Seduced by Stella

"Frank Stella at 2000: Changing the Rules"

If you require, as I do, a very good reason to venture into the volatile cauldron of Miami-Dade County, then let one of those reasons be the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) in North Miami, which regularly showcases some of the most exciting art in South Florida. Last summer, for instance, curator Bonnie Clearwater avoided the doldrums that afflict so many museums during the off-season by assembling a knockout show drawn exclusively from MoCA's extensive permanent collection.

Now Clearwater has done it again with "Frank Stella at 2000: Changing the Rules."It's an ambitious coup of an exhibition that's Stella's first major American show since the artist decided, more than a decade ago, to devote himself primarily to large-scale public art instead of gallery art.

More than two dozen pieces, some of them as big as 12 feet high and 40 feet wide, take up the museum's cavernous, warehouse-style main gallery. The smaller Pavilion Gallery, across the atrium on the approach to the museum entrance, is devoted to a variety of preparatory pieces: sketches and scale models of some of Stella's pending architectural projects, as well as mixed-media collages that are the starting points for some of his gigantic canvases. The vast majority of the pieces were loaned for this show by the artist himself. (When you see the scale in which Stella typically works these days, you have to wonder what sort of studio space might be adequate for him -- an abandoned factory? A gutted department store?)

Stella's massive Organdie invites viewers to get lost in the depths of its delirium
Stella's massive Organdie invites viewers to get lost in the depths of its delirium

As always Clearwater goes the extra mile and provides a context for the art in a show. One wall in the museum lobby features a brief overview of Stella's career, and similar informational panels are posted throughout the show. Such context is crucial for an artist as "difficult" as Stella can sometimes be.

I've always been a bit ambivalent about Stella: seduced by the austere, chilly, deceptively simple surfaces of his minimalist paintings of the late '50s and early '60s (including the "Black Series") on the one hand, but also repelled by some of the garish, cluttered compositions of the '70s -- pictures art critic and historian Robert Hughes, in a typically adroit turn of phrase, characterized as "maniacally congested surfaces."

A couple pieces in MoCA's lobby and four deeper into the show, even though they're more recent works, are throwbacks to the dense, clotted compositions to which Hughes referred. They're wall-mounted, mixed-media constructions using cast aluminum, with jagged shapes that jut out from the wall, and they seem somehow lost, forlorn, stranded somewhere between painting and sculpture.

Fortunately the rest of the show is an exhilarating affirmation of the recent changes Stella has wrought in his art. During his hiatus from canvas, which began in the '70s, Stella made a couple of discoveries that reinvigorated his work to an astonishing degree. One was his realization of the abundance of imagery that could be extrapolated from an unusual source: the smoke rings he blew from his own cigars. The exhibition brims with examples of how Stella has incorporated such a seemingly mundane element into his work.

Stella's fascination with the smoke rings led him to devise a contraption for photographing them. It's a box lined with black cloth and illuminated by four light bulbs, with synchronized cameras positioned on either side. As he blows smoke into the box, the cameras capture the shifting shapes from different vantage points. The resulting photographs are then enhanced with 3-D computer imaging and printed.

The artist then assembles large-scale collages using paper cutouts, some of the smoke rings, others with bright colors and vivid textures. The "finished" collages (they're really just an intermediary stage in the process) are photographed, then projected onto canvas, where Stella traces the forms in great detail before re-creating them in paint.

This laborious process yields the monumental mixed-media canvases that are the highlights of the show. Two of them -- Cantahar and Organdie, both from 1998 -- tower side by side as you enter the main gallery. They're perhaps 13 feet square, and each is an ecstatic celebration of color and texture, with vivid swirls of abstract imagery so delirious you can get lost in them.

Part of what draws us into these pieces is the illusion of depth, which Stella achieves by meticulously painting the shadows cast by the pieces of paper on those preliminary collages. This is one of the changed rules to which the exhibition title refers -- the artist's relaxing of his once rigorous adherence to strictly anti-illusionist painting. Here he seems to revel in the trompe l'oeil of these gloriously undulating shapes.

As impressive as they are, however, Cantahar and Organdie are only a prelude of sorts to the exhibition's centerpiece: a magnificent 1999 mixed-media canvas called Das Erdbeben in Chile(Earthquake in Chile). This gigantic work -- 12 feet, 2 inches tall by 40 feet wide -- is an explosion of shapes, colors, and textures, and it seems to be a culmination of everything Stella is seeking in his smoke-ring paintings. And to get the full effect of what the artist has pulled off here, you need to make a side trip to the Pavilion Gallery, where you can see the 5-foot-by-20-foot paper collage that is the piece's genesis.

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