The retrospective of the endlessly inventive 79-year-old artist Frank Stella opens today (Oct. 30) at the Whitney Museum. Stella, who pivoted from Minimalism in the 1960s to maximalism in the ensuing decades, graces A.i.A.'s October cover with an image of a new sculptural construction. He's also collaborated with Art in America and Artspace.com to create a limited-edition needlepoint kit, based on a design he created for our May-June 1968 issue.
Exactly 25 years ago, in our October 1990 issue, a sculpture from Stella's postmodernist "Moby Dick" series was featured on our cover. The group of works were analyzed in an extensive article by Philip Leider, who drew comparisons between them and the methodologies of Lissitzky, Picasso, Kandinsky and the New York school of painters that preceded Stella's generation. "In the 'Moby Dick' series," Leider wrote, "Stella seems to be paying homage not only to the creator of an American epic myth, but also to the way in which the idea of myth itself inhanited the consciousness of the Abstract Expressionists." —Eds.
The Angel of Death
And the Holy One, Blessed be He, came and smote the Angel of Death.
—Had Gadya, verse 10
During 1982-84 Frank Stella made a complicated series of prints entitled "Illustrations After El Lissitzky's 'Had Gadya.'" One of the complications was that Stella introduced a variety of cutout shapes which he had separately printed in differing ways and then collaged to the print itself. Primary among these shapes were the clunky, jostling "cones and pillars" which became the distinguishing features of the troublesome 40 constructions titled after Italo Calvino's Italian Folktales that Stella executed during 1984-86. Sometime during 1986-87, in a group of 11 works corresponding to the end of the Calvino series, another motif, also first used in the "Had Gadya" prints, began to dominate and finally to replace the cones and pillars—the wave. It appears first in Loomings, then splashes over cone, pillar and French curve in The Crotch and surges into possession of the entire surface in The Spirit Spout.
The Had Gadya is an Aramaic house-that-Jack-built kind of chant, associated for centuries with the celebration of Passover, in which the dog bites the cat, the stick beats the dog, the fire burns the stick and onward through the great chain of being until even the Angel of Death is felled by the Almighty. The title of Stella's print series explicitly invites comparison with El Lissitzky's 1919 series of prints on the same theme, but the parallels seem to fluctuate from precise to remote. Although Stella followed Lissitzky’s overall format exactly—one print for each of the 10 verses of the Had Gadya plus a front and back cover—comparisons of the individual prints reveal not so much similarities as differences (1). Stella, an Italian-American of Catholic upbringing, has none of Lissitzky's knowledge of the festive, child-oriented ambience in which the Had Gadya is sung. Much more deeply than Lissitzky, he seems to respond to the text of the chant, as if shaken by its relentless, fatalistic violence. His warring forms often look hysterical and even a little crazy alongside Lissitzky's cool, graceful, knowing work. The uproar is unceasing, never for a moment relaxed or contemplative; each print explodes into new violence greater than in the one preceding, until the fell calm of the dreadful blacks of the penultimate print, Then Came Death and Took the Butcher.
Until the ninth print, the canon of dos and don'ts governing these "illustrations after El Lissitzky" had been carefully observed: forms may remain unspecific protagonists but may not become depictive characters. The problem was to keep things as abstract as possible, to resist precisely the urge to “illustrate” while introducing a level of narrative suggestiveness higher than any in his own prior art and not really available to serious abstraction since, well, Kandinsky (2). With this ninth print, however, the wave form simply escapes containment and breaks through into depiction: it is irresistibly the Angel of Death, and Stella makes no effort to conceal it. Perhaps in printmaking, whose conventions are always looser, allusion can go that far without raising the killing specter of semiabstraction.
Or perhaps Stella takes a chance because of the overwhelming attraction of Lissitzky’s imagery, for the wave form is the only area of the “Had Gadya” in which Stella seems to pay deliberate homage to his model. The paradoxical tidal-wave shape that Lissitzky gives to the fire in his fifth plate, Then came a fire and burnt the stick, was, Stella recalls, the immediate source of the series of wave shapes in his own "Had Gadya.”
What he could not have known, of course, was where these forms, conceived at least in part in homage to Lissitzky's curvilinear grace, would ultimately lead him. Many of the shapes first seen in his "Had Gadya" prints would recur half a decade later in the "Moby Dick" series. The wave, for example, mounted on the lower disk of The Pequod Meets the Virgin of 1988 is identical to the wave in Plate 4 of the "Had Gadya" series, Then Came a Stick and Beat the Dog. And the surging, whalelike form dominating The Spirit Spout is the Angel of Death of Plate 9, a form repeated almost exactly in Plate 10, corresponding to the final verse of the Had Gadya. There, however, it is white—white as Moby Dick himself.
In my own case, I don’t know whether I make some pieces as painted sculpture or paintings…
—David Smith, 1950
In retrospect it is easy to imagine that the idea for a group of works related to Moby Dick must have been in Stella’s mind around the time that this ghostly death-whale turned up in the final “Had Gaya” plates, though it was not, as we have seen, until 1986 that he actually began them. The “Moby Dick” series proper begins with the 11 constructions of 1986-87, plus a series of 13 related prints begun in Stella’s studio at that time. These works are morphologically distinguished by the gradual coming to dominance of the wave shapes over the cones, pillars, French curves and other elements conspicuous in prior series (3). Almost simultaneously with the completion of this group, Stella began the paper (actually foamboard) maquettes for two other groups of wave-related works, the first 13 constructions of the Beluga series and the 16 IRS (“irregular shapes”) constructions (4). When the models were completed to the artist’s satisfaction, they were sent to the metal-cutting factories, which manufactured the forms. Then each of the metal elements was returned separately to the studio and painted according to Stella’s vision of how the entire construction would look when assembled. After the works were assembled Stella might make changes ranging from minor touchups to extensive repainting. Sometimes a piece might sit in the studio for months while Stella worked through difficulties unforeseen in the original conception.
The earliest Belugas are characterized by a dome-shaped base decorated with designs based on Chinese lattices. Onto these domes are mounted various examples of the two most distinctive elements of the "Moby Dick" series: the curvilinear wave shapes and the strange series of shapes based on drawings for ornamental rain gutters which Stella had found in a turn-of-the-century catalogue of cast-iron manufactures. In Beluga #8, for example, Heads or Tails, three elements are fixed to the wall-mounted dome: a pinwheel-shape wave that also appears prominently in IRS #3, Queequeg in His Coffin; a rain-gutter shape similar to the one in the upper right of Queequeg in His Coffin; and a dancing wave shape that is used again in IRS #10, The Pipe, as well as in IRS #13, The Sphynx. On Beluga #12, The Pequod Meets the Rachel, appears the same wave as in Plates 9 and 10 of the "Had Gadya" prints and The Spirit Spout. There is also a rain-gutter shape which reappears in the IRS group as the ominous, demonic capital element in Fedallah. Beluga #4, First Night-Watch, contains a swirling, watery wave shape used frequently in the IRS group and two rain-gutter shapes.
The IRS group is distinct from the Belugas in that the anchoring dome is replaced by the extensive use of irregular shapes discovered (and sometimes modified) in the course of cutting the initial paper models of the reliefs. The shift is sanctioned certainly in part by the example of David Smith, who was fascinated as well with the prodigal manner in which new forms were created in the process of fabrication, and who also allowed himself to be inspired by the fanciful and exotic detritus of the workshop. For Stella, the immediate result was an open-ended, extravagant attack of Rubensian magnitude. It does not seem exaggerated to say that no single move in Stella's art since his shift to Tri-Wall cardboard in the "Polish Village" series opened more possibilities to his creative energy than this abolition of the distinction between created and discovered forms in the workshop.
The irregularly shaped wall element of Queequeg in His Coffin has a lateral extension of almost 15 feet, inevitably generating an almost equally prodigal form for attaching it to the wall. As the forms and methods for attaching the parts to the wall and to one another became more elaborate and sophisticated, Stella's confidence in presenting an acceptable view from the construction's side grew. Previously, the view from the side had consistently been a vexation for him: a welter of bolts and right-angle connections left both artist and viewer uncertain as to whether such a view was to be ignored or taken into account (and if ignored, how? and if taken into account, how?). With the evolution of attachments as elegant as the boomerang-shape form on the left-hand wave of Queequeg in His Coffin, Stella began to lead the viewer away from a merely frontal view; by painting not only the attaching elements but the back of the forms as well, he made it clear that the side view presented "more to see." The second irregular element of Queequeg in His Coffin, for example, shows us part of the same rain-gutter shape already seen on First Night-Watch protruding like a curve-toed boot from the bottom of the element, while the rest of the shape is painted on it. Neither the three-dimensional nor the painted section, however, is visible except from the side. (On Fedallah, the huge, hingelike form that carries the work almost 6 feet from the wall actually blocks the viewer from an acceptable frontal prospect and forces a side-to-side movement.)
While the number of irregular shapes is theoretically infinite, they are combined with a very limited number of rain-gutter shapes (fewer than 10) and waves (around 20), and these are sometimes ingeniously disguised from one appearance to another. The red-striped rain-gutter form on the left of The Pipe, for example, is recognized plainly as the same form emerging from the bottom of Stubb Kills a Whale. But the large blue rain-gutter form at the very top of The Whiteness of the Whale is not so quickly recognized as the same form that occurs, upside down, as the multicolored and painted-over shape dropping from the lower center of Midnight, Aloft and reappears, this time horizontally, as the striped, chartreuse element recessed deeply into the center of Fedallah. The wave first seen in Plate 4 of the "Had Gadya" series reappears clearly, upside down, on the lower disk of The Pequod Meets the Virgin and again, almost unrecognizably, in the center right of The Chase. First Day.
"Almost unrecognizably" because of the remarkable evolution of the role of painting in Stella's constructions of 1988-89. All of the Belugas and earlier IRS works such as The Pipe and Stubb Kills a Whale take for granted a rough adherence to the integrity of the manufactured elements: painting follows, indeed enhances the contours of the rain gutters and the waves. But in works painted later in the series, such as The Chase. First Day, Queequeg in His Coffin or The Chase. Third Day, a turbulent, Daedalian complexity develops across the surfaces of the works. A comparison of the large version of Midnight, Aloft (2X) with the smaller (1X) quickly reveals what happens when pictorial space and play come into their own. In the smaller version, painting more or less carefully describes the several forms of which the work is composed: the French curve at the apex plainly interlocked with the same curve-toed rain-gutter shape as in Queequeg in His Coffin, the two other rain-gutter shapes below and the dancing, whitecapped wave of First Night-Watch that, for the moment at least, seems to hold the entire strange composition in equilibrium. In the larger version there is no such respectful division of labor: waves begin to be painted on other waves; fragments of arcs, cylinders and Chinese lattices materialize on the hitherto discrete forms; and sometimes a wave will be painted on the surface of one form, continue onto another and complete itself on yet another, as can clearly be seen happening across the three planes at the bottom of Midnight, Aloft (2X).
The nervous scribble and awkward gesturalism so disconcerting in the earlier Calvino series can still be found in the touch of the smaller version of Midnight, Aloft, but later on these traits are severely diminished in favor of a much more impersonal touch distinguished by clear color, linear stenciling and depictive quotation. Ideas of palimpsest, superimposition, fragmentation and juxtaposition previously developed in Stella's printmaking finally come tumbling into the constructions, until painting steadily and inexorably achieves parity, mingling its own more supple spaces with the manufactured spaces of the constructions. By the time The Chase. Third Day is completed, the forms have welded themselves into an altogether different kind of unity and disunity. The works evolve from painted construction to painting-construction, an achievement that had eluded Stella since the first metal reliefs, 15 years before.
. . . I will do my endeavor. I try all things; I achieve what I can.
—Herman Melville, Moby Dick
“There’s no depression in it," said Stella of Melville's Moby Dick, "every line is up." He was drawing a parallel with a certain buoyancy, even cheerfulness, in his own work, and even more with the relative ease with which the pieces were coming to him. He was grateful for this relaxedness in creation, coupled with a surprising certainty of direction—a combination he had experienced rarely enough in his career. It was the same "free-sailing" independence that so struck him, during the Museum of Modern Art's great Picasso retrospective of 1980, in certain Picassos of the early 1930s. The arrangement of forms in The Whiteness of the Whale seems to emulate the improbable, bouncy lightness of the 1932 Bather with Beach Ball, and the flouncing, sprightly animation of The Grand Armada seems directly inspired by Still Life on a Pedestal Table of 1931, both of which Stella admires without reservation. It is as if in these works Stella invokes a Picasso, like the Melville of Moby Dick, in a state of grace, severed for a blessed moment from the drag of doubt, giddy with confidence. It is this Picasso alongside whom we sometimes find Stella swimming in the "Moby Dick" series.
Most frequently it is a matter of certain of the waves deriving their accent from the fluid, love-struck Picasso of 1931-33. The pinwheel-shape wave, for example, found mounted to the top disk of The Pequod Meets the Virgin seems actually to have been inspired by the series of boneless sleeping nudes of 1932. It is repeated in the lower right corner of The Chase. First Day and is the nethermost element in the ascending complex of wave shapes in The Whiteness of the Whale, as well as the central element in Queequeg in His Coffin. Other Picassoid forms among the waves are the one that spouts from the summit of The Grand Armada, cresting in a "foot" that quotes the extremities of the bather with a beach ball and reappears in the altogether Picassoesque The Pipe with the "foot" painted red; the pirouetting wave that fills the center of The Whiteness of the Whale; and the dancing, penguinlike wave already noted on Heads or Tails, The Pipe and The Sphynx. Finally, the whitecapped wave which functions as the linchpin of Midnight, Aloft is a massive variation on the shapes of Still Life on a Pedestal Table. Full of the same irrepressible comic energy, it clowns its way over the entire right side of The Blanket, pops up like a jack-in-the-box painted on top of the rain-gutter shape on the lower left of The Grand Armada, dominates the center of The Chase. Second Day and reappears like an apparition in the upper right of the same work. This wave is also used in the upper left center of The Chase. Third Day, but here even its distinctive outlines are smothered beneath an onslaught of superimposed painted forms and fragments of forms.
There is no indication that Stella minds or seeks to disguise the obvious references to Picasso that keep bobbing up in the "Moby Dick" series, perhaps because Picasso does not "influence" the work in the complex way that, say, Kandinsky does, or even as David Smith does in the search he all-unwittingly launched for a space for abstraction that was neither painting nor sculpture. The most important meaning of the play with Picasso is to define the overall mood: Picasso is there to keep things cheerful. He is there to locate and define the mid-life style of the work—its indifference to the avant-garde, its clear awareness of the distinction between progress and change (for which Stella praised Picasso in Working Space), and its seeming determination not merely to rescue abstraction from the most exhausted of the modernist conventions but to astonish us in the process.
Evidently, part of the character-building quality of abstraction resides in holding the line.
—Frank Stella, Working Space
There were three elements of illusionistic art, Stella argued in Working Space, that abstraction had not been able to permanently replace: volume, interior space, and what he called "caricature," or "catching everyday associations, recognizable sparks of life" (5). David Smith's studio scraps might work as an example of such "caricature" in abstract art, but it is unlikely that any abstract art restricted to paint on canvas could nowadays employ even two of these three mainstays of depiction without becoming less abstract than would be acceptable and no longer "holding the line." The investigation of a three-dimensional work of art that would provide its own volume and interior space is by no means Stella's alone, of course. Its development can be traced to concerns already implicit in the art of David Smith but which came more explicitly into focus in the 1960s in the work of Donald Judd and Carl Andre, Stella's contemporaries, who consciously advanced the suggestion that abstraction might wish to fulfill itself in a space that was neither painting nor sculpture.
As Stella's investigation of this more flexible space for abstraction went forward, and as even his printmaking began in the "Had Gadya" series—to succumb to it, he discovered an increasingly Kandinskian accent emerging in his work. Stella's blending, welding, knitting and sometimes forcing together of forms both preconceived and improvisational is a method of working whose major precedent is Kandinsky's system of carrying recognizable narrative fragments from painting to painting and interspersing them among more improvisational forms. All that had seemed impossible in Kandinsky before seemed now not only available but indispensable as a guide out of the barrens of later modernism that Stella describes in Working Space.
If Kandinsky's forms had seemed too numerous and incompatible, his color too free and intuitive, his placement too capricious and his space too easygoing, all of these reservations dropped away with Stella's turn to abstract construction. The possibilities of Kandinsky's "distaste for shallow space and literal surface" preoccupied Stella as early as 1984, when, in an essay on Kandinsky's Ambiguity Complex/Simple of 1939, he wrote, "It is unlikely that recent abstract painting can move ahead without considering the lessons of fluid structure evinced in Kandinsky's late works, especially in his paintings of the late thirties" (6). In Working Space Kandinsky remains very much on Stella's mind: there are more references to works by Kandinsky than by any other artist.
No work in the IRS group is more Kandinskian than The Sphynx. Aside from the explicit homage to the old master of abstraction in the upward-rising triangle and the dominating eye-circle, there is a general emulation of Kandinsky's odd and nervy positioning of disparate forms and his indifference to conventional compositional logic, apparent especially in his radical division of works into right and left or top and bottom halves, works with "two centers," as it were. Other Stellas notably Kandinskian in this regard are Measurement of the Whale's Skeleton, The Blanket and Midnight, Aloft. But most important of all, it turns out, is Kandinsky's sanction of Stella's encounter with the encroaching problem of narrative.
Only Kandinsky's art among Stella's elders and betters seemed to endorse the possibility of an uncompromised abstraction of high narrative suggestiveness that could yet "hold the line" against a revived figuration or, egregiously worse in Stella's view, semiabstraction. The overall abstraction, for example, of Kandinsky's Painting with White Border of 1913 is inflected by two of Kandinsky's most obsessive narrative image clusters. The first is the Deluge, evoked most plainly (but not exclusively) in the tidal-wave sweep of the white border itself. The second, suggested in the forms at each end of the white "lance" in the center of the painting, is the slaying of the dragon by St. George, which for Kandinsky symbolized among other things the triumph of the new art, abstract and spiritual, over the old, sluggishly depictive and materialistic (7).
(Melville, too, claims St. George. It is his conceit that the dragon in the legend is nothing other than a whale and thus “. . . one of our own noble stamp, even a whaleman, is the tutelary guardian of England; and by good rights, we harpooneers of Nantucket should be enrolled in the most noble order of St. George” (8). In one of the truly charmed, breath-stopping moments of the "Moby Dick" series, Stella, in the powerful diagonals and rich figuration of The Chase (First, Second and Third), knits into a gorgeous unity the Bauhaus master with "we harpooneers of Nantucket.”)
The degree of abstraction in any given work, Kandinsky felt in 1913 (when what he meant by abstraction was a kind of dematerialization of the motif), was determined solely by the artist's intuition: there was as yet no "line" of modernist abstraction to hold. By Stella's time things were not so simple: intuition had been educated by critique, Kandinsky's accommodation set against Mondrian's (and Reinhardt's and Judd's) resoluteness. While, as the '80s drew to a close, Mondrian's approach had, at least for the time being, left far too many fish gasping on the strand, Kandinsky's remained still too indulgent for Stella. There are thus no clusters of narrative configuration in Stella as there are in Kandinsky Stella's Angel of Death is unique for good reason. Yet no one, not even the artist, can fix with precision the degree of narrative play in the "Moby Dick" series, or even the relationship between the individual works and the correspondingly titled chapters of the novel.
Stella titles the works after they are made, usually after they are painted and long after they are conceived. Sometimes the relationship between a work and the chapter after which it is named is felicitous: The Shark Massacre is an example, so is Stubb Kills a Whale with its thrashing whale-wave or the malevolent "head" that makes Fedallah such an appropriate title. In other works, perhaps most others—take Enter Ahab; To Him, Stubb, for example we are hard put to see any clear connection between chapter title and construction. Sometimes the color or method of paint application seems chosen to suggest a narrative agreement. In the larger version of The Pipe, for instance, there is a striking red form that leaps upward from the center of the piece. It is like the red coal of Ahab's pipe in that brief chapter: "He tossed the still-lighted pipe into the sea. The fire hissed in the waves." Yet the red form may be merely felicitous and the title The Pipe given that work for no such reason or for the most arbitrary reason. In any event, the detail is not significant enough to repeat, for the same area in the smaller version of The Pipe is painted blue-green.
There are other instances, however, where the connections appear more carefully tended. It seems impossible that the chapter titled "The Whiteness of the Whale" did not influence the color in that work; here the two frontal wave shapes retain the same bone-white color in both versions, a rarity. But in the end it does not seem fruitful to pursue the matter. It seems to be concerns of quite another order that enliven the intimacy between work and text, for in the "Moby Dick" series Stella pays homage not only to the creator of America's most authentic epic myth but also to the way in which the idea of myth itself inhabited the consciousness of his most important forebears, the Abstract Expressionists.
The "small band of myth-makers," as Rothko called them, found in the myth and in the archetype their link with the primitive and archaic art they admired. It was not, said Rothko, the "particular anecdote" with which they identified, but rather with "the spirit of Myth, which is generic to all myths at all times" (9). It was this sense of the "generic" myth that made it possible for Jackson Pollock to almost casually change the title of his 1943 painting from Moby Dick to Pasiphae with no concern for being arbitrary or capricious. The ambiguous, archetypal forms of the painting are connected with neither myth in particular and with both in general.
Stella is not fascinated with either Moby Dick or with myth in general in the same way as were the Abstract Expressionists. He is involved, as they were not, in play, wit and complete consciousness and much less interested than they ever were in what his unconscious might be pouring into the work. His relationship to the text, that is to say, is not, like Rothko's, a burdened one, but, like Melville's, exultant. Mostly, Stella's fascination is that they were fascinated, and it was to them, as a body, to their seriousness and ambition for art and abstraction, that he felt himself most drawn as the paper maquettes for the IRS constructions began filling his studio in 1986. There was something in that remarkable profusion that was already epic, worthy of the generation of Pollock and Still, and the point at which Stella decided to title the works after Moby Dick probably corresponded to his realization that he was, at the end of his third decade as one of the most important American artists, about to embark on the best work of his career. Somehow, European culture seems to encourage such continuous development (I'm thinking again of Kandinsky, of Mondrian), but in America, and especially the America of Stella's generation, it's nothing short of amazing.
1. The two "Had Gadyas" were exhibited simultaneously at the Tel Aviv Museum in 1986. See Edna Moshenson's informative catalogue of the exhibition "Frank Stella, Had Gadya—after El Lissitzky."
2. See William Rubin's insightful treatment of the "Had Gadya" prints in his exhaustive catalogue of Stella's second retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, Frank Stella, 1970-1987, New York, Museum of Modern Art, 1987, pp. 131-42. Rubin's essay is a fundamental resource for future Stella studies.
3. The 11 constructions are: Stubb's Supper, The Lamp, The Spirit Spout, Knights and Squires, Merry Christmas, The Crotch, Loomings, The Spouter Inn, The Decanter, The Forge and The Quadrant.
4. The 16 IRS reliefs are each fabricated in at least two sizes: one in a size corresponding exactly with Stella's original model (1X) and the other either 2 or 1.875 times the size of the original model (2X, 1.875X). Stella does not customarily paint the two versions in the same way nor in the same colors. In this essay, when colors of IRS works are referred to, they are always the colors of the larger version. The 16 IRS reliefs are The Whiteness of the Whale (IRS #1), Enter Ahab; To Him, Stubb (IRS #2), Queequeg in His Coffin (IRS #3), Fedallah (IRS #4), Midnight, Aloft (IRS #5), The Grand Armada (IRS #6), Stubb Kills a Whale (IRS #7), The Blanket (IRS #8), Measurement of the Whale's Skeleton (IRS #9), The Pipe (IRS #10), The Pequod Meets the Virgin (IRS #11), The Shark Massacre (IRS #12), The Sphynx (IRS #13), The Chase. Second Day (IRS #14), The Chase. Third Day (IRS #15) and The Chase. First Day (IRS #16).
5. Frank Stella, Working Space, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1986, p. 98.
6. These lines, as well as the previous phrase regarding Kandinsky's "distaste for shallow space," are taken from the English-language manuscript of Stella's essay "Complexité simple-Ambiguïté" in Kandinsky: Album de l'Exposition, Paris, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, 1984.
7. As is anyone writing about this aspect of Kandinsky's development, I am here entirely indebted to Rose-Carol Washton Long's Kandinsky: The Development of an Abstract Style, New York, Oxford University Press, 1980.
8. Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Chapter LXXXII.
9. Mark Rothko, 1943, as quoted in Sidney Janis, Abstract and Surrealist Art in America, New York, 1944 (cited in the exhibition catalogue Mark Rothko, 1903-1970, London, Tate Gallery Publications, 1987, p. 81).