E xhibition text for the Bonnington Gallery web site, 
Nottingham & Trent University, Nottingham.  November 1999.
Frank Stella's work has been at the centre of discussions around painting for almost forty years. In that time Stella's work has undergone a number of transformations that have brought his practice into an arena of construction that nevertheless is centred in pictorial practice. The occasion of an exhibition of a single piece, Die Marquis Von O, is also the opportunity to review Stella's practice in the light of his past work having been such a crucial defining aspect for contemporary painting. What seems to be at stake in Stella's work, now and historically, is a testing of the defining terms of what we understand to be 'painting'. However, the term 'painting', especially as used in the critical writings of Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried, offers both a perspective and a problematic for discussion when addressing a work such as Die Marquis Von O. For what is characteristic of Stella, since the nineteen sixties, is a questioning of 'painting' within the defining terms of a hostility to it and on the very borders of what might constitute its specificity. The relationship between Greenberg's and Fried's critical positions in the light of Stella's work typifies this. That debate was a struggle to maintain painting as a medium in the light of its dissolution in the face of the criteria of Minimalism. Stella's 'painting' was central to that discussion because of his employment of qualities and means which sought to extend the terms of painting, without entering into a speculation as to the end of painting. Fried's writings in the sixties illustrate the problem well. Perhaps it was not the practice of painting which was a risk in the light of Specific Objects but the versatility that the term painting itself had within a wider critical practice. With this in mind it is important to review the criteria of that period to attempt to understand how Stella was attempting to transform his practice as a 'painter'. In Michael Fried's Shape as Form: Frank Stella's Irregular Polygons (Art and Objecthood, University of Chicago, 1998). shape necessitated Fried using a modified vocabulary to account for developments in the paintings of Stella and Kenneth Noland. As Fried says:
The discovery shortly before 1960 of a new mode of pictorial structure based on the shape, rather than the flatness, of the support. With the dissolution or the neutralizing of the flatness of the support by the new optical illusionism, the shape of the support - including its proportions and its exact dimensions - came to assume a more active, more explicit importance than ever before (my italics).
Fried assigns the discoveries he attributes to shape to a 'new mode of pictorial structure' and started his essay by saying that shape itself could be considered as a medium. The breakdown of the term painting, as set down by Greenberg, to accommodate a perceptual oscillation between depicted and literal shape does not just reflect how restrictive Greenberg's account of painting was at that time. Greenberg's protection of optical illusion as an event that takes place within the rectangular limits of a painting now seem naive. But the complexity of Fried's thinking, not only around shape but also in terms of an idea of medium and the position of the 'beholder', begins to open out into a discussion about the pictorial. It was evident that the criteria of painting at that time could not hold the ground upon which his discussion, and the practice of the artists he was addressing was founded.
Depicted shape, in Fried's account, is left as a simple matter of a struggle for the mind to acknowledge shape as an object, in terms of the shaped canvas and its 'illusionist' properties as a pictorial figure. 'Irregular polygons' as a term here is crucial. A four sided figure that is not a rectangle will have the potential to be seen 'illusionistically' as a figure in a plane denoting an inclination away from the picture plane, a phenomena which Fried acknowledges. However the illusion involved here is not simply a matter of perspectival forces. A polygon seen as a figure in an inclined plane can still maintain parallel sides in the plane of recession, as opposed to the sides converging upon a vanishing point. Illusion here is not a simple matter. The qualities that are at work here can be assigned to projection drawing systems such as axonometrics and obliques. Yve-Alain Bois discusses such qualities in his essay .Lissitzky, Mondrian, Strzeminski: Abstraction and Political Utopia in the Twenties. In relation to axonometrics he says:
The use of axonometric projection in Lissitzsky's famous Proun paintings was explicitly targeted against the illusionistic device of one-point perspective..............Instead of an authoritarian imaginary space, which hypnotized the spectator, Lissitzky proposed an abstract space without a single point of view. The space is still imaginary, to be sure (which is perhaps why Lissitzky abandoned painting in the mid-twenties), but the spectator is left free to reconstruct potential volumes out of the floating vectors. The viewer receives no blueprint for reading, no fulcrum for perception. Lissitzsky considered deliberate spatial ambiguity to be the Aufhebung (sublation) of perspectival illusionism - that is, in Hegelian terms, both its dialectal transformation and its overcoming.
I am not suggesting here that Stella's use of shape constitutes a utopian project with political ambitions on the scale of Lissitzy's. I am suggesting though that Stella was perhaps addressing issues which could challenge the authoritative status of Greenberg's position to illusion in the nineteen sixties.
Projection drawing systems have a further relation to depiction. Elsworth Kelly featured very little, if at all, in the high modernist debate around painting so far referred to in this essay. Kelly's use of shape in his work demonstrates an active relationship to the determining properties of projection drawing systems. His photographs of shadows are an important aspect of his work and at times they generated a schema from which he would often make paintings. Shadows are a literal demonstration of projection, i.e. the falling of light upon a object creating a shadow which is a two dimensional shape generated from a three dimensional form. The shape generated reflects the properties of the object of which it is an index and is not dependent upon the position of the observer. This quality is furthered in axonometric drawing where the depiction of a form can contain actual properties of the object depicted, as opposed to how those properties appear from a single point of view. This leads to a conclusion that projection systems are object based in their workings as opposed to the situation of a viewer based system like perspective.
Such an account of shape in terms of pictorial structure leads to a further account of pictorial practice which increasingly from the nineteen seventies is at the heart of Stella's work. Collage and construction increasingly become the operational criteria of his work. His working practice thus begins to suggest a proximity to cubism as well as the European utopian movements. With these historical examples, projection systems play a role alongside a thinking of the material working of pictorial space that extends from painting through collage to construction. With Cubism this was perhaps just an implication. In Juan Gris' paintings there is often the use of a convergence of oblique projections which, while preserving the integrity of the picture plane, place the spectator in number of implied positions. Collage in cubism further extends the idea of space as a series of possibilities of pictorial structure in terms of which the spectator must negotiate a series of imaginary positions. Here the 'real' object was appropriated into a schema where projections are operating in terms of relationship to nominal objects, rather than within a structure that is a direct address to the spectator's position.
It is with this mind that an understanding of Stella's present work can be perhaps achieved. My implication here is that Stella's practice is one of working within ideas of pictorial structure rather than within the material limits of painting as defined by high modernism. Leo Steinberg's essay the Flatbed Picture Plane (in Other Criteria, London and New York 1972) attributed the breakdown of Renaissance world space as a disruption of the 'head to toe' picture space. His advancement of this disruption as the flatbed picture plane, as the horizontal plane of operation and information, was at the same time a critique of Greenberg's picture plane and optical illusion which depended upon the verticality of the spectator and the painting and thus agreed an 'implied act of vision'. Even in 1972 Steinberg saw Stella's work as distinct from Greenberg's criteria and also perhaps from Fried's. As Steinberg says:
The flatbed picture plane lends itself to any content that does not evoke a prior optical event. As a criterion of classification it cuts across the terms 'abstract' and 'representational' , Pop and Modernist. Color field painters such as Noland, Frank Stella and Elsworth Kelly, whenever their work suggests a reproducible image, seems to work with the flatbed picture plane, i.e. one which is man-made and stops short of the pigmented surface; whereas Pollock's and Louis's pictures remain visionary, and Frankenthaler's abstractions, for all their immediate modernism, are - as Lawrence Alloway recently put it - 'a celebration of human pleasure in what is not man-made.'
The use of the axis of nature/culture in Steinberg's criteria brought with it a thinking through of the implications of technology to pictorial structure. As Steinberg says:
The flatbed picture plane makes its symbolic allusion to hard surfaces such as tabletops, studio floors, charts bulletin boards - any receptor surface on which objects are scattered, on which data is entered, on which information may be received, printed, impressed - whether coherently or in confusion.
The logic of Steinberg's thinking, in hindsight, is uncanny. The controlling interface of the computer is now universally organised around the idea of the desktop - a surface where any number of categories of information and objects can be brought together and manipulated.
And so to Die Marquis Von O. It is one piece comprised of seven canvases. Their sizes differ and are arranged around a symmetry with the largest at the centre, flanked on each side by three canvasses which diminish in dimension, the smallest being on the extreme left and right of the work. The cacophony of elements in the work are arranged in a faux collage of flat and distorted grids - flat and spatial vectors. The overlaying of elements seems not to be within a recessional, natural space, a depth, but instead within a thickness of the support. The space of the picture appears weightless; elements weave in and out of each other and seem to have been cut and pasted into a logic of endless addition and modification. Elements appear and reappear in a ceaseless freefall. This is not a field of a finite compositional telos but more a weightless domain of endless possible unfoldings within a space of inspecific scale or relation.
At this point it is worth introducing an idea of the current phase of capital and its spatial logos, particularly in reference to Gilles Deleuze's text, Postscripts on the Societies of Control (L’autre journal, May 1990). The crux of this essay is Foucault’s identification of the disciplinary structures of enclosure instituted by Napoleon which were rapidly outmoded and modified after World War II. The new phase is dubbed a society of control, in direct relation to that of the disciplinary model but with systems and qualities altogether transformed. Societies of control do not operate in terms of the disciplinary model of time frames within a closed system, instead there is free fall through a number of confinements, indexed and coded in different ways. One such example is the corporate wage structure which modulates each salary according to the challenges of a bonus system replacing a former salary structure incremented through service to the company. Thus confinement as characterized by a spatial telos for a phase that we are now passing into is inaccurate, and at its best, as an index, it is nostalgic. Deleuze characterizes this change from one structure to another thus:
“The old monetary mole is the animal of the spaces of enclosure, but the serpent is that of the societies of control. We have passed from one animal to the other..”
Something of the transformation that Deleuze describes can be seen to be at work in Stella's recent painting. Perhaps it is not by chance that Peter Halley refereed to Stella's earlier 'geometric' paintings as typifying a relationship to a disciplinary model of space in terms of Foucault's ideas. A work like Die Marquis Von O marks a dramatic move away from that telos of confinement and reduction toward a logic of the 'painting' and the picture being in excess of itself, perhaps more as a type of hysteria than optimism. The relation that Die Marquis Von O draws with the operational mode of the computer's visual space is apparent. Collage, cloning and endless manipulation within a structure of montage giving rise to a ceaseless continuum are the working conditions of both the computer and a piece like Die Marquis Von O.
We could conclude with a question. Is the issue at stake in a work like Die Marquis Von O the position of the spectator; active in terms of beholding the unfolding structure of the work on the one hand, or passive in being rendered motionless by the force of its effect, as spectacle, on the other?