Archive for June 10th, 2022

Looking into the blind spot

Frank Stella | NUVO

I have never finished reading Frank Stella’s Working Space, a long and impressively written essay on the evolution of “pictorial space” in Western painting. It’s done as a coffee table art book, with lavish illustrations, so reading is optional. For a while, I loved listening to him talk about art, but early on I decided to get off the train at the nearest stop because I gathered what appeared to be its destination: positioning his work in the ongoing history of art. It’s a fascinating argument, because Stella can be a spell-binding rhetorician. His prose draws you in with its magisterial command of art history and his unique position as a pioneer in painting back when it was still possible to be such a thing. I suspect he has never gotten over that—who could? —and this book struck me as his attempt to characterize his entire body of work as pioneering. The book is bold, brilliant, and sometimes baffling, but I didn’t mind that last part, because his slippery prose has rewards of its own. That’s how rhetoric works: it draws you in with its momentum. He seems to be arguing for his later three-dimensional work, on shaped canvases, as a new way of painting “pictorial space” comparable in its paradigm shift, historically, to the intimate, cinematic depth of field Caravaggio brought to painting in his own time.

I don’t know. Aren’t Stella’s constructions more of an idiosyncratic fusion of painting with sculpture?  I love his ebullient, affirmative energy, no matter what he’s doing. So does he need to cling to his pioneer status, especially when “progress” in visual art exhausted itself in the 60s?

Along the way in Working Space, though, Stella says things, in quasi-poetic idioms, where he finds brief, profound ways to veer out of his swim lane. It’s hard to tell if he knows he’s no longer talking about space or the depiction of space, but about epistemological quandaries fundamental to human life, not simply in the art of painting. Without warning, he slides into a passage about the limits of human knowing, the limits of knowledge itself, not just whatever is the case with things shown or signified. It’s evocative language that seems better delivered in stanzas than paragraphs. The italics are mine:

This ephemeral quality of painting reminds us that what is not there, what we cannot quite find, is what great paintings always promise. It does not surprise us, then, that at every moment when an artist has his eyes open, he worries that there is something present that he cannot quite see, something that is eluding him, something within his always limited field of vision, something in the dark spot that makes up his view of the back of his head. He keeps looking for this elusive something, out of habit as much as out of frustration. He searches even though he is quite certain that what he is looking for shadows him every moment he looks around. He hopes it is what he cannot know, what he will never see, but the conviction remains that the shadow that follows but cannot be seen is simply the dull presence of his own mortality, the impending erasure of memory. Painters instinctively look to the mirror for reassurance, hoping to shake death, hoping to avoid the stare of persistent time, but the results are always disappointing. Still they keep checking. We can see Caravaggio looking at himself from The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew, Velásquez surveying his surroundings in Las Meninas, and Manet testing the girl at the bar to see if there is anything different about those who have to work rather than see for a living.

Stella bears down on something fundamental to human experience at the start of this passage: the way in which knowledge MORE