top of page


Frank Stella, the Indian Birds, Mnuchin Gallery, New York
by Gwenaël Kerlidou, January 24, 2024

Kastura, mock up 300_edited.jpg

Walking through Frank Stella’s past Indian Birds exhibition which was on view at the Mnuchin Gallery last fall may have prompted some visitors to wonder why one should still bother about them: Why should these large pieces, clearly out of scale in the townhouse space of the gallery and which had their moment more than forty years ago, deserve a second look? Why do they still arrest us today?

First exhibited at the Leo Castelli’s Gallery in January of 1979, the six paintings in the show and their cardboard or metal mock-ups were originally made in 1977, at the onset of America’s wunderkind of Abstraction’s love affair with metal fabrication. Following the Brazilian Cycle series from 1975 and the Exotic Birds from 1976, the Indian Birds were the third series of metal pieces. The break from wood and fabric, the traditional materials of a painting’s supports, had happened a few years earlier after the Polish Synagogues series from 1971-73. As was a standard exercise for Stella back then, the mock-ups were enlarged five and a half times in the final versions. In hindsight, the Indian Birds could very well be the most successful series of that period, the one with the most grace, levity and liveliness, as  other series, such as the Circuit paintings from the early eighties, often came across as visually overloaded contraptions of randomly colored metal. 

Used for the first-time with the Exotic birds, the French curves, which are so central to the Indian Birds, would be part of Stella’s formal repertory for years to come. Not enough has been said about his use of found shapes  - which actually started with the Protractor series from 1967-70 and were, then, a knowledgeable nod to Duchamp’s found object - nor has the coincidence of the introduction of these found shapes with the emergence of curved lines, in a body of work until then dominated by straight lines, been properly examined. Stella had turned to arabesques, a traditionally off-limits area for geometric abstraction, in order to escape the dead ends of Systemic Painting.

In today’s light, the metal mock-ups for the Indian Birds series, made during a short residency in India, look like a good example of missed opportunity. A large part of their interest comes from multiple levels of tension between the formal compositional games of the structure, the pop references of their surfaces, made of sheet metal misprints of soda cans labels, and their rusty, corroded finish. If the pop references had already been introduced in the color choices of the Protractors series, the gritty, entropic comments on industrial waste of the mock-ups are entirely absent from their final versions, where they are literally glossed over with glitter paint. The collage element of the soda labels misprints could also have been an interesting avenue to explore, especially in view of the artist’s previous forays into collage with the Polish Synagogues.


Khar-pidda, Mixed media on aluminum, metal tubing and wire mesh, 10’-2” x 7’-4” x 35”, 1978

If the Protractors series introduced curves as well as pop colors in Stella’s work, they also signaled his progressive transition from a kind of “Protestant” painter persona to a more “Catholic” one. Back in 1959, the Black Paintings were the epitome of Puritanism in painting and of the critique of its decorative function: Advanced Painting could only be rhetorical (or polemical) as opposed to expressive (or enjoyable). As if painting, instead of being a complex, multi-layered semantic apparatus, could only be either rhetorical or decorative. In the early sixties the self-referential critical discourse was front and center. The more the artist’s subjective involvement with painting was minimized, the stronger the statement. The Protestant-Minimalist reaction had become so widespread and symptomatic in the U.S. that one may provocatively wonder today if Abstract Expressionism had not been some kind of a covert extension of the Catholic Baroque esthetics which needed to be rejected with the same fanaticism as the sixteenth century Reformation rejected the Catholic church.

With the Exotic Birds, the proverbial pendulum of history was in full back swing. In sync with the Pattern and Decoration movement of the seventies, Stella seemed to be on a path to a thorough rehabilitation of the decorative and to shedding his former “Protestant” persona in painting. But as the title of his outstanding series of 1983-84 lectures infers, “Working Space” is Baroque space seen through the eyes of a Protestant painter with a strong work ethic. Visual play and pleasure are never in the foreground. Perhaps he was only tempted to get a taste of the forbidden fruit.

With his shift to metal fabrication, the artist had embarked on a full-fledged enterprise of Painting deconstruction, chasing the holy grail of non-illusionist painting in three-dimensional space. One series after another, it seemed that his project was to slowly dismantle bi-dimensional painting and reconstruct it as a 3D object, as if its ever-elusive essence was hiding in sculpture. 
Unexpectedly for someone so adamant to be at the forefront of the development of new ideas in Abstract Painting, from the beginning of the metal pieces onward, the painted parts are often their less convincing aspect. In the Indian Birds pieces, the ways the metal curves are painted often contradict and obfuscate their identity, as if it didn’t matter what the paint was applied to, as if the act of painting itself was perfunctory. The unpainted cardboard mock-ups are often more helpful to understand Stella’s Constructivist intentions (even if with a Baroque twist) than the final painted pieces. 

But Stella’s reduction of painting to a duality of space/support versus surface/painting, where space is primary and surface secondary, leaves too much of our symbolic relationship to painting unaccounted for. Compare, for example, his paint handling with that of Elizabeth Murray (another painter who also questioned the support), or to Gerhardt Richter (as one with an openly meta discourse on painting) and it seems that Stella doesn’t really want to get too involved in the dirty act of painting, unless it carries with it some type of smoke and mirror rhetorical punch. 

The Indian Birds is the first series where Stella, expanding his exploration of painting as mark making and perhaps perceiving mark making as surfeit, displayed a kind of unintended post-modern ambivalence about it: A subconscious approach to painting as simulacrum, itself a leitmotiv of Post-Modernism, as his mark making, improbably both exaggerated and half-hearted, turned into a sort of meta discourse on unresolved contradictions in painting, in strangely similar ways to Richter’s abstractions.

In his pursuit of literal space in painting, Stella came to dissociate space/support and surface/painting more and more, as he emphasized the role of the physical support to the detriment of its surface (which is always intrinsically illusionistic). In order for these metal pieces to remain paintings, and to counteract the increased physical presence of the support, he had to ratchet up the optical aspect of the painting. And since self-critical introspection was considered as too sentimental by Formalists like him, he ended up with spectacularly hollow gestures. One only has to compare his hi-tech approach to the low-cost one of Supports/Surfaces (or to Imi Knoebel’s much more nuanced approach to painting on metal, for that matter), which dealt very differently with the same conundrum at about the same time, to realize that this was not necessarily the only way to approach the problem. 

But times have changed and so have our ways of seeing and speaking about Stella’s work. The utopian idealism of a historical narrative of never-ending formal progress, which first came under fire with Post-Modernism, is now all gone and replaced with more pressing anxieties about our planet’s uncertain future (not to also mention the place of A.I. in our culture  -since he has been using all kinds of computer aided design software for years in the elaboration of his pieces). Large art pieces such as these, or any others by the likes of Richard Serra, Anselm Kiefer, Anish Kapoor, or any younger art stars, are produced and moved around the world with a troubling lack of concern for their carbon footprint. This is obviously a projection of our moment’s psyche. No one could think in those terms in the seventies (even if they should have), but this is how art of that scale will be perceived from now on. Beyond being labeled as corporate art, these pieces will increasingly be seen as the extravagant relics of a bygone era. Formal progress for its own sake has lost any relatable relevance for younger generations, when the urgency of carbon footprint control is only going to grow in the near future.

Painter or sculptor, no doubt Stella is a formidable artist to be reckoned with. We respect him for his unshakable faith in abstraction and for his commitment to it, for his polemical approach, for his risk-taking, for pushing our buttons, for making visually exhilarating painted objects that still stop us in our tracks, even if they fail to convince us of their necessity. He falls short not only because the battle against illusionism and the polemics of Modernism have become anachronistic, but mostly because of his denial that painting’s symbolic hold on our imagination isn’t something that can be historically engineered. There is a sort of quiet desperation in his forcing the slow medium of painting to barrel down the now deserted highways of Modernism towards an ever-fleeting Formalist utopia, a sense of going nowhere fast, as if he realized he was running out of time to convert his public. 

But perhaps he just set the bar too high for himself; Not a criticism that can be leveled at too many recent art stars…

Ram gangra and Thirthira 300_edited.jpg

  Ram gangra and Thirthira, installation view, Mnuchin Gallery, New York  Header Image: Kastura, metal mockup, 21-3/8” x 16-3/4”, 1977. Photos by Gwenaël Kerlidou

bottom of page