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The way I prepare for a show is to go into hermit mode: Sequester yourself in the art cave and don’t come out until the work is ready.

That also means that most of the conversations I am having these days are with non-sentient beings (i.e., my paintings). It is in a small way like being in a gravity-free chamber with tiny porthole windows and filtered sound. A world out there? Could be, but I wouldn’t know for sure…

The extreme stories you hear about Jonathan Franzen’s elaborate methods for achieving a distraction-free zone to write make sense to me. Maybe the world is divided (once again) into two groups: Those who can write a novel in a coffee shop, and those who cannot. As for me, I know I need silence and privacy.

My cone of self inflicted silence did not block out Tom Ashbrook’s worthy interview with Frank Stella last week however. (You can listen to ithere.) Don’t you love when an elder still thinks and talks fast (and still drives that way too), is excited about exploring new forms (like digital media) and isn’t a solipsistic bag of hot air? Stella was charming, ingenuous and thoughtful. Worth the listen for sure.

A few highlights for me:

He started the interview by quoting Mario Andretti (Stella has a well known passion for car racing): “If everything is under control, you aren’t going fast enough.”

When asked about teaching art, his answer was simple: Be encouraging. Limit constraints. Keep enthusiasm alive. That is a kind of art pedagogy I can stand alongside.

Regarding the distortions of pricing seen in the art auction space, Stella was gentle. “Art world pricing is an illusion.” He graciously described the art world in all its many facets as “a complicated community.” And who is an artist’s audience, he asked? First and foremost, says Stella, you make art to please yourself. You are your own most important audience.

That’s a mantra for any studio wall.

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Chocorua IV, 1966. Fluorescent alkyd and epoxy paints on canvas.
Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College
© 2010 Frank Stella/ Artists Rights Socety (ARS), New York. Photo by Steven Sloman.

In a recent review of the Frank Stella show, Irregular Polygons at the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College, Boston Globe art critic Sebastian Smee ended with these words:

I myself really do admire Stella. There is such verve and liveliness in almost everything he has done. He has played the abstract game as well, as intelligently, and as thoroughly, as anyone. He has relished first abstraction’s self-sufficiency, and then its links with the outside world. And he has not been afraid to recognize its limits.

And yet other artists — even other abstract artists — so often look better. And when they do, it’s because their reasons for painting or sculpting the way they do go deeper. They’re more personal, more persuasive.

It’s not that you can’t feel temperament or personality in Stella’s work. His personality is too forceful for that. Rather, it’s that the personality you do feel is always floating away from the work. You’re feeling the restlessness of that personality, and — notwithstanding all of Stella’s spatial games — a sort of pond-skimming inability to puncture the surface of things.

His works are marvelous, and then they are not.

Ah, that ageless issue of taste. Of preferences. Of proclivities that make one artist more appealing to us personally than another. My good friend Carl, a lifelong Stella fan and about as knowledgeable on the man and his work as anyone alive, is so personally connected to Stella’s oeuvre that this dismissal by Smee was more than irritating to him. My response was that everyone who lives their life centered on the visual arts has their “anchor” artists, those two or three lynchpin individuals whose vision is so aligned to your own that you keep coming back to them over and over again. And Stella isn’t on Smee’s list, clearly.

Long ago I quit trying to achieve the highfalutin goal of detached objectivity and just surrendered to the subjectivity that runs my life whether I acknowledge it or not. Opinions about everything! Favorite foods, favorite movies, favorite artists—and oh so many topics to explore and choose favorites from. It’s feast of subjectivity.

My anchor artists? As a young art student the list was Henri Matisse, Mark Rothko and Richard Diebenkorn. Right this minute I’d say my list is Agnes Martin, Brice Marden and Richard Tuttle. But being the rampant subjectivist that I am, that could change tomorrow.


Frank Stella, Chocorua IV, 1966, Fluorescent alkyd and epoxy paints on canvas, 120 x 128 x 4 in., Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College

Abuses of power and money, decisions made by self serving Philistines, the infuriatingly short sighted policies that have ramifications way beyond the bounds of the elite board room—nothing new in any of these themes. But the stories that touch my interest, art, still stick in the caw and won’t dislodge that easily. I am forced to ask the existential question of how should we respond to these flagrant travesties, especially given how many of them take place under wraps and are never really exposed?

My friend (and favorite curator) Carl Belz recently published an account that looks back to a Frank Stella acquisition that never happened during his last few months at the Rose Art Museum. (His account is here on the blog Left Bank.) His story will infuriate you if having access to works by an important artist within reach of Boston matters to you. The bad spin around Brandeis and the Rose (Battle of the Roses?) continues and Belz’s account is just one more peek into the complexity of doing the right thing in any environment—art, academia or politics—where doing good work and operating with high minded intentions are rarely rewarded.

Watching The Art of the Steal, the recently released documentary about the highly controversial move of the Barnes Foundation art collection into Philadelphia, is yet another example. Yes, critics of the film have pointed to its highly biased telling of a complex and extremely arcane tale that tracks the fate of an art collection valued at billions of dollars. But the villainy is profligate and plentiful no matter how much you skew for bias. When there is that much money at stake, you can’t keep treacherous vultures away for long.

The stoic’s stance. Is that the optimal response for any of us to take in the face of shenanigans this large in scope? Both of these accounts make me hot under the collar, but it is a heat that has nowhere to go and nothing meaningful to do.

OK. That’s my rant. I’ll move on to something more positive tomorrow, I promise.

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