It goes without saying that at the age of 79, Frank Stella is one of the greatest living American painters. He’s also one of art’s great apostates, a man who abandoned a faith he helped to establish. In the 1960s he was one of the founding figures of minimalism, and his stark, bracing canvases were lodestars of an austere new abstraction. But before he hit 40 he had made an about-face. The high priest of flatness became the king of giddy overload. Some artists, like Mark Rothko or Franz Kline, arrive at a signature style and stay with it all their lives. Stella is not one of them.
“Frank Stella: A Retrospective,” which runs at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City through March 7, then moves to the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, adroitly takes you through Stella’s long strange trip. It began with the so-called Black Paintings, blunt-force canvases that Stella, fresh out of Princeton, started producing in 1958. They consisted of uniform black bands, each about 2½ inches wide, separated like furrows in a plowed field by very thin channels of unpainted canvas that gave the appearance of trembling white stripes. In some pictures those stripes paralleled the edges of the canvas. In others they crossed it at a diagonal. Either way they were an unequivocal announcement that this painting was nothing more than a symmetrical pattern of white lines on a flat black surface. As Stella famously put it, “What you see is what you see.”
By the late ’50s, with Abstract Expressionism in sharp decline, reduction and flatness had become bywords of newer kinds of abstraction. Color-field painters like Barnett Newman and Ellsworth Kelly were working in broad plains of solid color. But the brazen austerity of Stella’s patterning was something else. This was polemical art with a vengeance, a refusal not just of the charged brushwork and psychodrama of AbEx but also a repudiation of what most people thought were essentials of any painting, even an abstraction: illusion, complexity, spatial depth and–hey, why not?–feeling. Stella actually welcomed comparisons between his work and the product of a rubber stamp. “I wanted something that was direct, right to your eye,” he said. “You got the whole thing right away.” And he warned people not to search his work for signs of spiritual transcendence, utopian yearnings or submerged traces of the artist’s soul–the associations that had surrounded and even justified many earlier kinds of abstraction, from Kandinsky to Mondrian and Pollock. Stella’s paintings were entirely self-justifying: pure material producing a straightforward optical event.
It was hard to see at first where Stella could go from the ground zero of painting he had cleared, but all through the ’60s he rolled out powerful variations on his first ideas, venturing into bright color, including aluminum and copper paint, and rolling out shaped canvases of many kinds–notched, triangular, curved, snaking or asymmetrical. These turned out, mostly, to be fascinating, with a matter-of-fact potency and elegance. Who could say no to a taut crescendo like Empress of India, an immense canvas in which four notched chevrons become a collective force field? Best of all were the rhythmic circles and semicircles of his Protractor series. Indisputably beautiful, they were simultaneously cerebral and intellectually rigorous, always based on a structural premise of some kind, always visibly driven by the imperatives of their underlying idea.
But it’s a short step sometimes from rigor to rigor mortis, and by the early 1970s Stella was tiring of his own militant flatness. He sensed a crisis for abstraction generally, a crisis of limited pictorial resources and dwindling, repetitive outcomes. Envying the power of the deep recessional space in work by 17th century masters like Rubens and Caravaggio, he wanted to recover for abstract painting the same depth and spatial drama–no matter that his own earlier works had been instrumental in driving it out. Eventually Stella decided to go for broke. To reintroduce deep space into his paintings, he decided to make them more like sculpture. He would never call them that, but all the same he started to construct his pictures out of elements that projected physically away from the wall.
Within a few years we’d see Stella unchained, creating dense and merry wall assemblages like Eskimo Curlew, work with swooping arabesques made from cut steel and aluminum, and later from poured molten metal and even 3-D-printer-formed plastic. And while in his earlier work the color was always applied more or less evenly, now he was spreading ropes of Day-Glo spray paint in graffiti-tag scribbles. Where once he was rational and methodical, now he seemed instinctive and improvisatory. It was as if Mondrian had morphed into de Kooning.
One unsurprising takeaway from this show, organized by Fort Worth’s Michael Auping and Whitney director Adam D. Weinberg, is that Stella’s later work can be hugely inventive and gratifying. (And also sometimes congested and semichaotic–euphoria is tough to control.) But did it actually solve that crisis of abstraction? With some notable exceptions, like a long series of works alluding to chapters of Moby Dick, for the most part Stella tried to reinvigorate abstraction simply by adjusting its visual elements–by adopting the complex space, forms and carnival palette of irresistible pictures like Gobba, zoppa e collotorto (a title borrowed from an Italian folktale, “Hunchback, Wryneck, Hobbler”). But the fundamental problem for “pure” abstraction is that it doesn’t refer much to the world outside the picture. When art has nothing to talk about except shape, color and space, it can end up talking to itself, even when the conversation is carried on at Stella’s high level. But if that problem remains unsolved, we can only be grateful for all the places it led Stella in his search for a solution. Once he left the flatlands, he shot for the moon.
This appears in the November 09, 2015 issue of TIME.