I don’t know what to make of Stella’s later works. His most famous apothegm—“What you see is what you see”—is no help, if seeing is supposed to imply comprehending. Looking is futile except as an inspection of the wizardly ways in which Stella made the works, with welds, flanges, castings, and, increasingly, computer-generated patterns. Always, there are self-consciously poetic titles, a habit of Stella’s since he gave the Black Paintings names like “Die Fahne Hoch!” (“The Flag on High!,” from a Nazi anthem) and “The Marriage of Reason and Squalor II.” In the eighties and nineties, he made works referencing the hundred and thirty-five chapters of “Moby-Dick.” The titles function as apostrophes of meaning. Meaning exists. It’s just not “what you see,” except through tortuous efforts of association.Ben Davis (Artnet)
Stella made a permanent difference in art history. He is extraordinarily intelligent and extravagantly skilled. But his example is cautionary. Even groundbreaking ideas have life spans, and Stella’s belief in inherent values of abstract art has long since ceased to be shared by younger artists. His ambition rolls on, unalloyed with self-questioning or humor. The most effective installations of Stella’s later works that I have seen are in corporate settings, where they can seem to function as symbols of team spirit. Rather than savoring his work now, you endorse it, or not.
At Princeton, Stella took his BA in History, writing a thesis on the political context of medieval manuscripts. Still, his principal interest was studio art, and he later remembered diverting his thesis into a long aesthetic aside, theorizing “how decoration becomes art and when it ceases to be just decoration." The argument hinged on a comparison of Jackson Pollock and Celtic knotwork: “One happened to be painting and one was manuscript illumination, but they both reached the category of art and left the lower category of simple repetitive design or pedestrian decoration far behind."Jerry Saltz
Thus, Stella was always notably more interested in problems of form than social content. His thesis, it would seem, theorized Pollock's Abstract Expressionism as the superhero version of decoration; the beatnik angst that had been part of Pollock's reception in, say, Harold Rosenberg's 1952 description of it as “Action Painting," was of no interest.
As Stella was graduating from Princeton, the cozy New York art scene was beginning its long maturation into the professionalized “art world" we know today. One harbinger of this was the 28-year-old Jasper Johns's show at Castelli Gallery in 1958, which caused a sensation and sold out, a then almost-unheard-of feat. This coup couldn't help make an impression on the young Stella, who was nothing if not ambitious.
For 15 years this artist was as unstoppable as an icebreaker in his painterly progress, churning out series after series, building on and advancing not only his art but painting....Roberta Smith
That decade-and-a-half period began in 1958 — when this exhibition begins, too — with four muddy-colored, sodden strippy paintings that look like walls divided into fuzzy strata. You see him riffing on art history, using text and brush-y gesture. But you also see the Minimalism that is incipient. Then, from 1959 to his Diderot Series of 1974, Stella hits the equivalent of 15 years of almost all home runs. That’s a run longer than Cubism; and in between there, between 1971 and 1973, is my favorite of all of his paintings, the Polish Village Series, in which Stella breaks the flat surface of painting, begins working on constructed, shifting planar three-dimensional surfaces. Between 1970 and 1987 he'd had not one but two Museum of Modern Art retrospectives. Everyone had to deal with Stella; the theory crowd revered him, ditto curators, critics, decorators, architects, and museums.
But around 1977 Stella had gone off the optical-topological reservation, making art that made his critical support evaporate almost overnight....
I’m a Stella fan who can't deny his importance but who also wouldn't want to live with most of these things. From his gigantic, early fluorescent-colored Protractor Series — one at the Whitney is 50 feet long (!) — to the late tarantula-like psychedelic-colored hyperconstructions, Stella's art doesn't have human scale; it's not really for people so much as the superorganism of art history. Or skyscraper lobbies, public spaces, the Vatican. And let's face it: Due to his wild-style sense of color, pocked lava-flow surfaces, and cacophonous compositions that look like three-dimensional maps of Pangaea, Stella's art can be really garish.
Going through this show may be a matter of deciding how far you can stick with Mr. Stella. You could say it allows us each to answer the question, “Where was Frank Stella when you went off his work?” But also: “Where was he when you came back?”
We have all waxed and waned. Here the “Irregular Polygons” come on strong, with the “Protractor” works not far behind. Also in the running: “The Fountain,” a mural-like 1992 detour to flatness that collages together five print mediums. But the aluminum reliefs rule, culminating with a beautiful representative from the “Heinrich von Kleist” series (1996-2008), inspired by that German writer’s stories. “ ‘At Sainte Luce!’ [Hoango] [Q#1]” of 1998 has a captivating papery softness but is actually made of elaborately painted cast-aluminum elements clearly devised on the computer, and less clearly derived from photographs of smoke rings that are also in the show.
It’s hard not to be impressed with the hulking aluminum and steel sculpture “Raft of the Medusa(Part 1)” (its splashes of once-molten aluminum conjuring the waves of Géricault’s 1818 painting of that name, not to mention Richard Serra, Anselm Kiefer and recent Matthew Barney), or the two big star sculptures from 2014 on view nearby. But for all their pizazz, Mr. Stella’s sculptures seem generic, as if they could have been made by someone else with access to his resources....
Mr. Stella is postwar and abstract painting’s great jester and adversary, which is not to demean his achievement. Moving through this compelling, feisty show can bring to mind Wallace Stevens’s high-minded yet grounded advice. In the long poem “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” Stevens stipulates the requirements of great art in the headings he gives its three sections: “It must change/ It must be abstract/ It must give pleasure.”