Frank Stella’s Greatest Legacy Was as a Master Sadist

Was Frank Stella a sadist? More than once, I’ve wondered that while standing before his 1959 painting Die Fahne hoch!, a rectangular abstraction that features four black forms, each of which are demarcated by unpainted lines of white that pulsate toward the center. The painting, for all its austerity, contains a bizarre kind of beauty. It also hides a secret: its title refers to a Nazi marching anthem.

Stella is one of those artists who is constantly linked to a one-liner he once spoke. His came from an interview with the Minimalist sculptor Donald Judd: “What you see is what you see.” What you see in Die Fahne hoch! are right angles and darkness. What you don’t see is fascism.

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Power was hard to notice in art at a time when Abstract Expressionists like Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman were bludgeoning people with gigantic paintings referring to sublimity. These works are magical because they are gorgeous and all-consuming. But there is nothing transcendent about Die Fahne hoch!, not its title, not its color palette (or lack thereof), not its execution, not the fact that its Catholic-born maker had invoked a genocide against Jews. This acrid painting thrives on the displeasure viewers may feel while standing before it.

As the art historian Robert Storr once said, a Stella painting is “about giving up warmth.” Stella’s gift to the world, at least early on, was his utter coldness. He made it possible to create art that inflicts pain upon his fans, and he showed that it was acceptable to find intellectual pleasure while being knocked down.

Spoiler alert: Stella ultimately strayed from that project. In recent decades he has made a parade of so-bad-it’s-good sculptures that have taken on gigantic proportions. (Some are on view now at New York’s Jeffrey Deitch Gallery, in a presentation that has become a memorial show following the artist’s passing this past weekend.) With the sculptures, Stella seemed to have fallen into the very trap he sought to avoid by creating big, bad art that doesn’t seem aware of just how small it makes viewers feel.

Stella was at his best during the initial stages of his career, in the late 1950s, when he started the “Black Paintings” series. He’d done his penance, studying the Abstract Expressionism flowing out of New York while he was a history student at Princeton University. He tried emulating some of what he saw, and even gained an appreciation for Hans Hofmann, who theorized a form of abstraction predicated on the “push and pull” of forms to create a sense of space in a flat canvas. Yet Stella ultimately diverged from the movement, producing works that looked totally unlike any of its offerings.

He seemed to make a mockery of the Abstract Expressionist way of working. Rather than relying on chance to do what it would with his strokes, he applied his paint mathematically in the “Black Paintings,” carefully, although not always evenly, leaving unpainted lines of white space between his bars of black. And he worked like a house painter, methodically pulling his brush down his canvas instead of dripping his materials on or staining them in.

A person standing in front of a shaped painting with parallel lines running across it.
Frank Stella’s De la nada vida a la nada muerte (1965), as seen at the Museum of Modern Art, ca. 1970.
Photo Barry Lewin/FPG/Archive Photos/Getty ImagesGetty Images

This was a painter who set out to defile his medium, making it seem less like a holy venture than just another way of making a living. In 1961, he made his “Benjamin Moore” paintings, named after the company that sells a range of materials used to color the walls of houses. On top of monochromes in shades of mustard, azure, and red-orange, Stella arrayed lines—some of them diagonal, some of them bent—that he rigorously spaced apart. Michael Auping, the curator of Stella’s 2015 retrospective, said these works represented “a kind of Minimalist version of Rothkoesque backlight imprisoned by bars.”

Stella wanted to take Abstract Expressionism down a peg—to punish it for its overbearing emphasis on originality and greatness, and to cut its grandness down to size. The interpretation is borne out by a series of photographs of Stella at work that were shot by filmmaker Hollis Frampton, a close friend.

Frampton’s pictures seem to parody the sleek photos of Abstract Expressionists in their studios, which often accompanied magazine profiles at the time that ran in ARTnews, Life, and other publications. Unlike those pictures, Frampton’s images are odd and plain: Stella balled up before a window, Stella vamping amid bent steel beams, and, in one particularly memorable image, Stella standing in the buff beneath a lined canvas done in copper paint rather than oil. That last image seems to mock the machismo of the era’s male artists while also suggesting that Stella’s work was just as bare as his nude body.

The painting that appears in that photograph, Creede II (1961), has an illustrative name, despite the work itself depicting nothing much at all. It’s named after a mining town in Colorado that was cut into a mountain—a place of total control over nature, which Creede’s businesses have exploited to their own ends. That’s not quite so insidious a reference point as the one behind Die Fahne hoch!, but it still speaks to a fascination with death and destruction that bubbles beneath his vacant surfaces.

An L-shaped painting done in copper with lines running across it.
A work from Frank Stella’s “Copper Paintings” series.
Photo Geoffrey Clements/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Yet even when Stella began to lure in color, his art remained compellingly perverse. Take his “Polish Village” works of the 1970s, a series of collaged paintings whose vibrantly hued wood parts appear to smash into one another. Each is named after the site where the Nazis pillaged and destroyed synagogues. Without knowing the meaning of these works’ titles, these come off as nice pictures. With that added context, their beauty is tainted.

This is the output, after all, of an artist who named a work after a Nazi anthem and then claimed his titles were “no big thing.” No surprise that Brian O’Doherty was once moved to call Stella “the Cézanne of nihilism, the master of ennui.” Be offended by these works’ titles, or simply ignore them. He didn’t seem to mind either way.

As for me, I am drawn to Die Fahne hoch!, even as I am repelled by it, as a Jewish American. It taught me that you can love an artwork that does not necessarily love you back. Looking at Stella’s early work hurts me. That’s why I love it.

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