Monday, May 06, 2024

Best books: Working Space

Here's an old favorite, by the painter Frank Stella, who died this week: Working Space— you can read it online at that link. It's pretty dense, but there's a lot to learn about art in it. You may have to blow past some of the more intense verbiage, as I did. He worries the concept of “pictoriality”, which I never fully grasped. 

Here's Stella in the documentary film Painters Painting— he's verbose, but what he's talking about is mostly simple— what he's doing, and what's in his pictures, which is not a whole lot. He was considered to be a minimalist early in his career, less so later on. 

It turns out that it's not that easy to make a simple picture, if you have some ideas about how it's supposed to go— like if you want people to get the picture instantly, and without alluding to any kind of three dimensional space. Hence everything he has to say about it there.

Where people get into trouble with work like his— and with that level of conversation about it— is they think the artist is demanding that they take it as some kind of profoundly meaningful thing. Which they do not feel, so they become hostile. But the pictures really just are what they are, they're pretty quick experiences, you see the thing, maybe notice the logic of its design, and that's it. If that's hard to accept, maybe you think about art a little bit, about why that's not enough for you, and about what you want from it. 

Stella seems to be coming from the same kind of place as the critic Clement Greenberg, who was real worried about pictures being abstract enough, and flat-looking enough— he wanted no illusion of space. History demanded it, in his mind. You can get a little bit of what he's about in the essay “American-type Painting” here. He also liked to assign things status as “major” and “minor” art, which is BS, purely him asserting own status as a New York art world “power broker” or whatever. He was kind of full of it. 

It would be easy to dismiss Stella as part of the same category, but as someone who builds things, he's more grounded in reality. It's worth spending some time with him, even if you don't have a lot of affinity for his work. Which I don't. It's a little too cool for me, and I want something I can look at for awhile. But he gives you a lot to think about. 

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