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Stella: deservedly prominent, still controversial. 17 years' work shown in major exhibition

FRANK Stella has been a prominent and controversial figure in American art ever since his first New York exhibition in 1959 at the age of 23. In 1970, roughly a decade later, the Museum of Modern Art here considered him of sufficient importance to warrant a retrospective. And today, 17 years after that original retrospective, the Modern is once again honoring him with a major exhibition of his work. ``Frank Stella: 1979-1987'' picks up where the earlier show left off. Its 38 large and colorful abstract paintings, many of them in the form of cutouts executed in various materials, were selected by William Rubin from those produced by Stella since 1970. Included are examples from the many series - beginning with ``Polish Village'' and ending with the current series in progress, ``Waves'' - that the artist has produced over the past 17 years. Both the exhibition and its catalog were made possible by PaineWebber Group Inc.

Few exhibitions by a living artist at mid-career have been awaited with as much curiosity and speculation as this one, primarily because it is seen as a test of Stella's staying power, his ability to hold his own against his younger European and American contemporaries. In addition, the word's been out for some time now that he's had his day, that his dramatic career recovery of the mid-1970s that involved the more freewheeling work with which he's been associated for the past decade, has run its course. And that he is now once again floundering, that he's once again ``painted himself into a corner.''

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I must admit, based on the large number of huge, seemingly mass-produced Stellas I've recently seen in New York and in other areas of the United States, that I was beginning to entertain some of those thoughts myself. No one, I felt, could turn out so many overblown, and in some cases, only tentatively resolved, paintings without losing something in the process. And so I approached this exhibition with some trepidation, hoping that it would leave me with a positive reaction, but prepared, nevertheless, to be personally and professionally disappointed.

I need not have worried. His most recent things, especially those executed over the past two or three years, suggest that he's once again cleaning up his act, consolidating his resources, and setting off to be even better than he's been before. Such pieces as ``Loomings, 3X'' (1986) and ``The Lamp, 3X'' (1987) are marvelously elegant and compact, and suggest that a new and creatively fertile period has begun. Not only do these works avoid the labyrinthian complexities - one is tempted to say the clutter - of so much of his production of the mid- to late 1970s and very early 1980s, they also appear to have brought color back into focus for him as an integrative rather than as a dispersive force.

It appears from this - and from photographs of paper maquettes for a still unnamed series which appear in the exhibition catalog - that Stella is entering a period of greater focus and ``contraction,'' of creative distillation, if you will, after what's been a rather wild and woolly decade of dynamic and often exuberant expansiveness. The photographs, in particular, indicate that we are about to see more consciously elegant and lyrical work coming from his studio than we have for quite a while, work that is apparently concerned less with the game of fashioning art about art (as has so often been the case with Stella and the other artists of his generation), than it is with embodying and articulating some of the subtler and more difficult-to-define areas of human reality and experience.

In all, I agree with Mr. Rubin's statement in the exhibition catalog: ``At the age of 51, Stella seems to me more inspired and to be living more dangerously than at 33, his age at the time of his first Museum of Modern Art retrospective. ... Indeed, though it smacks of comparing apples and oranges, I would consider that the best of the metal reliefs of recent years are superior even to the finest paintings of the early '60s. And with the prospect of decades of development lying ahead, one can imagine that there is still greater and more unexpected work yet to come.''

I've always been intrigued by the fact that, over the years, almost as much interest has been expressed in what Stella was about to do as in what he had already accomplished. Being a success at 23 and an art-world superstar at 26 may have had something to do with it, but I suspect it derives more directly from something peculiarly ``alive'' and even high-spirited in his work.

Both as a youngster turning out startlingly severe paintings consisting only of black stripes separated by slim margins of bare canvas, and as a world-famous painter in his 40s executing huge and incredibly complex compositions, we've always somehow wondered - even while we were enjoying his latest creations - about what he would produce ``when he grew up.''

There have been moments when I've even suspected him of being a brilliant con artist or a master magician always promising more than he can produce. And yet, the hard evidence of his art - even at its most garish and contrived - has always dispelled that notion. To study and to know his work in depth is to respect it and its intentions - if not necessarily always to like it.

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After its closing at the Museum of Modern Art, this important and challenging exhibition travels to Amsterdam and Paris before extended showings in Minneapolis, Houston, and Los Angeles in late 1988 and early '89.

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