No one knows what the body can do. -Spinoza
Thursday, October 21, 2010
Frank Stella, Loss, Abstraction, and the Value of a Thing
An exhibition of 11 pieces from the Irregular Polygons series by Frank Stella currently hangs at the Hood Museum on Dartmouth College campus. He is on campus currently as the Montgomery Fellow speaking in small groups with students, and also through a public conversation with the former director of the Hood Museum that helped curate and secure the Irregular Polygons exhibit, Brian Kennedy. As a result, I was able to listen to Mr. Stella speak tonight in response to Mr. Kennedy's questions about Stella's views on art in general, his own art in particular, its relationship to other types of American design, such as architecture, and to his life more broadly as well.
The conversation was particularly enjoyable for me as a sort of contrast of disciplinary personalities. As the director of a major educational museum, Mr. Kennedy of course has ample formal art history training and poses questions as an intellectual passionate about the history of contemporary American art. Mr. Stella, on the other hand, responds to such questions with an obvious, and disciplined intelligence that simultaneously refuses much of the protocol of the academic world. It was, thank god, refreshing. As a simple example, Mr. Stella attended the conversation, made possible by a highly prestigious endowment, wearing jeans. He'd also regularly deny Kennedy's interpretation of Stella's art, life, or even Stella's own previous statements, and he'd redirect questions when he deemed it more appropriate to answer in a way not quite implied by Kennedy's question. Kennedy jovially described such behavior as Stella "refusing to be pinned down." Of course there is something to such an interpretation, but it also seemed clear that the dynamics of the exchange revealed more than simply that.
Instead, I'd say Stella has the gift of a remarkably different perspective than comes from the disciplinary demands of formalized academic study. He studied history and art at Princeton, and has spent a lifetime studying contemporary art, and the history of art (even visiting Lascaux and Anatolia in person) in an impressively thorough manner. So, Stella has clearly lived a life devoted to deep study, and has a reflective intelligence that drives his design work to change as he persists through his career as an artist. But at their root, his projects are about the intersection of the creative process with a field of ideas. He is not simply mapping and interrogating the history of artistic development, as we might say an intellectual does. Instead, he is bringing to life a complexity of considerations he sees possible through paint (and now also printmaking and sculpture, though it is clear these grew out of his practice of paint). While Kennedy's questions revealed a well ordered, and crisp consideration of the development of Stella's career, and its relation to the history of art surrounding it, Stella's responses instead showed an intellectual-creative understanding that has developed over the course of an artistic life. The views offered felt rich, well-lived, and thorough. Interestingly, Stella revealed himself as a man that knew who he was, without having to demand it, and even as he was simultaneously willing to admit the limits of that self-knowledge.
A couple of comments in particular stood out to me. Kennedy pushed Stella to defend the importance of the comparatively young tradition of abstract painting. While, representative painting has clearly existed for centuries, we could readily argue that abstraction has only had a clear tradition since early in the last century. Stella's response was this. "Maybe it's not a question of how great something is. Maybe we cannot answer that. Instead, the question might be, how great is the loss?" That is, how great would the loss be without it any longer, or without it ever having been in our lives? Examining the importance of abstract painting surely takes an entirely new perspective when considered in such a manner. Admittedly, abstract painting can be simply alien, and inexplicable to many viewers. Some unstudied art critics claim to see no value in it at all. Even those well versed in the history of art can find it a challenge to articulate what abstraction offers. We find, then, that it is difficult to explain the importance of something that is in many ways intangible, and certainly inexplicable. But when we shift instead to consider what the loss of that intangible, or inexplicable thing would mean, suddenly its importance has greater weight. The influence abstract painting has had reaches beyond the lives of other painters. It has impacted the way we look at the world around us, and how we understand what it means either to represent something, or to recognize an object. At the same time we've developed in abstract painting, our accounts of life in fiction, philosophy, politics, and even science have also changed--not all because of painting, of course, but along side and with it surely. To simply remove such a reality seems an impossible feat and one that would be verging on impossible to even imagine.
I appreciate too the relevance of such a view to aspects of life other than abstract painting. I tend to focus on the positive, and when asking the value of something in my life tend to expect its answer to be measured through gains given. I believe even great challenges can be described in such terms, not out of denial of the hardship, but out of recognition for the growth that comes along with it. But, when considering what aspects of our lives mean to us, the truth is that much of the time we can only reach the perspective we need by imagining the loss of what we are considering. What would it mean to be without the thing, or relationship, or person we are trying to understand? What would it mean if we had never had it, or them in our lives?
Having said that, there is a great care that must be brought to such a practice, in that it would be unwise to pursue this line of questioning through the idea of fear--that is so that the question turns into reacting to fear of the thing's loss, rather than out of appreciation for what thinking about its loss reveals the thing to offer. Still, as Stella's point shows, sometimes we come to recognize the importance of something, or someone in our lives by realizing what it would mean to lose them.
To mention one more comment from Stella that I think gives great insight into the world of abstract painting, and in particular those from his Irregular Polygon series: Stella described the style of painting like the one featured at the top of this post as offering up a kind of question and exchange with the viewer. That is, a question of, what lives there? The answer is that certainly not your bodily reality. But, nonetheless, your visual reality can and does while you view it. In a painting like those in the Irregular Polygon series, Stella emphasizes, there is a space to move around in.
To further add some perspective to this series in particular, Stella explained that it took over three years just for him to think about, and then finally design the series before he ever came to the point of painting them. At the end of that three year + period he finally ordered the stretchers for the paintings and then executed the designs.