Frank Stella at the Haunch of Venison Gallery
Some of my earliest memories are of being brought around vast, white-walled gallery spaces. I remember antagonising my parents, because I couldn’t imagine anything possibly being more boring. At some stage in my teens I came to to take pleasure from these visits; one unmarked day roughly between the ages of twelve and fifteen, I must have even decided to go of my own free will. In hindsight, then, I came to appreciate my parents’ insistence that we went to see art whenever we travelled or had the opportunity. It felt like I had subconsciously absorbed something during the many hours spent with art works. The experiences having been gently ripening in a cellar of my brain, I was now primed for whatever modern abstractions or fusty figurations the white walls could throw at me. I would like to think that, more than being purely down to the wisdom of hindsight, this says something fundamental about the nature of viewing art. To butcher a line from Dylan, something is always happening, even if you don’t know, or can’t put into words, what it is.
At Haunch of Venison to see Frank Stella on the show’s closing day on Saturday, I knew something was happening. Through the short passage that leads into the first room, you could see only a segment of the immense Basra Gate I 1968. I held back to gain the full benefit of expectation. It was like walking into the room with Miro’s jaw-dropping triptych at the Tate this summer, without the element of surprise. I’m sure this argument has been hashed and re-hashed, but the experience of standing in front of such a monolithic object must have anthropological links with the most ancient religious experience. What are you going to say to this, spanning 6 by 3 metres in front of you?
If you want to follow suit with the art world (and judging by what I’ve read of him, Frank Stella himself), you could locate the meaning of the work in its originality, in its being an example of that persistent modernist psychology whose aim was to perform clever formal nutmegs of predeccessors or contemporaries. (In the competitive artistic ferment of New York in the early 60s, it’s easy to imagine the impish pleasure to be derived from saying, as Stella did, that a picture is “a flat surface with paint on it - nothing more”). Or you could see, as the show’s curators do, each work as an expression of themes that run and recur in hugely diverse ways throughout his career. But putting these perfectly valid avenues of interpretation aside so that I can make a virtue of my own ignorance, it is also worth noting that it is the sheerly inexpressible, inchoate power of these works that makes them universally, categorically, worthwhile.
I left the Haunch slightly dazed and aware of something approaching sensory over-capacitation, but clueless as to what I could say about the works when I went to write about them. It wasn’t until the next morning, after a night of intense dreams, that I knew at least I could say something – about their monolithic objectivity, their hypnotic rhythms, the way they both draw you in and repel you, the way following the gradient of Lettre Sur Les Aveugles II 1974 to the pale edges made me feel a vivid sense of visual nausea – but first and foremost, that not being able to immediately verbiate any response whatsoever to works of art isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Your conscious brain mightn’t tell, but time will.