Frank Stellas Unflinching Desire To Create Art Art Essay

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Frank Stella's unflinching desire to create art that is entirely self-contained and self-referential, allowed his work to communicate to the viewer on a completely visual level. This is evidence that Stella conforms to the modernist Formalist school of art despite being born later in the Twentieth Century than others of the same category. Clearwater's publication, Frank Stella at 2000, (2000), explains how Stella's work is self-contained and the way in which it connects to the viewer. In the publication Frank Stella 1970-1987, (1987), Rubin looks further at how Stella ensures his work remains self-referential. Galenson and Weinberg in the article Age and the Quality of Work, (2000), look at how Stella's work was to be interpreted and references Stella's work as an advance upon past Formalist artists. Finally, the article Frank Stella: Works 1970-1987, (1988), by Kingsley, argues that it is impossible for an artist such as Stella to create work that held no external references. Thus, Kingsley's argument represents an opposition to the strongly formalist interpretations offered by the other three authors.

Stella's work was described by Fried (Galenson & Weinberg, 2000, p.767) as ‘a significant advance' upon the Formalist work of Mondrian due to his formal solutions. Stella's solutions were founded within his treatment of shape within the artwork, or more exactly, as the artwork itself. Rubin (1978 p.117) explains that for Stella, he hoped ‘that the shapes are speaking to the viewer as shapes', instead of ‘imagistic symbols he or others might use as verbal conveniences in referring to them'. Two strong examples of Stella's mindset towards shapes and their use are to be found in Chodorow II (Fig. 1) and Narowla II (Fig. 2). Galenson and Weinberg (2000, p.767) quote Stella as saying ‘my painting is based on the fact that only what can be seen there is there.... What you see is what you see'. Clearwater (2000, p.27) explains this further in saying that for Stella's work ‘what you see is how you comprehend what you see'. According to these authors, what a viewer sees in Stella's work is only what has been placed there to be seen, and thus it can be understood as simply shape, colour, tone and texture, the key values of Formalism.'Die Hielge Cacile oder die Gewalt de Musik (Fig. 3) is an excellent example of this, whereby the artwork is so overwhelmingly unfamiliar, any reference to reality is absent, leaving the viewer unable to understand it through the traditional means of symbolism and representation of the real world. Without this connection, the only available interpretation for the viewer is in exactly what stands before them as a visual entity, what they see. Once this is understood, the Formalist value of Stella's work becomes clear and the viewer is able to ‘comprehend' the artwork.

One of the most debatable aspects of Stella's work is that of its connection to the outside world and thus to himself and his emotional life. As Formalism places minimal value on these connections and the fact that Frank Stella himself, dismissed these ‘humanistic values' (Stilez & Selz, cited by Galenson & Weinberg, 2000, p.767), thinking of ‘a painting as an object that makes no reference to anything outside itself' (Clearwater, 2000, p.8), it would seem that this connection should be absent in his work. Stella also states, as quoted by Galenson and Weinberg (2000, p.767) that he ‘insisted' that his work did not hold any symbolic meanings. Kingsley (1988, p.315), however, argues that it was impossible to deny a connection between Stella's life and his work during certain periods. Despite Stella's steadfast denial of this connection and thus his entirely modernist Formalist view of art, Kingsley sees that Stella's work did in fact have ties to the events in his life, particularly evident in his connection to motorsport.

...surely it is not too far fetched to see a connection between Stella's life at a time of intense involvement with racing cars and their drivers, and the explosively fragmented, high-impacted look of Stella's work after the mid-seventies. (Kingsley, p.315)

Kingsley's quote is relating to the contrast in visual style between pre-1975 works such as the previously mentioned Norowla II (Fig. 1) in 1971 and later works such as those from his Circuits series, for example, Mosport (Fig. 4) in 1982 and Nogaro (Fig. 5) in 1984, which were even named after race tracks. This evidence would appear to connect directly back to Stella's change in environment mentioned by Kingsley and challenge Stella's ongoing denial of his work lacking any external reference. However, it does not negate his connection to modernist Formalism. Instead, it is a sign that he drew inspiration from his environment in order to create his visual style, but remained faithful to his Formalist drive to avoid visual symbolism and any other link within his work that would have led the viewer to real-world connections.

The authors discussed have presented evidence towards multiple common Formalist elements existing within Stella's work. Clearwater, Rubin and Weinberg and Galenson, all see Stella's work as self-contained and self-referential. Clearwater and Rubin both state that his work was based around the idea of artwork's value being contained within what the viewer could see before them in the work itself. It is only Kingsley that presents the argument of Stella's visual style connecting to his emotional life. While this would go against Formalist values, it does not lead his work away from modernist Formalism itself, it simply helps to explain a change in visual style. The essence of what Formalism represents, a complete focus on the visual product as a self-contained entity, is seen throughout Stella's work and his principles of art. This is evident through his exclusion of the recognisable and symbolic, use of shapes as a means of defining a painting and the literal approach he took to a work's visual value.


Clearwater B, 2000, Frank Stella - at Two Thousand - Changing The Rules, Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami

Cooke, L, 1987, ‘Working Space by Frank Stella', The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 129, No. 1009, p.258, viewed 8th March 2010 via JSTOR database.

Galenson, D & Weinberg, B, 2000, Age and the Quality of Work: The Case of Modern American Painters, The Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 108, No. 4, pp. 761-777, viewed 9th March 2010 via JSTOR database.

Gibbs, M, 1972, ‘Albers and Stella', Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University, Vol. 31, No. 1, pp. 8-11, viewed 11th March 2010 via JSTOR database
Hensbergen, G, 1984, [untitled], The Burlington Magazine, Vol.126, No.971, pp. 100-101, viewed 8th March 2010 via JSTOR database.

Kingsley A, 1988, ‘Frank Stella: Works 1970-1987', The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 130, pp. 315-316, viewed 8th March 2010 via JSTOR database.

Quigly, T, 1987, ‘Orthodox Formalism and the Metaphysics of Pictorialism', The Kenyon Review, New Series, Vol. 9, No. 4, pp. 146-150, viewed 8th march 2010 via JSTOR database.
Rubin W, 1987, Frank Stella 1970-1987, The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Image List

Die heilge Cacile oder die Gewalt de Musik - Clearwater B, 2000, Frank Stella - at Two Thousand - Changing The Rules, Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami,  p.46

Chodorow II - Rubin W, 1987, Frank Stella 1970-1987, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, p. 1
Narowla II - Rubin W, 1987, Frank Stella 1970-1987, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, p.19
Mosport - Rubin W, 1987, Frank Stella 1970-1987, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, p.99
Nogaro - Rubin W, 1987, Frank Stella 1970-1987, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, p.107