Last week I had the opportunity to visit the Whitney Museum where I saw the life work of multiple abstraction genius Frank Stella. Following my jaunt around the huge retrospective in the newly built Renzo Piano building, I attended a lecture as part of the Whitney’s extensive public programme. Working Space: Contemporary Artists on Frank Stella saw a discussion between Walead Beshty, Keltie Ferris, Jordan Kantor and Sarah Morris who each considered the architectural giant’s work in relation to young contemporary artists practicing today.
The panel discussion began with the usual formalities of individual introductions, which then proceeded straight into the debut of Stella and his work as the first step away from many constricted historical abstractionists before him. The aptitude behind Stella’s work is found in its inconsistencies; his practice is a multiple one that launches illogical works at a constant pull and division between one another due to their intermittent nature.
Ferris broadened this discussion by revealing Stella as a pioneer who introduced what the possibilities of artists and their methods are, and how their practices can have endless changes and developments throughout the timeline of their lives. Not just a conductor for the younger generation of artists today but also a boundary pusher, Stella formed structural archetypes under the guise of painting. He is seen as a distinctly progressive practitioner with strong connections to Pop and the idea of the ready-made object.
Here is where our panel met a conundrum: although progressive, his practice seems illusively so. Stella’s parallels to Pop Art bring about issues of duplicity, authenticity and commodity. Many of his large-scale architectural works featured in the Whitney’s vast retrospective can be found with ready-made parameters arriving in a systematic nature of small, medium and large. Some are also deductive in nature, where the work is based around the shape of the canvas as opposed to the shape of complete freedom of creativity. Nonetheless, it is these disparities that make for a provocative and engaging dialogue, and also an encouraging archive for young artists to study and advance on.
Although a significant measure of Stella’s work might be classed as a tasteless vernacular of visual culture (we’re looking particularly at his vulgar eighties-esque graffiti works), his forcing us to look at the work from a painterly perspective provides a quotation of gesture for visitors. The works maintain heavy architectural and sculptural elements, yet are titled ‘paintings’. This reminds us of Stella’s acute ability to improvise constraint within artistic practice.
Frank Stella: A Retrospective isn’t really a retrospective at all, but an alternative display of multiple and illogical works. The display is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art until the 7 February 2016. Be sure to see Stella’s mammoth exhibition before it closes for good next month.