Frank Stella: Outdoor Sculpture

The Field

June 25-December 1, 2022

It is with distinct honor that The Ranch announces Frank Stella: Sculpture, an in-depth survey of the artist’s expansion of the medium from 1993 to present. Foregrounding three decades of unbridled innovation and energy, the exhibition samples the ideologies and methodologies, styles and moods, materials and fabrication techniques that comprise Stella’s singular but irreducible practice. Conceived in collaboration with the artist, the two-part exhibition features an outdoor presentation of five monumental sculptures that will activate The Ranch’s grounds through November 1, 2022. On view from June 25 to July 31, 2022, in the West Barn, is a selection of smaller-scale sculptures and wall-bound constructions across recurring motifs and materials.

The chronological expanse of this exhibition is dictated by Stella’s definitive embrace of the sculptural medium after establishing himself as a painter and abstractionist at the tail end of the 1950s with radical interventions into pictorial space. In the 1990s, the artist pursued new computer-modeling technology that furthered his ability to paint in three dimensions— exploding his baroque welters of swirls and distended forms from wall-mounted reliefs into free-standing constructions befitting their conceptual amplitude. For Stella, there is a traceable trajectory from his early paintings, like the shaped canvases or irregular polygons, to his dimensional work. With hindsight, the objecthood of his paintings is obvious, even courting the techniques of carpentry and architectural building. But the painterly also lurks within his 2 sculptural output. Curved lines, shapes, gesture, and complicated geometries take a tiger’s leap into the real. Form—as a reserve with which to play and turnabout—is the guiding light.

The earliest work in the exhibition, The Cabin, Ahab & Pip (1993) designates Stella’s pioneering use of modeling to render an apocalyptic figuration of an episode from Melville’s Moby Dick. (Novels and narrative, much like music, have often been catalysts for his imagery.) Here, a cut-open steel base is capped by a chorus of crushed and curdled aluminum sheets. Conjuring a visual likeness to John Chamberlain’s chance compressions of automobile parts, this menacing wreckage is entirely predetermined despite its haphazard appearance. The aluminum assembly precisely joins poured casts produced at the Polich Tallix art foundry. A continuation of a body of three dozen freestanding sculptures in bronze and steel from earlier in the decade, the mélange atop The Cabin, Ahab & Pip is comprised of cast aluminum of various persuasions: billowing sheets interlock with the crude netting of honeycomb aluminum.

Also mounted to the sides of the cube base are small aluminum bundles displayed like reliefs, which evoke Stella’s process of scaling: every sculpture is based on the artist’s initial drawings, which are then given physical presence as maquettes and only later actualized on the monumental scale through industrial fabrication. Among the debris of this floating industrial wasteland are modeled smoke rings. The artist famously preempted advancements in three-dimensional modeling when, in the 1990s, he and collaborators sought to materialize smoke rings by synchronously photographing these irregular contours from all sides as he blew into an 8-foot cube. Since then, these hypostatized swirls have entered hundreds of works from prints to public sculpture.

In Fat 12 Point Carbon Fiber Star (2016), the fungibility of form is immediately recognized in the tumescent ballooning of the black star’s coordinates. The star is one of those critical images for which Stella has developed an intimate understanding over his career—the more familiar a form, the more he intuits its limits and possibilities. As he explains: “Once you see what the forms are and once you know them and what you want to do with them, then they have their own sense of how they go together. There are some things they’ll do and some things they won’t do.” First materializing as a shaped painting in the early 1960s, the star is something of a leitmotif for the artist (while romantic and autobiographical reasons for this abound in scholarship, it is more likely the complexity of the 3 geometry which has so inured the artist). In his large-scale sculptural interpretations of the icon, he often employs direct adjectives and mandates to egress from the standard form: fat, puffed, split, flat pack.

In other works, notes on formal elasticity are tendered more subtly as with Frank’s Wooden Star I (2014), included in the artist’s retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Notably, the delicate teak planks that fashion this heavenly body undulate upon close examination. By no means geometrically rigid, they expand and contract, revolve and bend. Its skeletal countenance, offering ribs rather than the flesh found in Fat 12 Point Carbon Fiber Star, ratifies into a dense nest at the center where another star can be discerned. As if physically diagramming the stellar core of the star—the energy generating region of increased temperature and pressure—the intricate inner substance of Frank’s Wooden Star I somehow transmits both astronomical and artistic vitality. Distinct variations on his enduring motif of the star (a cosmic force coaxed down to terra), these accentuate sculpture’s aerial potential and venture figurative associations derived from systematic structures. The points and projections of the stars, in essence, deform the formulaic.

Beyond stimulating the pleasures of aesthetic play (a form of cultural production which congealed under the sign of postmodernism), the latter-day sculptures also clarify a misconception regarding the interpretation of Stella’s objectives from the outset. Form was never a straitjacket to regulate or reduce, it provided the structural premise for exaggeration, allegory, and recoding. Signaling an end to modernism’s “promise of purity,” the artist’s work in three dimensions corrupts the stable image, opening it to the affordances of diversion, movement, and dispersal.

Symbolic shapes, like the star or cruciform or polygon, also direct his sculptural practice. K.236 (2016), for one, harnesses the image and logic of the triumphal arch. Scraping 28.5 feet, the aluminum and stainless-steel structure usurps the iconography of the monument that traditionally demarcates nationalistic pride or military conquest. The title, however, follows from the notational system of the Scarlatti K series (which across scale and media seem to be united by assemblage or aggregation), transposing the honorific from the world of political machinations to that of Scarlatti’s harpsichord sonatas (the Italian composer, a bridge figure between the Baroque and Classical period, is akin to Stella’s own straddling of sculpture/painting, modernism/postmodernism, minimalism/maximalism). Possibly evoking inverted scores, the curled and spiraled aluminum tubing suggests a helmet— another martial association. It is this ebbing flux and unresolved potential which underpins Stella’s transformation of this loaded sculptural genre into an elusive rather than dogmatic monument. In this way, K.236 opens that particular gratification of discovering figures in cloud’s illusions (or as Stella puts it, “it’s the age-old story of ‘you’re going to see something in it’”). What’s more, the aluminum tubes, a recurring material that the artist manipulates in the studio, track back to the metallic bands of his early career Aluminum Painting series, which along with the Copper series, evidence a nascent predilection for a material-based and spatial painting.

Stella’s abiding addictions—the aesthetic/phenomenal tango of fast cars, the smoke ring, the movement of streams observed while fishing—are burrowed into the tissue and fabulation of the sculptures on view. Fat 12 Point Carbon Fiber Star is fabricated from carbon fiber, the material used to make race cars extraordinarily durable and lightweight. Outfitting the celestial orb, the reflective, woven sheen of the carbon fiber mimes a noir and infinite cosmos. His most recent series, Atlantic Salmon Rivers, arrests the hopping motion of both fish and stream observed on fishing trips with his family. Sermons on the ability of artistic expression to suspend dynamic movement, these works trap his contoured shapes in a curved stainless-steel scaffolding.

Reminiscent of the rods that ensnare unsuspecting fish, the rectangular armature might also be construed as a return to the frame. Here, the bounded, imposing perimeter enacts the edge of the painting’s surface and demarcates the area for action. Driving home Stella’s assertion is a misleading ghost of Greenberg, The Grand Cascapedia (2021) also includes decorative arabesques and intentionally imperfect applications of color (like the drips and stains of Abstract Expressionism or Color Field Painting). Bleeding paint is another identifying attribute of the artist’s finish. In his Black Paintings of 1959, for example, drags of black enamel invade the exposed skin of the unprimed canvas. In tune with the vibrating edges of Barnett Newman’s zips more so than the putative precision of minimalism, the nullification of the pretense of black v. white, or any kind of categorical division or rationalizing order, advocates for the illusionistic basis of all abstraction. Still so in 2022, the undulating forms caught amid the aluminum frame are imaginative abstractions: fish, rod, stream, and current coalesce and reduce into foil, spiral, curve, and arabesque, and dissolve into notations for movement, speed, and dynamism.

This is all to suggest that Frank Stella inaugurated a sea change after modernism: what Rosalind Krauss explains as the shift of culture from one of “sense” to “sensibility.” With evocative intensity, the artist transgresses rationalism: inventing unanticipated shapes, displacing anticipated geometries, utilizing sumptuous color and emphatically embellished surfaces, proposing the rigor of the “decorative,” mashing destruction with construction, sourcing seductive materials with indomitable wills. Sensibility, in Stella, is captured in the bind of explicit and evasive, stability and slip. To open such pictorial possibility, Stella traverses wide-ranging terrain from the depths of art history to car culture, as far out as the Milky Way and as proximate as the smoke rings issuing from his cigar.

— Megan Kincaid

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