Something old, something new

By GREG COOK  |  March 1, 2006

Hanging on the back wall is Morrow Castle, one of the three paintings that vie for the title of the first of Stella’s “Black Paintings.” When a selection was exhibited in the group show “Sixteen Americans” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in December 1959, it made his name, even though the reviews then were mainly negative. He had eliminated the fussy layering, drips, and visible changes of the previous months. Instead he penciled out a series of “U” shapes nested inside one another, the top bunch facing up and the bottom bunch facing down. (Sharp eyes will note that the center stripe is not actually part of a “U” but zigzags from top to bottom). Following this guide, he painted each black stripe like a single uninflected brushstroke, with the raw canvas peeking through between each band. The result is simple, fresh, and clear and yet wobbles with mysterious energy and portent. The trick is that the geometric pattern bends slightly here and there, imbuing the potentially harsh regularity with a warm, handmade idiosyncrasy. Soon he would eliminate this too.

Over the next 25 years Stella’s cold, calculating formalism would be incredibly influential. He was nothing if not skilled at anticipating the style of his moment. It seems a generation of hack minimalists, Paul Rand’s striped IBM logo, the whole palette of the 1980s, and the geometric decoration that passes for architecture at most malls all owe some debt to him. But witnessing the warmth of the 1958 paintings again, you’re reminded it didn’t have to go that way.

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