Painted in 1964 Frank Stella's Abajo proclaimed painting's continuing relevance despite the challenges from Pop Art and Minimalist reductive tendencies. One of a series of seven works constituting the Running V portfolio--most of which are in major museum collections, among them the Museum of Modern Art and the Musée des Arts Moderne, Centre Pompidou it also represents an assertion of Modernist aesthetics amidst artists' explorations of what making a painting could mean for their time. With Abajo, Stella makes a powerful argument for the continuation of painting's primacy. As he had in his art-world-shattering Black Paintings of 1959, which appeared for the first time in the Museum of Modern Art's Sixteen Americans show, Stella depicts a sequence of twenty-seven "traveling" bands. These stripes or bands follow the shape and directional force of their support, while the shimmering metallic painted surface reflects the almost breathtaking contour of their 'V'-shaped trajectory, in hairpin twists and turns as the bands careen, swoop and catapult the length of the shaped canvas. Manually measuring and executing each line, which produced such destabilizing optical effects, Stella engaged in a process of handwork that left little trace of gestural expressionistic marks, reduced as they are to the seemingly perfunctory execution of matte, mechanical-looking stripes and bands, forcing to the fore the concept behind the work. And yet Stella conceived this work in the European tradition of painting. "The paintings[are] still dealing basically with the problems that painting or making art always has" (F. Stella, in taped interview with Bruce Glaser, "New Nihilism or New Art," reproduced in J. Meyer, Minimalism: Art and Polemics in the Sixties, New Haven and London, 2001, p. 91).
Seeing Jasper Johns' now iconic Flag at the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1958 catalyzed Stella's fierce engagement with what he saw as the current problems of structure, form and the materiality of painting. His ambition and genius, fed by the geometries and repetitions of Johns' Flags and Targets, imploded the gestural and painterly expressivity of his immediate past and propelled him into an imaginative engagement with his present. As Stella remarked, "I walk on the roads built by others" (F. Stella, "The Dutch Savannah," Working Space: The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures 1983-84, Cambridge, MA and London, 1986, p. 15). The early 1960s were a time when artists were turning to the simple organization of factory-produced geometric forms and away from the polemics of Modernism, which vaunted Stella's intention, physical involvement and the evacuation of illusionistic associations. The same year that Stella had created Abajo, he participated in the 1964 exhibition Eleven Artists, along with Donald Judd, Dan Flavin (who organized the exhibition) and Sol Le Witt. Stella's striped works had seemed emblematic of the other artists' reductive work, and Stella had stamped this period with his now-legendary aphorism, "What you see is what you see." Stella's precept described a sensibility "wherein the work of art was supposed to reveal nothing other than its constitutive unaltered materials and explicit mode of construction" (M. Gough, "Frank Stella Is a Constructivist," October, Vol. 119, Winter, 2007, p. 98). Abajo parallels these artists' involvements with symmetrical division, repetition and seriality--all characteristics that were associated with the processes of minimalism--and proclaims its material surface using a variations of the motif 'V' in geometric repetitions of the stripe patterns that would create a unified, all-over surface, a wholeness, while minimizing, but not entirely excising, painterly gesture or modeling through light and shade. By painting the stripes and edges with precision, Stella systematically explores the implications of serial geometries, in this case alternating painted bands with lines created by leaving raw canvas exposed. The sense of a mechanical drawing writ large demonstrates Stella's transformation of a conceptual diagram into a blazing work of art, the relationship of an idea to its transformation into a "corporeal presence" (W. Rubin, Frank Stella, New York, 1970, p. 79). "I think you're born with a particular sense of structure and you can't really change it. My sense of how things go together, of what constitutes equilibrium, stays the same-as, for example, the way I put things edge-to-edge, point-to-point. If you look carefully at works as different as the Exotic Birds and the Running V stripe pictures, you'll see that the Vs relate edge-to-edge and point-to-point in a similar way. Although it looks very different, it's the same sensibility" (F. Stella, in W. Rubin, ibid., 1970, p. 79).
However, Stella's work should not be understood through Minimalist rhetoric, which sought to proclaim the end of traditional painting and the ascendancy of the "specific object." With Abajo among others from Stella's early 1960s body of work, the artist reasserted his identity as a painter and his practice as fixed within the tradition of painting. Rather than subverting the Western painting tradition, Stella extended it into the present, conceiving his stripe paintings as non-traditional responses to composition, shape, edge, and facture. These responses or explorations--the working and reworking out of "problems"--would lead naturally, in Stella's formulation, to iterations and seriality of the sort we see elaborated in Abajo and the entire range of paintings constituting the series Running V. Stella insisted, however, that what he was involved in was not systematic modular repetition in the manner of Judd and Flavin. "[Minimal artists] picked up the simplest things that were going on in painting. [They] just scanned the organization of painting and made sculpture out of it. It was a bad reading of painting; they really didn't get much of what the painting was about" (F. Stella, in W. Rubin, Frank Stella, New York, 1970, p. 70). Stella's goal, then, was to make a painting in which the relationships between parts could be read as unified, but whose elements were contingent. We see this in Abajo, where Stella has created relationships not only between the shape of the canvas and the directional force field of running stripes, like a mechanical drawing extended infinitely, but also in the relationship between the sheen of metallic paint and the heightened sensation of movement, as if reflected light animated and propelled the lines forward.
An achievement of immense vitality, Abajo conveys a sense of the artist encountering, engaging and solving problems of form and content. An exuberant admixture of material exploration and kinetic buoyancy, Abjajo is as exhilarating as it is uncompromising, an artistic expression of extraordinary passion and commitment to the notion of intentionality. "There is an inviolable autonomy to art, which offers its creators a sensationthat the artist experiences as the first and only necessary viewer; it occurs in the unrecoverable moment when the artist looks at what he has made and sees it as alive. This mechanism successfully accounts for what exists and what endures."