essential to human life on both literal and symbolic levels – we need patterns to think as much as we need them to build. To create a structure that will hold, we need to think out a pattern that can be constructed. To lead a creative life, we need to introduce patterns of behavior, belief, and thought – all of which funnel into politics and social structure no less than into religious and artistic life.
Stella’s mastery of pattern-thinking is not something mundane. It shows a deep familiarity, curiosity and playfulness with one of the most important aspects of the human psyche.
This is emphasized by the way his works trace thought patterns through geometric designs.
“The idea that artists feel before they think is not true,” says Stella. “They think all the time – mostly about painting.”
Comments like these show how Stella “flattens perspective” not only in his paintings, but also in what he says. Pop artist sometimes did this by choosing extremely familiar images and words. We might say that Andy Warhol made people aware of their own idiocy – and that Ed Ruscha makes people aware of their illusions. Stella, who we might say turned abstract expressionism into abstract pop, does both – while additionally making people aware of their blindness.
It’s possible that part of this effect comes from the titles he gives his works. He says he gives titles because “things need a name.” The names he gives, however, are telling. The paintings in the series that came to be known as the “Irregular Polygons” were given names of places he’d visited with his father as a child. There is clearly sentiment in such a decision. But it’s important that this sentiment doesn’t become sentimentality – and that the effect of the painting is different from its title’s effect.
This in itself changes how we relate to emotion ‒ something Stella suggests in a comment about an early pioneer of minimalist abstraction, the Russian avant-garde painter Kazimir Malevich, creator of the famous “Black Square.”
“Malevich wrote that abstraction reaches the level of pure feeling,” recalls Stella, adding that this involves “getting rid of conventional ideas of feeling.”
It might be appropriate to say that Stella’s own work is all about getting rid of conventional ideas altogether – especially where art is concerned. “It’s about observation – or intuition about observation,” he says. “It’s about art – but mostly about the world as you see it.”
Sometimes, however, it’s also about the world that is no longer there – seeing the world as it was and its connection to today.
This was the case with Stella’s “Polish synagogues” series (1970-73), inspired by Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka’s 1959 book “Wooden Synagogues,” published in Warsaw.
“Artforum’s” Leider wrote of the book that it was a “photographic and diagrammatic record of more than 70 of the hundreds of exquisitely designed wooden synagogues that dotted the villages of prewar Poland, every one of which was burned to the ground during the Nazi invasion and occupation.”
He added that Stella “began a series of works inspired by these buildings, in which he was determined to find a way to shape the surface, as well as the framing edges.”
We see, again, how much Stella’s work is framed by observation of something in the world – in this case, a book with architectural plans – and the “problem” of how to turn this into abstract painting.
In Stella’s words, unlike the “Irregular Polygons,” these works “relied more on individual parts building up a more complex relationship.”
This complex relationship, seen in the plans, came from the materials used to build these synagogues. “When building with stronger materials [like metal or stone] you don’t need to be so complicated. Wood creates complexity. Using wood structurally creates a joining use of materials, and the roof needs a lot of timbers. The basic idea has to do with joining – how pieces are put together. To use a dopey word: interlocked.”
This is a “dopey” word because it’s an intellectual word that gets away from the “basic idea” of “joining” – which is coming together.
It’s not clear whether Stella considered the possibility that the word “synagogue” comes from the Greek sunagōgḗ or “bring together.” But it might point to his intuition (or luck) in identifying forms that represent their function on both literal and symbolic levels. The “synagogue” is a place of joining together – and the wooden synagogues are built in a way that demands the material be joined together. The material and the human worlds parallel each other.
“THE FORMS locking themselves together, meld together, creating an image of the parts locked together,” says Stella. “It’s just a given. All history is a given.”
Here, Stella reveals how his patterns of thinking manage to shift between material and human worlds – between givens in form and givens in history.
“This idea of worrying about geometry, about how to put things together, was destroyed by another way of putting things together,” he says. “But the documentation of it, the drawing of plans for construction, had a lot of resonance with ideas that are easy to adapt. I don’t know if there’s a big idea here – that the underlying structure of the art of the past used geometry that’s in the art of our time. In this case, it seemed a perfect example of correspondence, it intimated something useful.”
The historical significance of Stella’s project – bringing attention to synagogues destroyed by the Nazis – was not his starting point. But neither can the project avoid this significance. It plays interestingly against another of Stella’s earlier works: the 1959 black stripe painting titled “Die Fahne Hoch!” (“Flag on High,” from the Nazi anthem) and “Arbeit Macht Frei” (1950). Stella admits that he probably wouldn’t have named the painting that way today ‒ that there’s something about being young that gives a kind of license. He says he used it because of what he calls “the outrageousness of barbarity.”
“When I showed the black paintings, I had that painting, and I couldn’t resist, it’s awful, but your parents also tell you that working hard is good, though they didn’t say it made you free,” he recalls.
And while his choice reflects how deeply World War II affected his generation, the title was a way of getting at the deeper layers of human existence. “As big as the idea of the Holocaust – in my lifetime it was constant – it wasn’t about the Holocaust. It was about destruction.”
Yet, he says he later met a curator who asked him how she could know what side he was on – and admits she had a point. “I wouldn’t dare to do it now. There’s an advantage to being young and foolhardy.”
Titles such as these in Stella’s work presented yet another way of drawing attention to the way that objects are made – to their construction and destruction.
“The trick is, you don’t know how, but it’s very self-referential. You’re bringing attention to yourself.”
He refers to another one of his earlier paintings with colored stripes and a rectangle – “Coney Island” (1958) – reflecting on how we take in places that are around us.
“There’s a Coney Island inside you – in your consciousness – it’s a part of you. And a part that’s not going to go away.”