September 20, 2007

A Stretcher Named Desire

Whether it was Ad Reinhardt’s space as the “elimination of color,” or the anticipatory and subtle “presence” of Anne Truitt’s monochromatic slabs, the art being made by “late Modern” American abstractionists of the heady 1950’s had a bold breakaway feel of “the last advanced painting.” But a 23-year-old New Yorker named Frank Stella would shrink the gap between the literal shape (of the stretcher) and the “depicted” shape within the painting’s framing edge. It was his brash and impassioned consideration and heroic pursuit of an interdependent image to object that would stress the relationship of image and object as a unified thing.

Stella accomplished this simply through process. In his mind, the older ideas “about relational painting, i.e. the balancing of the various parts of the painting with and against each other” were “problems which had to be faced.” His “solution” was to eliminate “illusionistic space out of a painting at constant intervals by using a regulated pattern.”(1) His “regulated pattern” involved a “house painter’s” brush of a certain width and a single color (mostly and best with black) and Stella’s methodology delivered a series of paintings that although inherently featuring “stripes” have come to be called the “black paintings”. The stripes appear to be generated by the framing edges of the canvas and its support and yet also relate to the edges through Stella’s harmonious and logical solution of process.

“What the evidence shows is that in 1958 Stella painted himself into and out of a world, a body of work so complete that he could turn his back on it. This doesn’t seem like a phase, but rather a defining moment when Stella learned that he did not want to do what he could do, and went on to paint the black and gray pinstriped and notched paintings that, by the end of 1959, had secured him representation by Leo Castelli and a place in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.”(2)

Through his reinforcement of the stretcher shape Stella provided the history of painting with a new method of structuring the content of the work that is wholly based on the shape of the support. In other words, the shape determined the structure and this was “arrived at” through his “regulated pattern” of brushworked logic. Stella’s radical use of the literal over the depicted would invest painting with a new radicality and energy that would carry it through the next decade. Moreover, his solution of using a process to determine the art object’s form would surface again during the “process art” of the Anti-Form movement, ironically itself a reaction to the Minimal Art that Stella helped to create.

UPDATE: Image deleted by unknown person or entity. (Sorry, Frank!)
UP-UPDATE: Replaced image: Stella painting in his studio, 1959; photographer unknown.


1. Selz, Peter, and Kristine Stiles, ed. Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings, Berkeley, 1996, 114.

2. Corbett, William, Frank Stella 1958, Brooklyn Rail, March 2006.

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