Art & Reason (Frank Stella: Black, Aluminum, Copper Paintings)

 (Frank Stella at L & M Arts, New York)

Went to see the Black, Aluminum, and Copper painting by Frank Stella at L & M Arts (on view through June 2). They are meant to call attention back to the early 1960s when these pictures were first shown. Everything that I could say about these geometric dynamos has already been said better by others. Most of the attention speaks, as it should, to the formal rigor of the works, the use of ordinary black enamel house paint, the way the paintings subvert the boundaries between image and object and, especially in the letter shaped Copper works, between painting and sculpture, representation and reality.

If only the artist had simply named these works “Untitled.” The paintings would be easier to assess for their formal properties. Maybe art critics write about Stella have been discouraged to ask about the choice of titles, insofar as these would inevitably bring subject matter into view.

There are two groups of titles that interest me here. I want to mention them without making too much of them, because maybe Stella was right when he said picture was “a flat surface with paint on it – nothing more”.

The first group consists of Arbeit macht frei (1958), and Die Fahne hoch! (1959). I’m not completely sure about this, but I’m going to hazard a guess that with these titles, the Holocaust is introduced for the first time (?) into the canon of late modernist art. The Bethlehem’s Hospital (1959) is I think a reference to a hospital in London, which for Stella, I think was also meant to evoke the recent war (?). It suggest the way in which history continued to touch high modernism.

The second group of work-titles that interests me: Averroes and Avicenna, both from 1960. I like in particular their machinic look. In both cases, the lines are forced to adjust to either a hole in the middle, or notched cuts along the border. With the grooves cut into the canvas and the ordered lines, they sort of look like modern computer chips. Again, you want to ask about the connection between Islamic scholastic philosophy and modernist painting. Steven Schwarzschild made this link between abstract art, Halakhah, and Maimonidean rationalism. But he did this as a Jewish philosopher, so you figure he had his own ulterior motives. In contrast, Stella formed this connection as a practicing artist.

That these pictures still work after such a passage, that nothing seems to have stemmed their rigor, says something about “modern traditions,” and the way different modern and modernist styles are still able to function, to cycle and re-cycle.

What I get from this kind of art, why I think it’s still so exciting, is the way it speeds up and dynamizes everything that comes into contact with it, and the way it trains the eye and mind to look for the same and to create the same in the world outside the exhibition space. For my professional purposes, this would include modern-contemporary religion and modern-contemporary Judaism

I’m not sure I understand these paintings. They are not “hot.” But I don’t think they’re “cold” or “cool.” Maybe these are the wrong words. The paintings are “tight.” I’m not sure what I mean by this beyond the organization of the figures and lines and what they do to the brain and to thought.

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About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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4 Responses to Art & Reason (Frank Stella: Black, Aluminum, Copper Paintings)

  1. Thanks for bringing this to my attention. I am very fond of these and it’s ages since I have seen them reproduced (I don’t think I have actually seen them in the flesh). I like your discussion of the titles. I think they are playful suggestions, famous as he is for having said that “what you see is what you see”. What interests me in the paintings formally is the way one gets from horizontal and vertical support to the diagonal. I think of the diagonal line as more artificial (in the sense of use of artifice) than the vertical and horizontal that echo the support and seem more connected to objecthood. But, emphasise the support edges by repeating the edge a lot of times and you get diagonals. It interests me anyway!

    • zjb says:

      I hate to get all “spritual in art” but I find interesting your associating the horizontal and vertical with objecthood. The diagonal is not just artificial, which it is. It’s also “spiritual.” Which might mean that artifice and spirit are very kindred phenemona. For this spiritual intrepretation of repetition and the diagonal, I’d look to ol’ Heinrich Wolflin’s studies of Baroque diagonal composition versus Renaissance horizontality. Also Kandinsky’s Point and Line to Plane, which to me stands out as one of the most accomplished theological treatises of the 20th C.

  2. Reblogged this on patternsthatconnect and commented:
    How to get from the stretcher support to the diagonal line.

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