Frank Stella’s first major London show in 25 years presents his spectacular early works alongside recent failings
25 years since his last major London exhibition and Frank Stella is finally back. Haunch of Venison presents us with ‘Connections’, an in-depth look at the work of one of the most important and influential American artists of the last fifty years.
Rather than chronologically (as one might expect for such an exhibition), the show is arranged thematically, with concerns such as ‘Surfaces’, ‘Working Space’, or ‘Colour’, dividing the work. This approach successfully brings out a sense of Stella’s enduring preoccupations throughout his career, as well as sense of how, over time, different aspects of these ideas have come to the fore, been combined, dropped, or revisited.
The thematic approach is particularly effective in the room entitled ‘Openings’, with Stella’s play between painting as ‘object’ or ‘window’ – flat surface or deep space – becoming wholly evident. Pieces such as ‘Sidney Guberman’ (1964) and ‘Creede II’ (1961) are simple gestalts, reducing illusionism to a radical minimum, in which the image is the canvas surface. In ‘Sidney Guberman’, the idea of an ‘opening’ has been addressed literally, with a hexagonal hole punched through the hexagonal canvass. And this has the effect, ironically, of limiting the visual depth emerging in the surface image.
But, on the perpendicular wall hangs the monumental ‘Basra Gate I’ (1968) – a work that gives free play to the illusory ‘openings’ creatable in two-dimensions. As you approach it, the huge planes of colour expand to fill your whole visual field; and an extraordinarily deep, and terrifyingly vertiginous, sense of space is created, with the painting plunging into the wall and threatening to suck you in. In this piece (unlike in ‘Sidney…’), Stella allows the visual depth of the image to become almost unlimited, infinite.
Simultaneously, however, – and this is what makes this piece one of the indisputable highlights of the show – a tension is maintained between this illusory depth, the unmodulated surfaces of powerful colour, and the objecthood of the pure form, through the rigid geometric shapes combining with the crisp boundary lines of vibrant red and blue that slice up the planes.
There is a problem with the thematic ordering, however, with Stella’s later works tarnishing the quality of the early. The power of early works such as ‘Basra Gate I’ and ‘Sidney…’, comes from their object-like impassivity that lends them an iconic, concrete presence in the space; they remain paintings, not sculpture – even if this is only because they are hung flat against the wall, creating a stimulating tension between their objecthood and what might be called their ‘surfacehood’. But Stella’s investigation of surface and colour becomes, throughout his career, much more literal, and much less stimulating; ‘Suchowola’ (1971), for example, is a wooden construction of odd, fractured shapes and planes, pushed in and out of each other. Compared to the potency of his early works, these mid-period pieces are merely bland; his late works, however – ever more baroque, gratuitously messy and colourful – are, frankly, rendered hideous in juxtaposition.
This later work has been described by Stella as ‘architectural’, and they are, essentially, sculpture hung on the wall. (In the course of his career, they do eventually fall off, perhaps under the weight their own gross superfluity, becoming, by 2008, floor pieces). The problem is that, in fully entering the realm of ‘object’, these later works lose the tension that made the earlier work so effective; and, as they get more complicated, they further lose the stark power of the 1960s pieces. Stella’s work becomes nothing more than flaccid heaps of gaudy or grotty metal.
The quality disparity between the early and the late is brought out through juxtaposition. What emerges in crystal clarity is just how great his work once was, and just how dreadful it has become. But, despite his remarkable quality drop-off over time, and for the sake of the early work alone, this is definitely a show worth visiting, Stella having created some of the best American art of the 1960s.
Words: Laurence Lumley © 2011 ArtLyst