Why Frank Stella Was Wrong
When I was a student at the University of Toledo, earning a masters in English, I liked to go to the art museum there. They had good art, and a good library, and I had the chance to take a class at the University of Toledo with Joel Lipman, a remarkable and dexterous visual poet. I remember Lipman assigning us to write ekphrastic poems, meaning poems about paintings, and how freeing this felt. I also remember one day visiting a room in the museum with the class Lipman taught, and seeing collaborations between poets and painters, like R.B. Kitaj and Robert Creeley, that excited me, and made me realize there was more to art than just poetry, even if poetry was what I had ostensibly gone to the University of Toledo to study.
I remember one night going to a lecture at the museum, in the beautiful amphitheater there, which had a kind of golden peach sheen to it, and seeing and hearing Frank Stella deliver a lecture. I didn't know very much about Stella, but remember liking his black paintings and, later, not liking very much some of his three-dimensional work, the colors of which - one hung on the wall of the TMA, in the modern gallery, I remember - I found garish and a bit show-offy. At the lecture, Stella was enormously animated and excited, which excited me in turn. And he said something that I remember taking then at face value, but which I want to return to now.
There was a blackboard on stage, and some chalk, and Stella had written the word "representation," if I remember correctly, on the blackboard. And then, while he discussed abstract art, he used the chalk to draw a line through "representation." It was dramatic, a kind of windswept motion, while he continued speaking, and it was intended to suggest how bankrupt representational paintings were, how not up with the times, and perhaps even something about purity and impurity.
I don't have too many dogs in this fight - I tend to lean towards abstract work anyways, though my favorite painter is Picasso, who seems to work in both terms while making a mockery of those terms - but at some point it occurred to me that the term abstract art makes no sense at all. Maybe someone has already written about this. Language is abstract; art is not. Art, no matter how abstract, is sensuous. A sculpture made of clay in a circle, a painting of three triangles of different colors arranged in different configurations on a two-dimensional plane, these are sensuous experiences, and therefore not abstract. When we read a poem made of language on a page, that is abstract. It's a matter of ratios, of course, foregrounds and backgrounds, but these emphases are important.
If abstract art as a term makes no sense, what is an abstract painting, or, better put, what are some ways to think about it? In the spirit of Stella's lecture, let's look at three works. I'm going to focus here on the idea of "cues," and larger questions about movement and stillness in visual art, graphic novels, and lexical literature like novels and poems.
Ellsworth Kelly, Blue and Orange and Green
Rembrandt van Rijn, "The Night Watch"
When I say "cues," I am basically just borrowing an idea from John Baldessari, the idea of pointing. Baldessari did a series of works where he painted or photographed a hand pointing at something in a larger visual field. The works manage to be somehow profound and also funny. They are about cues, about how we look at things, about what is pointed at and why, or when, or how, about the dance or rhythm of the eye as it roams across the thing pointed at, and how this is different perhaps from reading something else, whether a line of language, or even a situation in the world. There are Buddhist echoes in this, the idea that we can only gesture at the moon, for example, and therefore that the suchness of life exceeds our ability to represent it in either image or language. There are also Jewish echoes - the idea of the yad, for example, in Judaism, a device we use to read and sing the lines of Torah without touching it with our hand.
More interesting to me than all of this is that paintings, whether Kelly's or Rembrandt's, do not really have cues, or if they do, they are like very invisible dots that simply peep out occasionally but have no particular agenda on our looking and noticing. When we look at Rembrandt's "Night Watch," there is an outwards movement from the center; when we look at the Kelly, there is a concentration, almost unilaterally, on the three objects. That is significant; those are the kind of "rules" of the painting, in a sense. But once we recognize that, we are free to look at anything in it.
Another rule is the experience we associate it with. Rembrandt's "Night Watch" makes us imagine a story, and Kelly's "Blue and Orange and Green" makes us experience a feeling. I think this is why Stella's lecture seemed weird - I think art should be more about experience, along Deweyan lines, than strict divisions, though perhaps that is more a critical stance than an artistic one.
What happens in the Barry piece, where language is moved into the context of art? This shifts how we look at the language, of course, and makes us reflect on how we read, and therefore how we make meaning. It can also make us look at letters as themselves sensuous, as forms that accrue shape and meaning over time. Or it can make us look at language spatially, and therefore yoke together poetry with painting and other forms of art and language. The date can call attention to the strangeness of time's relationship to what we create and when, and therefore the oddness of blooded history's association with the (seemingly) unblooded abstraction of language. And yet the language, too, even though it is abstract, even though we read it in English right to left, as opposed to up and down or left to right or outwards or unilaterally, points to something else, something "not yet known to me." This seems to place us in a strange position. Are we echoing Derrida's deferral of meaning, or something mystical in a Wittgensteinian vein?
I'm trying to say is that every art form has certain differences and similarities that are important, and the ratio of the differences and similarities determines the slant of the form and work. Ekphrasis is like tectonic plates shifting; one culls differences from different works of art based on what one needs or how one imagines, and these differences are based on the experience of the work of art, and its relationship to memory and therefore meaning. Over time these differences, these readings, create a slant, a style, a way of looking, thinking, feeling, noticing, imagining. Genres are invented this way, just as art forms are. And the difference we notice over time are themselves discovered or created through cues, as Baldessari knew.
Think about the graphic novel. There is an enormous difference between reading Art Spiegelman's Maus and Gabrielle Bell's work. Why, or what is the difference? Spiegelman's work is more temporal. It reads more like a novel. Bell's work is more spatial, and reads more like a painting. Spiegelman's work moves. Bell's work shimmers. It's because the ratios are different. Both combine abstraction and sensuousness, of course, through images and words, along with narrative, something paintings suggest but do not unravel. But the key to figuring out slant - in the graphic novel, as well as other forms - seems to require thinking about the ratios of the ekphrasis, the manner in which different art forms are drawn upon, the how and why of it, and therefore what configuration of ideas and experiences motivated the work, and, from a critic's perspective, though also an artist's, if the work succeeded on those terms, and if it didn't, why.