Frank Stella, tilting at minimalism

In the artist’s early ‘Polygons,’ force, if not depth

Frank Stella named the pieces in his series after towns in New Hampshire. Pictured “Moultonville II.' Frank Stella named the pieces in his series after towns in New Hampshire. Pictured “Moultonville II." (Photo By Steven Sloman)
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / December 12, 2010

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HANOVER, N.H. — The always exemplary but never quite lovable work of Frank Stella is one of the enigmas of modern art. Rarely do you encounter people who feel passionately about Stella. They are impressed — how could they not be? — by his intelligence, his range, and the consistent audacity of his work. And they recognize his place in the pantheon.

But they almost never express the sort of deep-seated enthusiasm you routinely hear expressed about his peers — people such as Donald Judd, Barnett Newman, Dan Flavin, or Jasper Johns.

In contrast to those other artists, whose work, even at its most apparently cerebral, suggests burning conviction and private necessity, there’s always been something synthetic, arbitrary, and not quite real about Stella’s work. That may be ironic, given Stella’s forceful personality (“I never felt that minimal,’’ he told me in a 2003 interview), and the premium he has always put on reality. His most famous statement is: “What you see is what you see.’’

Stella, who received the 2009 National Medal of the Arts from President Obama earlier this year, is probably the most famous abstract artist alive. Right now he’s the subject of a commanding show at the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College. Organized by the museum’s recently departed director, Brian Kennedy, the show reconvenes a series of shaped canvases called “Irregular Polygons’’ that Stella made in 1965-66.

Stella has lived in New York most of his life, but he was born in Malden and educated at Phillips Academy in Andover.

The paintings in the “Irregular Polygons’’ series are named after small towns in New Hampshire, where Stella went as a boy on fishing and camping trips with his father. The host institution boasts other connections with Stella, too: He was an artist-in-residence at Dartmouth in 1963, and he received an honorary degree there in 1985 (the year the Hood first opened to the public).

Stella was barely out of his 20s when he painted the “Irregular Polygons.’’ His big breakthrough had come seven years before, in 1959-60, when the Museum of Modern Art showed four of his radically pared-back “black paintings’’ in its “Sixteen Americans’’ show. The black paintings — somber, mute, and mesmerizing, with disturbing titles such as “Reichstag’’ and “Arbeit Macht Frei’’ — proved immensely controversial — and no less influential. Stella was just 23.

Interestingly, this new show comes four years after Harvard devoted an entire exhibition to the works Stella made as — wait for it — a 22-year-old, in 1958. Given the swiftness of his uptake by king-making curators in the ’60s, it’s hard to know whether the increasingly tight focus of these recent shows represents renewed institutional acknowledgment of Stella’s importance, or intensifying uncertainty.

The “Irregular Polygons,’’ like so much of Stella’s work, instantly look great. “I only really care about the immediate impact that art has on you,’’ he told me in 2003. “I like all the other things that go after, but I can’t help it, I go by the first hit.’’

The hit here is big. The 11 giant canvases are shaped to suggest simple shapes — squares, triangles, rectangles, rhombuses, pentagons, and parallelograms — slotted together to create asymmetrical new hybrids. They’re painted in bold colors, with thick stripes along some of the shapes’ borders but not others.

Always one for serial experiments, Stella made four versions of each work, changing the colors in each version. We only get to see one example from each series, but the free exhibition brochure reproduces the others.

The paintings play diverting games with spatial illusion. They alternately create and crush expectations of spatial recession.

Take, for instance, “Moultonboro II,’’ which shows a triangle wedged into the upper right corner of a square. The light green border around the triangle seems to push forward from the dark green Z-shaped stripe that runs alongside it.

The Z’s relation to the square, meanwhile, suggests the logic of three-dimensionality. Except that that logic is not fulfilled — it simply cuts out, and we’re back where we started: in flat land.

Even so, those color relations — the light interior of the triangle, for instance, against the darkness of the square — create uncanny tilts and movements at the corner of your eye. The way the border stripes stop and start in all the works create sensations of openness, and constraint, too. And with that comes an impulse in the mind to read movement.

But in all truth, it’s just an impulse — and not a very strong one at that.

The problem with formalist criticism — the kind of commentary which Stella’s work has both invited and attracted for so long — is that it relies so much on exaggeration. Thus, Stella’s longtime friend, the critic and art historian Michael Fried (who would no doubt describe himself as a close reader of pictures but is more often a fantasist), describes the open top effect of “Effingham IV’’ as having “an astonishing vertical acceleration, or soaring, or release.’’

This is all very well, but it’s not something you feel — certainly not in those terms — in front of the paintings. Nor are you made to understand why such a feeling might be so positive, and so qualitatively different from, say, the more visceral sensation of speed and release you get from playing a video game.

Over the decades, Stella has changed from a minimalist preoccupied with flatness and the suppression of illusion to a maker of wildly audacious, devil-may-care sculptures and paintings in cacophonous colors. With his titles, and increasingly in the forms he uses, he has invited associations with external phenomena — music, dance, literature, history, and especially other art. Two recent three-dimensional wall pieces in the show, for instance, have been named after pieces of music by Domenico Scarlatti.

But rather than producing a satisfying richness of connotation, these external associations, in their sheer range and in the tenuousness of their connection to the work, come to feel arbitrary. Much of the formal logic of Stella’s work also feels arbitrary. Why this shape and not that? Why this color and not that?

The reasons are always there, but they’re never particularly pressing.

I myself really do admire Stella. There is such verve and liveliness in almost everything he has done. He has played the abstract game as well, as intelligently, and as thoroughly, as anyone. He has relished first abstraction’s self-sufficiency, and then its links with the outside world. And he has not been afraid to recognize its limits.

And yet other artists — even other abstract artists — so often look better. And when they do, it’s because their reasons for painting or sculpting the way they do go deeper. They’re more personal, more persuasive.

It’s not that you can’t feel temperament or personality in Stella’s work. His personality is too forceful for that. Rather, it’s that the personality you do feel is always floating away from the work. You’re feeling the restlessness of that personality, and — notwithstanding all of Stella’s spatial games — a sort of pond-skimming inability to puncture the surface of things.

His works are marvelous, and then they are not.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at

FRANK STELLA: Irregular Polygons At: Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H. Through March 13. 603-646-2808.