3D color field

K.81 Combo, 3D painted sculpture, Frank Stella

I’ve been frustrated for years by my fruitless search for a catalog of Frank Stella’s work that gives the reader a comprehensive view of his gorgeous protractor series of minimalist abstractions in the 60s.  I long to see the colors of those paintings reproduced as accurately as possible in a book, and especially in a retrospective devoted only to that series. To see those paintings assembled together, all on their own, would be worth the effort. Most of his career represents a repudiation of Clement Greenberg’s elevation of “flatness” as the defining characteristic of painting, an axiom that seems more and more irrelevant, even silly, with time–and now in retrospect seems even more to miss its target when applied to the painters he was trying to glorify. Rothko’s paintings are certainly a flat surface, but their simple glowing colors recede and advance as the tones of earth and sky do in a landscape, and that illusion of depth gives them part of their somber allure. They invite you to step in, toward that horizon line. After the austerity of the black and metal paintings, in which he constructed shaped canvases at least partly to defy Greenberg’s dictum, Stella embarked on a long exploration of color harmonies in a surrender to flatness, more or less. Many were shaped, but they worked because of color applied in flat patterns on a flat surface. Their lyrical restraint was what made them so charming. For me, they are distinguished by the thin gutter between each straight or curved stripe, a little buffer of white between each designer tone that allows each individual color to respond to the ones around it cleanly and distinctly.

I was reminded of these wonderful paintings–painted in a spirit of what I would consider mid-20th century abstract version of neo-classicism–serene and vibrant despite the relentless geometric order of their flat patterns, a celebration of Athenian moderation and order after the sturm und drang of AbEx. They were another avenue, along with Pop, for a rejection of the grim seriousness of the 50s. Why so serious, painters in the 60s seemed to be asking, but with a smile less violent than The Joker’s. Stella’s protractor designs are a celebration of art’s ability to manifest joy, as Dave Hickey’s last sentence does in The Invisible Dragon: “Beauty is and always will be blue skies and open highways.” It’s a sentence so full of the promise of America half a century ago, when Hickey immersed himself in the art world, when we were building a launch pad to fire ourselves at the moon and bringing civil rights to those who had never had it before. America–and Stella’s paintings along with it–felt like a launch pad for an unlimited future. Those protractor paintings are a visualization of happiness and possibility untainted by resentment or anxiety. The global economy hadn’t arrived just yet to erode the burgeoning American dream by narrowing it to exclude those who don’t have a share of Wall Street largesse. Stella’s brief Apollonian phase continues to be a reminder that human life can be a balance between head and heart, math and emotion, open roads under that beckoning, unattainable blue sky.

In my fruitless search for such a catalog of those late 60s paintings, I came across one of his much more recent baroque constructions, included in the Whitney retrospective a few years ago: K.81 Combo (K.37 and K.43) Large Size. It’s a continuation of his Sixties ebullience, by other means, in three dimensions. Stella considers it a visualization of a Scarlatti sonata. In three dimensions, and with color as delightful as a series of life-affirming musical tones, he is bringing what the color field painters did in the 60s into a branch of sculpture. It takes the fountain of interwoven counterpoint that is Baroque music and uses it as an imaginary armature for the construction of brightly colored surfaces that seem to swirl outward and back into themselves like orderly solar flares. As I gazed at the reproduction of Stella’s sculpture, I was struck by how it’s doing something I’ve been trying to echo in my current paintings of salt water taffy.

I think of these paintings as portraits of a highly simplified, three-dimensional color field painting, as if someone had taken a painted canvas and crumpled it into a ball and then let it expand randomly into its final punished shape–all the spirals and glowing quadrants of color deformed and fused into a lump and then wrapped in translucent waxed paper, giving the patterns of color a diffuse, glowing, partly concealed quality. In the shards of translucent paper that surround the candy and flare outward at each side like wings, I’m establishing patterns and lines, whorls and dents and fissures, that repeat and connect in unexpected ways, as the lines in a Braque gueridon do. Before I ever pick up a brush, I create much of these formal qualities, the composition itself, with my fingertips. I often unwrap the taffy and rewrap it myself with waxed paper from the kitchen. I try to gently twist the wax paper (I cut it to precise dimensions) so that it wrinkles it as little as possible while preserving the curved planes. As I’m doing this, I create the object I will work from, building this uniform “armature” for color in the painted image. As I paint flat patterns of tones I will rework with greater and greater detail, I feel the spirit of a dozen previous painters whose work I love flicker through the process. It’s as if the painting goes through its Milton Avery and Braque period when it’s a flat pattern of uniform color and then emerges as a greatly enlarged single object still life–but it’s a still life of three-dimensional chunks of candy making patterns that remind me mostly of color field painters from half a century ago. As I was doing in my candy jar paintings, and intend to do again in future ones, I’m constantly drawing energy and desire from the qualities of those modernists: Stella, Noland, Hammersley, Avery, Frankenthaler, Francis, and so many others, painters whose work became a sort of visual equivalent to music.


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