I recently went MIA at the MIA to check out the Asian collection. With some extra time on my hands before closing, I wondered into their Contemporary Art section. Like picking at the scab of skinned knee when I was a kid, I just can’t leave the modern art works alone. Knowing it will most likely be painful and will set back the healing of my aesthetic standards for uncountable years, I climbed to the third floor to see if maybe I could prove wrong my long held belief of the massive con game that is modern art.
From room to room, I wandered. I tried to at first to really find some redeeming qualities in the works hanging around me. Over and over, I was confronted with things I am pretty sure I once saw on an old girlfriend’s refrigerator, held in place with alphabet magnets. She had a daughter in kindergarten that loved to show off her art. As my steps got faster and faster and I both mentally kicked myself for my won stupidity and deplored the future of art and mankind, I came across a show stopper.
120 x 240 in, dominating an entire wall of one of the gallery rooms, was a work by Frank Stella. Entitled Tahkt-I-Sulayman, Variation II, this brightly colored behemoth was an obvious attempt at formalism. Eight rectangles, each a different color, and each containing 7 concentric quarter circles partially overlapped by 6 concentric arcs springing from the opposite corner like boxers in a title fight at Madison Square Garden; this massive work at first reminded me of the Simpson’s episode where they went to Japan and the anime cartoons instantly sent them into seizures.
I ran to the wall plaque, hoping that some background information would help me put the piece in perspective. Painted in 1969 (hence the flower child colors), acrylic on canvas, this is part of Stella’s prolific Protractor series. Stella insists that his paintings are merely formal. In his own words, “My painting is based on the fact that only what is can be seen there is there. It really is an object. You can see the whole idea without any confusion” (Museum plaque- MIA, G374).
If that is the case, why name the painting after an ancient shrine in Azerbaijan, Iran? Stella traveled there in 1963 and in order for him to choose that name six years later, there had to be some strong personal connection between the painting and that place. His other paintings in the Protractor series are also all named after other Mid-East cities and archaeological sites.
Why the protractor in the first place? Is it just a simple tool to make half circles, or is Stella really a closet mathematician? I’m pretty sure that most people don’t wake up in the morning and think- “I’d like to paint a protractor, to attempt to capture the essence of a plastic half circle!”
Stella’s demands that his work is purely formal are also a big detractor from the work actually being formal. I believe it’s a case of the girl protesting too much. Anytime you have to state three times in one paragraph what your art is, chances are that’s what it isn’t. A standard criterion for the formalist school is art for art’s sake. Aesthetic value is all there is.
While there is some aesthetic value in the awesome size (can anyone say over compensation), the bright colors, and the mechanical lines of the piece; Stella’s need to attach a personal connection as well as his obsessive declaration of what his work is makes me believe that he is attempting to ride the coattails of the hugely popular formalist school that flourished at the time he produced this piece. I think that at heart Stella is an expressionist who lacks the imagination to paint in the expressionist style, so he tries formalism but falls short of the mark. He has been weighed, measured, and found wanting.