You are on page 1of 19

Frank Stella. Die Fahne Hoch. 1958.

2013 Frank Stella / Artists Rights


Society (ARS), New York.
Painting as Diagram:
Five Notes on Frank Stellas
Early Paintings, 19581959*
BENJAMIN H. D. BUCHLOH
OCTOBER 143, Winter 2013, pp. 126144. 2013 October Magazine, Ltd. and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
1. The Diagram
In a famous radio conversation between Frank Stella, Donald Judd, and Bruce
Glaser in 1964, Stella made a rather surprising and suddenly aggressive remark.
1
It
might have been partially triggered by an earlier comment that Robert Rosenblum
had made when reviewing an exhibition of Stellas Black Paintings in which he had
referred to them as diagrams.
2
Stella stated: A diagram is not a painting; its as
simple as that. I can make a painting from a diagram, but can you?
This remark allows us to instantly address one of the key questions that
Stellas work from the moment of 195859 seems to pose: What type or variation
of abstraction had been invented by Stella at that time, and how does it relate to
the infinitely complex network of positions in abstraction found in both prewar
and postwar painterly culture? In fact, one of the primary difficulties historians
have faced has been precisely one of differentiating Stellas work from both the
abstraction of the historical avant-garde andeven more sothe principles of
* This essay was delivered at the conference on the early work of Frank Stella at Harvard
University, April 8, 2006, organized by Harry Cooper and Megan Luke. At the time, the lecture was
met with considerable consternation, not to say aggression, which kept me from publishing it.
Following the counsel of my friends and colleagues at October, I have now agreed to publish it in
unchanged and unedited form as a contribution to what seems to be an overdue reevaluation of
Stellas fundamentally important early work.
1. Bruce Glaser, Questions to Stella and Judd, in Gregory Battcock, ed., Minimal Art: A Critical
Anthology (New York: Dutton, 1968), pp. 156167.
2. Robert Rosenblum, Frank Stella (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1971), p. 56.
The page must be filled. Everything is equal, the
good and the evil. The farcical and the sublimethe
beautiful and the uglythe insignificant and the
typical, they all become an exaltation of the statisti-
cal. There are nothing but factsand phenomena.
Gustave Flaubert, Bouvard and Pcuchet
128 OCTOBER
modernist abst ract ion governing New York paint ing since t he Abst ract
Expressionists, especially concerning the legacies of Barnett Newman and Ad
Reinhardt. Already in 194950, one could encounter a multiplicity of operations
performing acts of aesthetic withdrawal and negation by redeploying conventions
of nonrepresentational painting in the most unorthodox and for the longest time
illegible way.
In a 1965 catalogue essay for the exhibition Three American Painters at
the Fogg Art Museum, Michael Fried suggested that Stellas work had emerged
from a dialogue with the key figures of Abstract Expressionism
3
it was not until
1970, with William Rubins 1970 monographic catalogue on the artist, that the
degree to which Stella had also been in dialogue with the paintings of Jasper
Johns became clear.
4
But if Stellas practice was entangled with and suspended
between the contradictory positions in the work of his predecessors, his presenta-
tion of the Black Paintings in 1959 constituted a decisive break, an assault on the
formalist traditions of New York School modernism.
Stellas remark about the diagram introduces a key term that points to the
artists paradoxical conception of authorial identity. This will become all the more
evident when we consider the impact of Stellas diagrammatic conception of the
work on his Minimalist followers, especially, perhaps, Carl Andre. On the one
hand, the statement asserts Stellas continuing confidence in artistic authorship,
not to say originality (one would only have to think of statements and works made
by Andy Warhol at the same time, or statements made by Dan Flavin slightly later,
about the universal availability of artistic means and concepts of production to
recognize the underlying conservative agenda in Stellas statement). After all, the
statement stresses the uncontested primacy of painting as artistic practice (a posi-
tion that Stella would voice again and again, often even disparaging the shift from
painting to sculpture in the work of the Minimalists, and always belittling his own
occasional attempts at sculpture at that time). Yet it also forces us to recognize that
Stellas abstractionsunlike the Black Paintings by Rauschenberg, on the one
hand, and Reinhardt, on the otherwould be the only ones that could in fact be
rightfully called diagrammatic since they are actually enforcing a given spatial
and linear symmetrical schema that rigorously displaces all claims and pretenses
to compositional decision-making processes or authorial intentions.
Rather than seeing Stellas abstraction as the culmination of modernist
painting because of its medium-specificity, self-reflexivity, and opticality and its
engagement with the strategies of painting as shape and deductive structurethe
position for which Michael Fried has argued so powerfully again and againI
want to suggest that the order of the diagram as a readymade formal organization
of linear and spatial components might be the proper episteme to demarcate one
3. Michael Fried. Three American Painters: Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Frank Stella (Cambridge,
MA: Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, 1965).
4. William Rubin, Frank Stella (New York: the Museum of Modern Art, 1970).
of the fundamental differences between modernist abstraction and Stellas work.
This proposal would also allow us to see more common historical determinations,
situating Stellas work in a context broader than the strictly formalist one imposed
by his foremost critic at the time. And lastly, looking at the work in those terms
might even help us to overcome the binary opposition set up by critics in the
1960s and 70s, in particular the opposition between Clement Greenberg and
Michael Fried, on the one hand, and that of their most powerful opponent, Leo
Steinberg, on the other.
The diagrammatic is the one variety of abstraction that recognizes externally
existing and pre-given systems of spatio-temporal quantification and schemata for
the statistical collection of data as necessarily and primarily determining a pictor-
ial order. The diagram works in analogue with the other orders and schemata that
abstraction had recruited for its emerging morphologies in 1912with geometric
and stereometric structures, biomorphic and mechanomorphic matrices, and the
matrix of language itself. As with all the underlying epistemes deployed by abstrac-
tion, the diagrammatic often operates in tandem with other resources but is
sufficiently differentiated from the other types to be recognizable as a distinct
position within the gamut of abstraction.
For example, Mondrians so-called Checkerboard paintings from 1919, with
Painting as Diagram 129
Stella. Reichstag. 1958. 2013 Frank Stella /
Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
which Stellas paintings were initially compared on several occasions, clearly exem-
plify a type of abstraction whose inner logic and spatial organization aim at a
dialectics of oppositions and sublation, a model of spatial expansion, and the embod-
iment of a universal abolition of hierarchical social relations, to name but a few of
the most obvious and crucial parameters that the Checkerboards invoke. By this
description alone it is obvious that a comparison between Mondrian and Stella is
ultimately nonsensical, since Mondrians paintings obviously do not conform to the
definition of the diagram as a purely quantitative order or as a schema of registration
and data collection. Even less do Mondrians Checkerboards qualify to be aligned
with an episteme of order and control, let alone with one of overdetermined confine-
ment and spatial restriction. The latter description, however, would seem to be quite
appropriate for a first diagnostic identification of the features of Stellas paintings,
once one has overcome the predominance of the formalist terminology.
Thus, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, Leo Steinbergs definition of the flatbed
picture clearly contains elements that could easily be transferred from his discussion
of Rauschenbergs and Johnss work to that of Stella in 1958 when he says,
The flatbed picture makes its symbolic allusion to . . . charts, bulletin
boards, any receptor surface on which objects are scattered, on which
data is entered, on which information may be received, printed,
impressedwhether coherently or in confusion. The pictures of the
last fifteen to twenty years insist on a radically new orientation in which
the painted surface is no longer the analogue of a visual experience of
nature, but of operational processes.
5
2. The Striations
Stellas work prior to the Black Paintings is defined by the almost total and
systematic abolition of planar chromatic forms in the manner of Rothko, for
example, whom Stella apparently admired early on, or of Reinhardt, who repre-
sented for Stella, along with Barnett Newman and Pollock, one of the foundations
of post war American abstract ion. Stella had acquired a Black Paint ing by
Reinhardt upon the completion of his own series of Black Paintings in 1960, and
in 1967, on the occasion of Reinhardts death, he said: He cant play the game
anymore, but nobody can get around the paintings anymore either. If you don't
know what theyre about you dont know what painting is about.
6
In Three American Painters, Michael Fried argues that it was the discovery
of the singularity of linear forms in Newman that inspired Stellas strategy of divid-
ing a painting into a system of more or less regular striations, thereby defining the
picture surface by an accumulation of parallel bands. By contrast, William Rubin
and others argued that Stella had not actually encountered any work by Newman
OCTOBER 130
5. Leo Steinberg, Other Criteria, in Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth Century Art
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), p. 79.
6. Stellas obituary note from the October 1967 Arts Canada, quoted in Lucy Lippard, Ad
Reinhardt (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1981), p. 197, note 2.
before Newmans exhibition at French & Co. in 1959, but that he had not only
seen reproductions of the work of Jasper Johns as early as 1957, but, more impor-
tant, had visited Johnss first exhibition at Leo Castelli in 1958, where he would
have seen all of Johnss key works from 1954 onwards.
While there can be no doubt about the absolute importance to Stella of his
discovery of Johns, it is astonishing to see that the presence and impact of
Rauschenberg (whom Stella met as early as 1957 and whose worka Black
Paintinghe also acquired) have disappeared almost entirely from the discussion
of Stellas formation (he is mentioned once in passing in Frieds magisterial essay,
not at all in Rubins monograph, and only makes a passing appearance thirty years
later in the Fogg catalogue on Stellas early work).
7
It seems obvious from a comparison of Stellas early 1958 paintings and a
painting such as Rauschenbergs Yoicks (1953) that several key questions concern-
ing both color and compositional organization were already fully established in
Rauschenbergs work and that they could have had an impact on Stella similar to
the tremendous shock triggered by his discovery of Johnss Flag (195455). It is
very likely that Stella saw Yoicks along with Rauschenbergs Red Paintings and the
first Combines when they were shown together at the Egan Gallery in 1954, but
questions of influence are not my concern here. What I am interested in are the
Painting as Diagram 131
7. Harry Cooper and Megan Luke, Frank Stella 1958 (Cambridge, MA: Fogg Art Museum,
Harvard University, 2006).
Robert Rauschenberg. Yoicks.
1953. Robert Rauschenberg
Foundation / Licensed by VAGA,
New York, NY.
formal shifts and procedural licenses that paintings such as Yoicks offered to
Stellas early work.
Rauschenbergs linear painting and cumulative composition provide the
most dramatic evidence of the way in which he and Johns systematically emptied
out that which had been regarded in Abstract Expressionism as the most sacred
site of the subjects articulation: painterly gesture and the ductus of the brushwork.
Both produced that peculiar type of linear formation that bordered on the trav-
esty of gesture, hovering near random mechanicity, and displayed an ostentatious
diffidence with regard to the manual execution of painting, negating skill just as
much as expressivity.
At the same time, the more or less regularized stacking of randomly executed
striations betrayed an indifference to traditional compositional demands. These
would also become, as I will argue, the primary characteristics of Stellas composi-
tional striations in the early paintings of 1958 (that is, before the linear formations
would become systematized and fully regularized in the diagrams of the Black
Paintings, and before they would be forged into a symmetrical scheme that would
prohibit even the last residual compositional decision or slightest deviation).
But it should also be mentioned immediately that the very schema of a
merely striational accumulation of linear marks traversing the entire picture
OCTOBER 132
Robert Ryman. Untitled. 1958. 2013 Robert Ryman /
Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
plane will not only emerge as one of Stellas early key pictorial strategies, it will
simultaneously become the matrix of the work of Robert Ryman, Stellas counter-
figure and great historical complement, ignored or simply written out of that
historical moment by Fried and Rubin in their formalist criticism.
The exclusion of Ryman from Rubins and Frieds modernist formalism
probably resulted not only from the difficulty of seeing his work in Greenbergian
terms but also, and perhaps more so, from their inability to see that Ryman, very
similarly to Stella, had actually achieved a synthesis of modernist abstraction and
Duchampian theories of the readymade that had previously only been established
by Johns and Rauschenberg.
It is this kind of exact duplication of newly emerging pictorial strategies that
allows us to identify what could possibly motivate the structure of striation as the
principal formal organization in Stellas work after Rauschenberg and Johns.
Stellas Coney Island, along with Blue Horizon and Astoria, undoubtedly some of the
key paintings prior to the Black Paintings and all from 1958, give us the opportu-
nity to clarify the comparison. First of all, on the level of ductus and painterly
execution, Stella both regularizes and steadily works at detaching the striations
Painting as Diagram 133
Ryman. A Painting of Twelve Strokes, Measuring 11 1/4" x
11 1/4" Signed at the Bottom Right Corner. 1961.
2013 Robert Ryman / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
from the last residues of an expressive, to say nothing of a representational, func-
tion. Increasingly, this process of regularization and serial repetition came to
eliminate even the last remnants of the authorial investment that Rauschenberg
and Johns had maintained, even if only in a gesture of parody or travesty. In this
process of gradual elimination, one can easily see the shift from ironical play with
the convention of the painted horizon line in works such as Plum Island (Luncheon
on the Grass) (1958), which mimic the landscape genre, towards a more deadpan
and seemingly self-referential placement and execution of striations in his subse-
quent paintings. Both the sheer flamboyant violence of Rauschenbergs assault on
pictorial and painterly conventions and the extreme subtlety of Johnss ironic and
melancholic mourning of the loss of modernisms abstract morphologies and com-
posit ions are now deleted from Stellas increasingly rigorous structural
organizations of process and picture.
Paradoxically, as though still in dialogue with Johnss scriptural and textual
thresholds of painting, Stellas linear accumulations seem to aspire to the scrip-
tural at the same time as they bid farewell to the gestural (in fact, both Stellas and
Rymans paintings of that moment emphasize the laterality of reading a painting
in opposition to the vertical/horizontal scanning of its traditional spatial/percep-
tual order). And the regularity of the cumulative lines points more towards the
order of text on a panel or on a page than towards a planarity of expansive ges-
tures of painterly subjectivity, even if that subjectivity was to be ironically canceled,
as it had been with Rauschenberg and Johns.
3. Color Loss
A final, sometimes decisive, withdrawal of color from postwar painting is of
course to be found in both American and European work of the 1950s and 60s: in
Newman, for example; Johnss white and Piero Manzonis achromatic paintings;
and in Stellas shift to the Black Paintings, which are distinctly achromatic. Stella
had repeatedly emphasized during the first reception of his Black Paintings that
he did not want these paintings to be perceived as black paintings, but as paint-
ings painted with the non-color black.
To recognize the full spectrum of these extreme reductions or total with-
drawals of color after 1945 is in many ways crucial to an understanding of Stellas
commitment to black in 1959. Each of these artists had of course rather different
motivations for their epuration of the chromatic. Their engagement with the
monochrome or the achrome pronounced different historical inflect ions.
Nevertheless, they are contextually linked (by, if nothing else, their shared contes-
tation of color, the absolute necessity of denaturing the painting, and by their
shared strategies of depleting and homogenizing the painterly surface in favor of
a unified tone and hue). They also invite comparisons with the work of at least
some of the key figures (e.g., Newman and Johns) in bringing about the same
oppositions of color/non-color, even if in extremely different terms. The dialecti-
OCTOBER 134
Painting as Diagram 135
8. Walter Benjamin, Little History of Photography (1931), in Michael Jennings et al., eds.,
Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, vol. 2, part 2: 19311934 (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA,.
2005), p. 518.
cal halves of an opposition of pure monochrome and achrome were confronted
either with the rigor of colors reduction to the primaries or the hazard of ran-
domly deployed industrial colors. We can say at least with some certainty that the
withdrawal of color, or the reductivism of the monochrome, in the work of the
artists of that generation surpassed even the modernist desire for either purifica-
tion or a positivist verifiability of the data and processes of painterly perception. It
seems that color was now subtracted, withheld, or even bleached out of the canvas-
es. It appears in fact that the withdrawal of color articulated not only acts of resis-
tance or refusal, but also declared loss and withdrawal, corresponding to a more
general loss of access to psychic plenitude and somatic experience.
In this manner, it becomes clear the extent to which the chromatic denatur-
ing of painting effected by Stellas choice of the non-color black corresponds to
the emphatic elimination of modeling and the illusions of depth and volume that
he almost fanatically insisted upon in the shift towards the Black Paintings in
1958. Reading his emphatic statements about the absolute necessity of forcing
depth and volume out of his painting (and with the removal of depth and volume
the spatial registers of the subjects reading projections) could remind us at times
of Walter Benjamins description of Atgets achievement as one of having sucked
out the aura from the photograph like water from a sinking ship.
8
Beyond the mere enforcement of the obvious necessity of denaturing paint-
ing or detaching it from all illusionistic references, what could possibly be the rea-
son for that fanatical positivism, the compulsion to withdraw and withhold even
the slightest reminiscence of corporeality, of bodily plenitude, of the fullness of
the somatic register of painting, from painting itself ? This strategy must point to a
major prohibition, a banning of the subjects body from the pictorial representa-
tion whose causes still remain unclear, certainly unspoken.
4. From The Flag to Die Fahne Hoch
And then, of course, there is the painful question of the titling of the Black
Paintings, three of whichDie Fahne Hoch, Reichstag, and Arbeit Macht Freinotori-
ously made explicit references to the Fascist history of Nazi Germany and the
Holocaust. For modernist art historians, the precarious questions posed by the titling
have for the most part, and until very recently, been either ignored or repressed in
what appear at times rather cumbersome maneuvers. Thus, for example, Rubin men-
tions and discusses only two of the three titles very briefly in his monograph,
neutralizing them through what appear to be his patent explanations of Stellas
seemingly flip reminiscences of having seen Nazi architecture and newsreels. He
brushes them aside by explaining them in terms of the slightly juvenile delinquency
and overall provocative callousness that the artist seems to have been known for at
the time. But Rubin immediately accompanies those brief comments with the firm
and prohibitive caveat that Stella would be horrified at the idea that the viewer
might use them as a springboard to content. Tellingly, the title that Rubin omits
altogether is clearly the most stunning and provocative reference altogether: Arbeit
Macht Frei, the infamous inscription over the gate to the Nazi death camp at
Auschwitz Birkenau.
Six years later, in an essential catalogue devoted entirely to the Black
Paintings, Brenda Richardson provided the most exhaustive information on the
titles and their historical references. But in her overall argument, she attempts to
convey the sense that in overarching mood and subject matter, the Black Paintings
merely concern generic disasters. And these disasters, according to Richardson,
just inexplicably happened to range from the Nazi Holocaust to crime-ridden
African-American New York neighborhoods, from drug and jazz clubs (e.g., Club
Onyx) to the tragic girlfriends sometimes encountered in these clubs (i.e., Jill).
9
Perhaps not surprisingly, art historians in Germany, where Stella has enjoyed
an amazingly strong reception history and remains a central artistic figure for a
number of the formalist art historians there, pass over the implications of these
titles altogether. They seem to follow all too gladly Rubins lead, granting Stella an
exemption from the burdens of historical reference by diagnosing his decision to
use these titles as mere pranksterism and insisting on withdrawing the artists
titles from any interpretive account: neither Gottfried Boehm in his essay on the
Black Paintings in 1977 nor Gudrun Inboden or Johannes Meinhardt in their
essays of 1989 pay any attention whatsoever to the three Nazi titles in particular or
the titles of the Black series in general.
This non-reaction confirms what Stella himself must have sensed when rup-
turing the repressive coating of modernist painting in 1958. Namely, that the
history of modernist abstraction would eventually be associated with an actual
memory of what was then the still-recent totalitarian destruction of bourgeois sub-
jectivity, and that abstraction would have to be probed in terms of its participation
in a history of the disavowal and repression of that destruction.
Or, as Jaleh Mansoor aptly phrases it in her discussion of Piero Manzonis
work: postwar monochromes and their diagrammatic compositional matrices
articulate the irrationality folded within modernist rationality, the gulag in the
modernist grid.
10
Thus, I would like to advance an admittedly speculative argu-
ment to complicate the matter and, if nothing else, to at least attempt to rupture
the repressive silence around the titles of Stellas Black Paintings.
It is clear that Stella wishes to position Die Fahne Hoch in a dialogic relation-
ship with Johnss American Flags, be they red, white, and blue or monochrome
OCTOBER 136
9. Brenda Richardson, Frank Stella: The Black Paintings (Baltimore MD: the Baltimore Museum
of Art, 1976).
10. Jaleh Mansoor, Piero Manzoni: We Want to Organize Disintegration, in October 95 (Winter
2001), pp. 2853.
Painting as Diagram 137
white. And we are not suggesting that the dialogic relationship between Stellas
flag and Johnss Flag would be any less complex or differentiated than had
been the relat ionship bet ween Johnss st ars and stripes and the Abstract
Expressionist demands for the Americanness of American painting. This had
clearly been one facet of the spectrum along which Johns positioned himself
with infinite precision at the outset of his artistic project in response to the con-
cepts of a mythical identity and virility of American art at the time. And in
order to position his work, and himself as a gay subject, he had to perform a
number of maneuvers, both manifest and clandestine, to make the work res-
onate in the full multiplicity of its subversive intentions.
Another comparison between these two generations thus suggests itself:
what if we consider Stellas Die Fahne Hoch as operating in a manner similar to the
way that Rauschenbergs Erased de Kooning Drawing had related in 1953 to the mas-
ter of Abstract Expressionism? Are these dialogic interactions between artistic
generations not performing precisely the infinitely complex process of what we
would call classic cases of good artistic oedipality and necessary symbolic parri-
cide? Or, in terms of history rather than of psycho-history, are they not
performing a proper Hegelian project of continuous progress through negation
Frank Stella. Arbeit Macht Frei. 1958.
2013. Frank Stella / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
and dialectical sublation? Or are we looking at a particular and unique type of
conversation and dialogic relation that can only take place between two particular
artists at a specific moment?
In these relations, it seems, the venerable predecessors always have to be
completely annihilated before they can be sublated within the pictorial memory of
that which has been displaced. Each new generation has to perform the process of
abolition and annihilation, as though to manifestly signal to the world that the
new artistic subject could only be born from the parricidal dialoguethat the
new subject can only appear after having vandalized and internalized the previous
generation, their fragments torn and worn on the victors forehead like the mark
of Cain.
As had been the case with Rauschenbergs assault on de Koonings expressive
gesture and Johnss assault on Pollocks allover ritualistic performance, Stellas
assault on Johns was exhaustive, devastating, and complete. One of the most
provocative scandals in Johns had been the fact that painting had once again
become iconic (after all, one of the paradoxes with which Flag had confronted its
audiences was precisely this sudden return to an unfathomable condition of
iconicity within an otherwise rigorously diagrammatic order). One only has to
read the fulminating vehemence with which Carl Andre, one of Stellas closest
friends at the time, ridicules that return to a popular iconicity in the early 1960s
to get a sense of where Stella might have stood on that subject. With Stellas Black
Paintings, Pop Arts new and emerging iconicity would now be barred, if not
immediately erased, and painting would once again be manifestly subjected to the
readymade symmetry and reduced to the suffocatingly anti-compositional order
of the diagram.
What we witness in Stellas Black Paintings first of all is the manifest transfor-
OCTOBER 138
Johns. White Flag. 1955.
Jasper Johns / Licensed by
VAGA, New York, NY.
mation of what had been once the emancipatory promises of the modernist grid
and of monochrome paint ing into carceral diagrammat ic structures. The
repressed dark underside of the modernist grid and of monochromy returns now
as an episteme of confinement and control, and the inscription of the spatial sym-
met r y and ornament al order now operate wit hin a reduct ivist space of
symmetrical overdetermination. After all, these are the features that distinguish
the diagram from all other epistemes of abstraction (the musical, the linguistic,
the biomorphic, the geometrical, the stereometrical, the mechanomorphic) in
that the diagram (like the readymade) explicitly acknowledges the ruling condi-
t ions of external control and product ion as anterior and superior to the
subjectivist aesthetic intention of artistic authorship.
Johnss very subtle and complex set of operations in terms of color applica-
tioncarefully described once by Rosalind Krauss in regard to the White Flag
(1955) as one in which color appears as if sandwiched between a coagulated
ground of newspaper strips on the one hand and the waxy surface of encaustic on
the other . . .
11
would now be reversed by Stella on all accounts.
First of all, with his return to the non-color black, Johns had already aptly
positioned himself in the achromatic reductions to white and gray.
Second, leaving texture and sheen to accidental variations resulting from
the handling and positioning of the mechanically executed paint deposit itself,
Stella would now bring back Pollocks industrial enamel and Rodchenkos house-
painters brush in order to displace Johnss somewhat fussy encaustic application
and precious pigment-and-wax combination.
Lastly, it is easy to imagine that the twenty-three-year- old Frank Stella,
renowned gamesman and athletic trickster, would have known immediately where
and how to place his masculinist shots against the by then already somewhat
parochial and comforting lore surrounding Johnss Flag, from his origin story
claiming that the idea of painting a flag had come to him in a dream, to the queer
and quaint nod to Betsy Ross. Of course, we know all too well that painterly or
artistic oeuvres do not acquire their historical identity from a single work. At the
same time, we recognize the defining power of one particular invention or inter-
vention, the singular work or gesture that signals a decisive departure, epistemic
break, or historical reorientation that an artist can initiate.
Johnss Flag undoubtedly was one of those moments in which the place and
function of painting in the present are fundamentally redefined. And Stellas
Black Paintings undoubtedly responded to and challenged that definition on all
accounts, including what I would like to call Stellas renewal of the law of the
father in painting.
It is then through the series of Black Paintings that Stella repositions himself
in direct dialogue with Barnett Newman, across and above the encounter and
Painting as Diagram 139
11. Rosalind Krauss, Jasper Johns: The Functions of Irony, October 2 (Summer 1976), p. 95.
OCTOBER 140
12. Richardson, p. 23.
13. Godfreys groundbreaking study was not known to me yet when I delivered this essay as a lec-
ture at the 2006 Stella conference since it was only published in the fall of 2007. Nor did I know at that
time David Joselits important essay on diagrams in Dada, which would explore with great lucidity the
question of the diagrammatic as one of the crucial models in abstraction at an earlier moment in histo-
ry. See David Joselit, Dadas Diagrams, Leah Dickerman, ed., with Matthew S. Witkovsky, The Dada
Seminars (Washington: the National Gallery of Art; New York: D.A.P., 2005), pp. 22139.
mediation with the utterly different approaches to abstraction in the work of
Rauschenberg and Johns.
After all, Stellas tripartite incantation of the actual conditions governing
historical experience after Fascism made good on questions that had been insis-
tently if covertly posed by Newman. The work of Johns and Rauschenberg by
contrast had either shifted the debate completely away from any of the questions
concerning the (im)-possibility of the production of a post-totalitarian culture or
had blissfully ignored these questions, disputing their relevance. Stellas Black
Paintings signal to us that paintings intricate intertwining with history could ulti-
mately not be passed over by a mere prohibition or the maneuvers of a formalist
sublimation of the historical dimension of the work of art. Therefore it would
seem all the more appropriate at this point in time not to walk away from Stellas
titles with the kind of falsely comforting complacency that can be seen in
Richardsons antiseptic text on Arbeit Macht Frei when she writes that
both Die Fahne Hoch and Arbeit Macht Frei were assigned Nazi related
titles that would indicate a relationship between the cross pattern of
the paintings and the cross references of the titles. Stella rejected
titles specifically referential to religion, suggesting that he did not find
them meaningful. He felt that religious symbols or allusions had less
referential potency over time than did political symbols or allusions.
12
But in the present it is simply no longer possible to completely disregard Stellas
textual strategies in linking the second, third, and eighth paintings of the first
group of fifteen Black Paintings to the history of the totalitarian destruction of
bourgeois Enlightenment culture. Or to simply repress the ramifications of those
paintings (in the manner that Arbeit Macht Frei seems to have been almost totally
excluded from exhibitions, undoubtedly because of its title, since as late as 1976,
in Brenda Richardsons catalogue, it is the only painting listed with the entry
exhibition history: none).
We are in no way proposing a simple reversal of the prohibition of reading a
painting according to its title (after all, it is all too evident throughout Stellas sub-
sequent oeuvre that the titles articulate, for the most part at least, the condition
of a non-motivated relationship between title and workexcept for, of course,
once again, the series of paintings bearing the titles of destroyed Polish syna-
gogues, as Mark Godfrey has recently explored and interpreted in great detail).
13
What I am proposing, however, is that we recognize the necessity of exploring the
peculiar difficulty that these paintings titling poses and proposesprecisely with
regard to the possible and impossible forms of meaning-production within non-
representational painting after World War II. Furthermore, we should develop
more of an understanding of the particular rhetoric of provocative enunciation
and the maneuvers of a simultaneous announcement and disavowal that the titles
perform, even if, or particularly because, there are only three titles with Nazi ref-
erences within the initial group of fifteen (eventually twenty-three) works, which
otherwise tend to invoke a wide variety of calamities, sites of minor disaster, places
of deviance. This strange imbalance between three and twenty could at first
appear to simply dissolve the focus on those paintings that explicitly refer to the
greatest catastrophe of human history. And we would have to wonder if their
placement within that series would not even banalize the reference within a
strange gesture of equivocation, effacement, if not scandalous equation of minor
calamities with the incomparable event of the Holocaust.
5. Silences, Voids, Negation in Abstraction
We will have to digress, then, for a moment to delineatehowever sketchi-
lythe distinctions between three central positions on silence and aesthetic with-
drawal (three precursors of diagrammatic abstraction) and their underlying con-
cepts of a historically constituted subjectivity that intersected at the moment of
Stellas Black Paintings in 1959. The first model is one I would associate with
Malevichs abstraction and that of the Russian avant-garde at large. It conceived of
itself as early as the prerevolutionary moment of 1915 as a cultural representation
de-privileging the bourgeois subject and its cultural conventions, emphasizing
instead the imminence of a newly emerging class of proletarian identity that
would inevitably engender new forms of subjective articulation and collective cul-
tural representation. Abstraction would induce cognitive and perceptual forms of
experience that would adequately register and represent the newly emerging egal-
itarian, proletarian subject, who would be freed from domination and hierarchi-
cal order (a vision that would also motivate Mondrians commitment to an emerg-
ing model of diagrammatic abstraction).
From that perspective, it is of course deeply ironic that both Andre and
Fried credited Stella in the early 1960s with being a Constructivist. In fact, noth-
ing could be further from the ethos and aesthetic of the Russian and Soviet artists
than Stellas historical place and position, and, most important, nothing could be
more different from the history of the Soviet avant-garde than the historical con-
text of post-Holocaust history from which Stellas work emerges.
The second model would be John Cages dissolution of the subject after
World War II. This approach is of course dramatically different from the revolu-
tionary models of post-bourgeois subjectivity that had been pronounced by the
Soviet and the de Stijl avant-gardes, and it was certainly central to the aesthetic
Painting as Diagram 141
project of Stellas predecessors Rauschenberg and Johns. Nevertheless, it is by no
means evident that Cages negations would have had any impact on the formation
of Stellas own project of abstraction as refusal and negation. Inevitably, Cages
propositions exclude any and all reflections on the class basis of subject forma-
tion, and, even more important, they voluntarily forfeit the progressive trajectory
of a cultural practice that envisages the constitution of new forms of subjectivity
in sociopolitical agency.
In opposition to the radical utopian models of de-subjectivization in the 1920s,
Cage develops technologically overdetermined and liberally informed artistic strate-
gies that internalize the technological and ideological de-sublimation of all cultural
(i.e., musical) experiences as the irrefutable and finite parameters of postwar cultur-
al production at large. He adapts to these conditions to such a degree that he discov-
ers within their structures the sole potential for an otherwise unthinkable cultural
experience. It will be one that would have to be situated, on the one hand, precisely
within the advanced apparatus of technology and, on the other, within the nonhier-
archical structures of anomic existence and total de-sublimation, since these are the
singular common denominators of collective everyday experience.
In Cages post-Duchampian project, the subject is given access to these last
microscopic spaces of autonomy that late capitalism will still yield reluctantly,
since theseowing to their technocratic and microcosmic structureswould
never be transfigured into concrete acts of political opposition or articulations of
collective agency, nor would they open up any new spaces of resistance reaching
beyond the framework of subcultural critiques. Thus, in Cages model, subjectivity
was both annihilated and simultaneously reconstituted in micrological acts of lin-
guistic, semiotic, and phonetic enunciation, suturing the subject within the exist-
ing, universally accessible reality of technological and ideological reification.
The third posit ion on silence and negat ion is of course Theodor W.
Adornos denial of the historical accessibility of a continuing culture of the bour-
geois subject. It constituted in many ways a total reversal of both the Soviet
Unions revolutionary annihilation of the subject and Cages suturing of the sub-
ject in an anomic and technological order. From the start, Adorno distances his
project from even considering the option of a culture of revolutionary political
aspirations, just as, to the same extent, he will eventually cast critical doubts on
Cages culture of the collective acts of micrological liberation. Adornos is a posi-
tion in which the destruction of bourgeois subjectivity (caused by World War II
and the Holocaust as much as by the emerging powers of a universally controlling
culture industry) is considered as a condition of finality: in tandem, these forces
have annihilated the discursive conventions, psychic processes, and social institu-
t ions that had previously induced the format ion of a (bourgeois) subject .
Ultimately, Adornos radical negativityperhaps most importantdenies the
credibility of any traditional form of cultural representation that claims to articu-
late and mediate subjective experience, and, at least in this very negation, the
OCTOBER 142
work of silence and refusal performs acts of solidarity with the actual subjects of
physical and psychic annihilation in recent history.
Yet Adornos aesthetic negativity is not only compelled by gestures of solidarity
with the victims of the past; it also subverts and resists the ideological agenda of the
linguistic apparatus of repression in the present. Adornos strategies of writerly with-
drawal as a negation of immediate communication resist ideologys claim to appear
once again as the natural. His syntactical and grammatical torsions and distortions
dissolve what Roman Jakobson once called the grime of language: precisely those
unconscious ideological identities that appear as seemingly guaranteed by the itera-
tive and affirmative capacities of the language of the everyday in the same manner
that Stella eliminates once again all possibilities of a reference to the iconicity of
everyday life from his work. It is precisely this conflict, namely the situation of an
avant-garde culture after the total failure of enlightenment, that Adorno and
Horkheimer had recognized in 1947. Their description seems to match the conflict-
ed forms of abstraction and meaning production that govern the Black Paintings
and their titles, when they state the following: if Enlightenment does not accommo-
date reflection on its recidivist element, then it seals its own fate. Pragmatized logic
yields to the violence of rationalism and positivism.
14
It seems to me then that Leo Steinbergs once scandalous account of the
conditions of American postwar abstraction (especially of the second-generation
New York School artists who were so central to the writing of Greenberg, Fried,
and Rubin) was descriptively accurate, if historically incomplete, in its analysis of
the tendencies in early 1960s American painting and the criticism that accompa-
nied it. It is worth quoting at length:
In the criticism of the relevant paintings there is rarely a hint of
expressive purpose, nor recognition that pictures function in human
experience. The painters industry is a closed loop. The search for the
holistic design is justified and self-perpetuating. Whether this search is
still the exalted Kantian process of self-criticism seems questionable;
the claim strikes me rather as a remote intellectual analogy. And other
analogies suggest themselves, less intellectual but closer to home. It is
probably no chance coincidence that the descriptive terms which have
dominated American formalist criticism these past fifty years run paral-
lel to the contemporaneous evolution of the Detroit automobile.
15
Situating the work of Frank Stella within that historical trajectory would also allow
us to understand that to take the implications of his three titles in the Black
Paintings seriously does not establish an unbridgeable chasm between the Black
Painting as Diagram 143
14. Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947), trans. John
Cumming (New York: Continuum, 1987), p. 236.
15. Leo Steinberg, Reflections on the State of Criticism (1972), reprinted in Branden Joseph,
ed., Robert Rauschenberg (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), p. 28.
Paintings and the subsequent series of the Aluminum and Copper paintings: their
apparently anodyne and totally dehistoricized expansion of abstraction into the
field of the spatialthe sculptural, if not the quasi-architectural. Quite the oppo-
site: the new technocratic order and the large scale of those series deliberately sus-
pend themselves between the design culture of the corporate logo and the deco-
ration of the lobby of the very corporation for which they might serve as brand.
They quite accurately point to the historical affinity and continuity between totali-
tarian politics in the recent past and corporate culture in the present. It is no
small achievement for Stella to have envisioned the fate of abstraction as early as
he did, and to have mimetically and relentlessly subjected abstraction itself to its
proper historical dynamics: to relegate its utopian aspirations to the last resort of
corporate decoration, of which Stellas later work would become a voluntary and
inextricable part.
OCTOBER 144