I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art to deepen my understanding of this week's readings on Conceptual and Minimalist Art. Specifically, I looked at Frank Stella's work.
Metropolitan Museum 'M' (1970) by Frank Stella
I have always been curious about what motivated Stella and other artists during the Minimalist period. His Excerpts of Painters Painting answered many of my questions. Therein he explains that his peers sought to go further in their explorations into abstraction than the Abstract Expressionists did. His main critique of the second generation of Action Painters was that they failed to depict in their paintings the vigor and passion they professed to have. It seems to him that their initial energy dissipated as they continued to paint.
Instead of maintaining their strategy of painting as an "allover attack", Stella claims that Action Painters "fell back into traditional ways of paint manipulation," depicted value-modeled space and fiddled too much with the corners of their paintings, which restricted the explosive expressions of paint they laid down earlier (Stella 169). He points out that these concessions to conventional painting practices compromised Action Painters’ intentions.
Once I was reminded that Minimalists sought to be even more abstract in their method of expression, my second question of why they created such plain looking art at a time when American culture was undergoing so much exciting social change, became irrelevant. While the events of their time had definite impact on them, many Minimalist artists focused on exploring the formal issues of abstraction and objectivity in their work.
Hollis Frampton, The Secret World of Frank Stella
[painting Getty Tomb, unpublished print], 1958–1962
Stella admitted that he was preoccupied with figuring out where he stood in relation to the previous generation of painters. He states In his essay that his artistic goal was to create work with pictorial strength through the depiction explosive yet controlled energy. This was expressed through patterned paintings (such as the Black Paintings series) that called attention to the flatness of the canvas and sought to present paintings as objects in and of themselves instead of representations of something else.
Stella states that another way he wanted to distinguish himself from Abstract Expressionists was to limit his audience's capacity to explore and "read a record of what [he] had done exactly" in his paintings (171). He wanted to present something to audiences instead of inviting them to engage in conjecture about his emotional or mental state. Stella used pattern to achieve this too. By presenting a simple visual situation with a mysterious subject and a reflective, impenetrable surface, Stella wanted audiences to have an experience that he described as "apprehension-confrontation with the picture." He hoped that it resulted in his paintings having "a life of its own in relationship to the viewer" (172).
Marrakech (1964) by Frank Stella
I did not have that intense and binding a response that Stella hoped for when I initially viewed his work. I often dismissed his paintings as being puzzlingly simplistic and would spend very little time pondering the significance of his artistic intentions. That is why it was very interesting to learn that Stella was aware that this might be a common response from viewers. He knew that audiences might bypass or even forget his work because they got his main message very quickly—which is that non-representational objective painting can be compelling in its own right. I used to be mystified by this work and am now relieved to say that reflecting on Stella’s essay has enabled me to truly see and appreciate the accomplishments of this era.
Stella, Frank. “Excerpts of Painters Painting.” Artists, Critics, Context: Readings in and Around American Art since 1945. Ed. Paul F. Fabozzi. Alexandria, VA: Prentice Hall, 2001.