Stella Leaps Off Walls at The Whitney

Long view of gallery with The Grand Armada (IRS-6, 1X) (1989)

Long view of gallery with The Grand Armada (IRS-6, 1X) (1989)

Leaping loops of bendable pipes! If you’ve never seen paintings that jump off the wall, get over to the Whitney’s Frank Stella: A Retrospective before it closes on February 7.

As Frank himself says, “Painting does not want to be confined by the boundaries of edge and surface.” Ok, no argument here. Nothing up here looks “confined”.

You emerge from the elevator face-to-face with his monumental masterpiece that’s nearly as long as the AMNH Titanosaur. It’s full of more visual nooks and crannies than a walk through Central Park and as vast as Wyoming. It’s a dazzling performance of color, line, and expanse. Before jumping into the rest of the show, the sheer size demands that you slow down to see the detail.

Detail of baroque, monumental 1999 painting, The Earthquake in Chile

Detail of baroque, monumental 1999 painting, The Earthquake in Chile

Let’s admit, however, that the busy, unconfined artworks on the right form a gravitational force field that will lure even the most focused visitor away to explore the whirly color and 3-D protrusions. The label copy says Frank was inspired by Baroque music, letting his paintings function like soundless symphonies.

Through the bays, you catch glimpses of big Protractors and other Day-Glo creations that embody the over-the-top Eighties in New York.

You’ll also encounter of Frank’s most famous geometric meditations and early works from the pre-Soho days. From every angle and position, you see, feel, and meet some mighty heavy output. And it’s only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the full output of this 79-year-old powerhouse.

The Whitney’s solution to showing such a big, diverse, lively group of work was to take advantage of their new, moveable walls. The show’s designers moved all the walls away from the edges of the gallery so that visitors can see from one end to the other and glimpse the full spectrum of Frank’s artistic output.

Wall with works from the 1980s Moby Dick series

Wall with works from the 1980s Moby Dick series

Look through the show on our Flickr feed of the show, with the works sorted into chronological order, and enjoy the curator audio guide on the Whitney website.

On the far east section of the gallery, the 3-D might comes into full view with selections from the Moby Dick series, roaring, raging works that push out from the white wall. The selections are impressive, but are only a small portion of Frank’s total output from that era.

For every one of the 95 works on the wall, there are dozens and dozens of works in each series – just as big and monumental – that didn’t get into the show. The curators told us that it was the biggest problem in mounting Frank’s retrospective: Their size demands that they be bolted into place, so to borrow them for the show, the parts of each huge work must be carefully disassembled and then reassembled. Installing each piece was a challenge akin to moving the Amenemhat II colossus into the Great Hall at The Met. Thank goodness that Frank’s team provided elaborate instruction manuals and how-to drawings.

Circus of Pure Feeling for Malevich, 4 Square Circus, 16 parts, 2009 has a view of the Hudson

Circus of Pure Feeling for Malevich, 4 Square Circus, 16 parts, 2009 has a view of the Hudson

Stella’s most recent work is situated in two special places of honor: His diminutive 2009 creations are parked right next to the Hudson River view – sixteen little curvy sculptural tributes to the collision between the precision of absolute geometry (courtesy of Mr. Malevich) and whimsy playfulness, represented by Mr. Calder, the Whitney’s circus master.

At the other end of the floor, his Black Star dominates on the outdoor balcony overlooking the Meatpacking District and the Standard Hotel. See the video below.

Great tribute, great art, great show at the New Whitney. And thanks for publishing the full catalog and essays online.

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