"Can we learn from the past? My answer is yes," said Frank Stella, an artist who has been hailed for breaking with the past, including his own.
And he didn't mean learn just from the recent past, either. He meant the past of Manet and Daubigny in the 19th century, and even the past of Caravaggio and Correggio centuries before that.
In town to inaugurate Goucher College's 1991-1992 visiting professor series sponsored by his friends, the collectors Robert and Jane Meyerhoff, Mr. Stella yesterday afternoon gave himself briefly but intensely to a double interview. At 55, one of the best-known painters of our time, he spoke quickly, energetically, nervously, leaving the impression that he does everything with intensity.
He intended to talk about the past in his scheduled lecture last night, he said. But not just to dwell on the past -- rather to see how it can help cure the ills of painting now. "Painting has been compromised by other things in the visual arts that are tangential but have been popular, such as installations, performance art, conceptual art. All that has diluted the effect of painting." As a result, "painting has a hard time going on. How do you breathe life into the pigmented object?"
The past can help, he indicated. But what he didn't mean by looking to the past was an advocacy of a return to figurative art; he is a staunch champion of abstract art and believes in its future.
"Not because of its own merits but because of the demerits of all its competitors. It's still the best and most interesting idea of the 20th century, even if the results are not so good. But we know how hard it is. All of the easy and obvious paths are used up now and artists are thrown back on their own resources and it's hard."
An abstract artist himself, his early paintings of three decades ago were first vilified and then praised as a departure from then-dominant abstract expressionism into a purer, more minimalist abstraction.
Then, in more recent work, though he retained abstraction, he incorporated some of the elements of traditional painting he had earlier left out, such as three-dimensional space and art historical references. It is possible to see in what art historian William Rubin calls Stella's later "maximalist" phase a rejection of some of his ideas of the earlier "minimalist" phase; but Stella doesn't agree.
"I have no sense of conflict. Things change and grow. I had a structure I was able to build on. I'm not looking for change, but for the best kind of art I can make. You keep on doing and making choices and the change is pretty gradual."
So he emphasizes the continuity of his work; but at the same time, he makes his making of art sound a more spontaneous process than one might think. From all that has been written about it, one might get the idea that his work comes out of a theory about where art ought to go next. But he denies that. "No, that [the theory] comes after the fact. The process of making [art] is moment to moment, looking for something to happen, making a whole out of a fragment of existence."
Thus, then, the artist's own history is like the whole of art history, a succession of bits and pieces that, when you get far enough away from them, add up to something surprisingly coherent.