Fragmenting the painted surface into a matrix of interlocking, weaving, curving planes, Frank Stella’s The Chart, 1990-1992, tumbles together the lessons of painting, printmaking and sculpture into a fantastical, exuberant unity. Over the tangle of metal sheets, Stella stencils, sprays, and scribbles his design, creating a vibrant mesh of geometrical abstraction and sinuous suggestion of form. Titled after the forty-fourth chapter of Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, this work belongs to Stella’s celebrated series of the same name, in which the artist takes Melville’s text as his motif, structure and inspiration to develop an ambitious suite of some 200 metal reliefs, prints and sculptures. The triumphant culmination of years of technical experimentation, The Chart finds its equivalents in distinguished museum collections worldwide, including The Whiteness of the Whale, 1987, at the Whitney, New York; The Chase. Third Day, 1989, at the SFMOMA, San Francisco; and The Lamp, 1986, at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.
Stella’s homage to Melville’s text recalls the earlier allegiance between myth and the art of the Abstract Expressionists. Jackson Pollock, in his early, semi-abstract paintings, also invoked Blue (Moby Dick), 1943, as well as The She-Wolf, 1943 and Enchanted Forest, 1947. Mark Rothko, too, saw himself as belonging to ‘a small band of Myth Makers who emerged here during the war’ (M. Rothko, quoted in A. Chave, Mark Rothko: Subjects in Abstraction, New Haven 1989, p. 91). For the Abstract Expressionists, the turn to mythology was a yearning for lost universal consciousness, a nostalgic impulse at a time of conflict and crisis. Melville’s Moby-Dick, 1851 – the tale of an obsessive, all-encompassing and finally-destructive quest for a single white whale – is America’s most authentic epic myth, and Stella’s Moby-Dick series borrows the cardinal power of this archaic, archetypal motif.
Yet Stella’s engagement with the text – as seen in his naming of works such The Chart after the novel’s chapters – is more committed than that of his predecessors. Seeking neither to invoke the general spirit of the book, nor to illustrate its events literally, the artist instead summons up the novel’s hybrid structure. Unusually for a work of its time, Moby-Dick is a radically inclusive text, incorporating scientific digression, anatomical investigation and industrial explanation into its narrative. Its juxtaposed, fractured style suggests its proximity to Stella’s work: the artist commented that he wanted his series to create ‘a particular impression which is our time’s version of Melville’ (F. Stella, quoted in R. K. Wallace, Frank Stella’s Moby-Dick: Words & Shapes, New York 2006, p. 33). The chaos of Moby-Dick, its deliberate melding of accepted genres, is reflected in The Chart, whose flyaway forms reach out into the liminal space between painting and sculpture. Each of its writhing, curving elements is fabricated after Stella’s maquettes; some are inspired by the fanciful and exotic detritus of the workshop, others – like the ornamental forms to the right of the work, based on turn-of-the-century illustrations of rain gutters – recur across the series, each time differently placed. Yet despite Stella’s continued commitment to abstraction, almost despite itself, The Chart begins to reveal figurative elements: rippling aluminium waves topped with Day-Glo foam, a flicking, neon fishtail, and, rising from the centre of this polychrome tempest, the arresting, blunt-headed silhouette of a single white whale.
These semi-figural glimpses, for Stella, is what abstract art lost in abandoning illusionism: the artist delighted in the effect, calling it ‘catching everyday associations, recognisable sparks of life’ (F. Stella, Working Space, Cambridge 1986, p. 98). Instead, in his blending and welding together of forms, both preconceived and improvisational, Stella referred to Wassily Kandinsky’s system of composition, where narrative fragments are carried from painting to painting, placed interspersed among more spontaneous forms. ‘It is unlikely that recent abstract painting can move ahead without considering the lessons of fluid structure evinced in Kandinsky’s later works, especially in his paintings of the late thirties,’ Stella wrote, acknowledging the influence of the earlier master of abstraction (F. Stella, quoted in Kandisnky, exh. cat., Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1984). In The Chart, these Kandinskian methods of composition find their apotheosis in Stella’s bold positioning of disparate forms, which, despite their fluent unity, retain both a jangling, dynamic tension, and the elusive suggestion of narrative play.
In 1987, writing in the catalogue of Stella’s retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, William Rubin gave his impression of the still-nascent Moby-Dick series: ‘Standing amid the dozens of paper models… during a recent visit to Stella’s studio, I could not but be overwhelmed by the sheer profusion of his ideas, and the immense outpouring of energy on which they ride’. Going on to predict the ambition and innovation of these works, the curator wrote that ‘there is still greater and more unexpected work yet to come’ (W. Rubin, Frank Stella 1970-1987, exh. cat., MOMA, New York, 1987, p. 149). A vivid collage of unpredictable form, rich in allusion and complex in execution, The Chart is an exceptional tribute from one American master to another, as Stella recalls the chaos and energy of a unique American novel.