Frank Stella... and the Simulacrum
Published in Flash Art, No. 126, January 1986
Here comes the time of the great Culture of tactile communication, under the
technico-luminous cinematic space of total spatio dynamic theatre. - Baudrillard
There have consistently been two poles around which critical attitudes towards the work of Frank Stella have been located. On one hand, his work has been hailed as an apotheosis of rigorous modernist painting. It is seen as material in its effects, unbending in its logic, and hermetic in its outlook. On the other hand, it is viewed, derisively, as a dehumanized dead-end of painting. Here it is judged that the complexity of painting has been eliminated and the images have become merely "graphic." Humanistic subtlety is seen to be lacking in his work, where only a “bureaucratic" reshuffling and an "administrative," managerial approach to making art remains.
Ironically, it is only by combining these two view-points that a cogent appreciation of Stella's work can emerge. We will find that Stella's art is both materialist and bureaucratic, that it is both hermetic and graphic. But in order to encompass these various qualities, a different critical overview is needed. We will find that Stella is neither a modernist nor a bureaucrat, but that his work conforms closely to a model of post-modernism that is dominated by ideas of hyper-realization, simulation, closure, and fascination.
We must initially ask, how can Frank Stella’s work be post-modern when post-modernism is an idea that has emerged in criticism only in the 1980’s? The answer is that the critical formulation and dissemination of the idea of post-modernism has lagged far behind its appearance in art and in the culture. It is in fact in the early ‘60’s, the time of Frank Stella’s emergence as an artist, that the elements of the post-modern and its kindred phenomenon, the post-industrial, began to fall into place.
The early ‘60’s produced the emergence of the informational culture of the computer and of electronics. It produced international jet travel on a commercial scale and the accompanying changes in spatio-temporal and cultural relationships that the phenomenon precipitated. The
60’s produced the Interstate Highway System and the associated development of the de-centered Sun Belt cities that are based on the circulation of the automobile. It produced ICBM’s, the space program, and satellite reconnaissance, all of which inscribed reality within their circular orbits and parabolic trajectories.
If the ‘60’s were the cusp between the worlds of the industrial and the post-industrial, and between the real and the simulated, the art of the '60's was a response to this situation. On one side, in '60's art there is an intense nostalgia for both traditional and industrial culture. Rock musicians were fascinated by the acoustic Blues of the railroad culture of the 20's and by sitar music from India. Fashion embraced Guatemalan textiles and the clothing of the nineteenth-century American West. But at the same time, there is a fascination for the technological, the simulated, and the futuristic that is reflected in such phenomena as molded plastic furniture, the electric guitar, and the geodesic dome.
Stella, around 1960, can be seen as responding to this same situation. In Stella's work, a crucial transition took place in the jump between the Black paintings, which were still nostalgic for the industrial and the traditional, and the Aluminum paintings, which clearly embodied elements of the hyper-real, post-industrial world.
The Black paintings were still modernist in inspiration. The paint application, while mechanical, is uneven, and it shimmers with the sensitivity to light that is present in, for example, a Rothko. The patterned bands are likewise repetitive, but their symmetrical, hieratic quality and the frequent use of diagonal motifs links the images to the use of patterning in traditional non-Western art. The configurations are reminiscent of Islamic tile-work or perhaps Kurdistani carpets. Finally, the ubiquitous shimmering black color links the paintings to '50's nihilism and existentialism.
In the Aluminum paintings, an entirely different consciousness is posited. The paint is now applied evenly, the bands separated by taped lines. The effect is cool, even science-fictional. The paint is not just metallic – it is aluminum, which is a contemporary, technological metal linked with lightness, efficiency, and commercial applications. Most importantly, however, the configurations have almost completely lost their traditional, associative character. Instead, the introduction of the "jog" suddenly makes the bands appear to be moving: they are like lanes on a highway; they are bands for movement or circulation. In addition, the bands are unvarying and uninflected. They fill the space evenly and neutrally, becoming surrogates for activity in the painting and substitutes for painterly incident and imagery.
The cut-out areas of the Aluminum paintings also have an important function. No longer are these lanes of movement, these conduits of circulation, seen against a background as they are in, say, a Mondrian. In Stella, the background, and with it nature, is cut out. Abstract circulation and movement becomes the only reality.
In the various series of stripe paintings during the following five years, the concerns of the Aluminum paintings were furthered and expanded. The Copper painting are noteworthy in so far as their right-angle turns and intersections make more explicit Stella’s circulatory concerns. The Purple series introduced a new level of simulated intensity with Stella’s use of metallic purple pigment. Their configurations – triangles, parallelograms, and pentagons in which the bands form a continuous circuit also define a situation of closure and circularity where line flows into line without beginning or end.
In the running V series, the bands seem to travel at a new velocity more akin to electricity moving through a microprocessor than mere automobiles traveling on a highway. In the Moroccan series, Day-Glo paint is introduced. Color itself is not replaced by its hyper-realized simulated equivalent. In addition, in the Moroccan series, the theme of non-Western culture re-emerges in a post-modern way. There is no longer any possibility of actual influence by a non-Western sensibility in this art. Rather, in these paintings, as in the phenomenon of “Super Graphics,” Moroccan culture is deracinated and reduced to its most easily reproduced signs. A whole culture is reproduced by the simple devices of bright color and diagonal repeating patterns. The enclosure by the hyper-real of all other realities is complete.
Stella’s development during these years is of interest not just for the visual themes that appear in his pictures, but for the way he went about ordering the production of his paintings as well. During this period, Stella hyper-realized the means he employed. He used only man-made high-tech pigments and paints.
His deep stretchers, shaped formats, and extra human scale also seem to hyper-realize the painting as an object: they are pushed further from the wall than a “real” painting; they are bigger and more aggressive in shape.
At the same time, Stella’s use of series in moving from one group of paintings to the next is important. Artists have often worked in series, but in Stella’s
work there is no gradual evolution from painting to painting as one series emerges from the next. Rather series follows series in almost yearly intervals like car models from Detroit. Further, within the series, there is no modernist original upon which the other works are based. Instead the configurations for the whole series were decided on before hand. The identity of each painting was based on its being a part of the series.
The exhibition of these paintings as complete series hyper-realized the modernist idea of the art exhibit. In a Stella exhibition during these years, no evolution was visible. There were no large important paintings and smaller intimate ones. Rather there was just the display of the series, which combined with the other simulated and hyper-real means Stella had employed, gave these exhibitions a distinctly science-fictional quality.
In 1967, with the Protractor series, Stella's work moved even further into the world of simulation. Until 1967, Stella's paintings could still be read literally, as flat areas of paint on canvas, without illusion or ambiguity. But in the Protractor series, this literalist, still modernist space disappears and is replaced by the contradictory, theatrical, and seductive space of the Simulacrum.
In the Protractor paintings, the way space is made is three-fold. First, there is the physical space of the painting-as-object, which is dramatized by their
massive dimensions, unusual shapes, and deep relief. It is further emphasized by the inelegant physical way the canvas is stretched over the huge stretchers, the casual pencil lines, and the alternating areas of evenly applied paint and raw canvas. Secondly, there is the space of the design, which emphasized either the overlap of the interlacing bands or the interlocking relationships between fanning and framing bands. Thirdly, there is the space made by combining Day-Glo and bright acrylic colors which pulsate with an eerie push-pull effect that creates a coloristic space independent of the spatial
reading indicated by the bands.
These three independent spatial systems combine to achieve a space of theatricality and fascination. There is no attempt at a unity of spatial clues. Rather the spatial signs are additive – they combine to give as intense an effect as possible. Here we have left the unified modern space of reason and have entered a post-modern space whose purpose is to seduce.
In the Protractor series, Stella also furthered his relationship with the issues of multiplicity and the model. The Protractor paintings are not only based on a series of pre-existing patterns, but each variant is now treated in three different ways, as ”interlaces,” “rainbows," and "fans." The choice of the protractor as
the basis for this series is also significant. Stella's previous configurations had been based on simple geometric shapes -- squares, triangles, pentagons, and so on shapes which still had some link with the classic, idealist tradition of geometry. In the protractor, Stella chose a tool of the designer and engineer. The protractor is both itself a model, and it is a tool for making models. With the Protractor series, Stella takes the final step from the modern world of the ideal into the post-modern world, where the model precedes all.
In Stella's work, the Protractor series was at the same time an end and a beginning. It was the end of his making paintings simply with paint on canvas,
while it was the beginning of his use of additive coloristic and spatial effects to create visual overload that has characterized his work in metal relief up to the present time.
The various series of metal-relief paintings represent an intensification of the approach taken in the Protractor series. Seemingly massive cut-out shapes of high-tech honeycomb aluminum are lifted and tilted with mystifying ease. They are layered one over another with such complexity that any idea of their actual
spatial relationships is confused. Figure and ground are also obscured as holes created by negative spaces are filled by shapes peeking out from behind. Then, each plane is covered with a profusion of paint, color, and
brushwork that further complicates the space and creates a further sense of scintillating spectacle. In this work, we are in a world where space is dramatic but no longer makes sense, where everything is arranged to maximize effect, where, like at Disneyworld, Las Vegas, or the Shopping Mall, everything is arranged to entice, seduce, and amaze.
This is also a world in which any sign is admissible but all are severed from any vestigial real meaning. Here, the abstract expressionist brushstroke is reduced to an empty, neutral sign. The brilliant, complex color serves no other purpose than to establish the color-effect. Likewise, composition serves only to establish the ideas of movement and attraction. The works as a whole become a hyper-real, neutral simulation of painting.
The only references out of the work are into the world of the Simulacrum. Honeycomb aluminum and etched magnesium remind us of the post-industrial world of ultra-light metals and printed circuits. The illusionistic “cones and pillars” of the newest work are reminiscent of the spatial simulations of computer graphics. And, of course, everything refers to the universe of the model-multiply-produced parts with repeating imagery are bolted together into paintings that are themselves also multiples.
If we have established a case for Frank Stella’s work as post-modern, we must finally ask – how can this be so when Stella himself articulates such a different
set of concerns for his own work? It is possible because in the post-modern situation the artist does not necessarily have the same degree of self-consciousness that was characteristic of modernism. In fact, in the case of
Stella, we may see him acting out the role of modernist artist for a post-modern audience, and we can see his work as a hyper-realization of modernism. We may also see him so firmly encased within the Simulacrum that he has no awareness of its existence (unlike Warhol, who during the '60's constantly alluded to his consciousness of this issue – although this was perhaps why he was unable to sustain his critique). For example, Stella has recently discussed his desire to give his work the same intense reality that is present in the work of an artist like Caravaggio. But if we translate Stella's
desire for intense reality into desire for intense hyper-reality, we can get an idea of Stella's position vis-à-vis the Simulacrum.
Finally, Stella's modernist credentials are often supported by reference to his education: as a product of the prep school and the distinguished university, he is thought undoubtedly to be a worthy standard-bearer of the modernist tradition. Yet it is exactly this training that explains why we may locate Stella within the Simulacrum. For the Simulacrum was not invented by the masses, by the drinkers of Pepsi and the watchers of Super Bowls. It was invented by corporations, brokerage houses, advertising firms, and broadcasting companies, precisely those institutions that draw their leaders from those machines for turning modernist knowledge into post-modern information, the elite universities.