‘Painting as we know it begins with Caravaggio, because with him, painters started inventing their own space. I look for organizational motifs in painting. Space is one. Suggestion of space seems to be one of the natural ways to begin thinking about a painting’
‘I would consider that the best of the metal reliefs of recent years are superior to the finest paintings of the early sixties’
—W. RUBIN, 1987
‘No art is any good unless you can feel how it’s put together. By and large it’s the eye, the hand and if it’s any good, you feel the body. Most of the best stuff seems to be a complete gesture, the totality of the artist’s body; you can really lean on it’
Frank Stella’s Norisring belongs to the artist’s iconic series of paintings based on the twisting and turning topographical renderings of international motor racing circuits. Described in 1987 by the renowned MoMA curator William Rubin as the highpoint of the artist’s career to date, these dramatic and colourful paintings capture the energy and drama that is inherent in Stella’s later works. Following the dominance of Abstract Expressionism, Stella felt that a new painterly language was needed to reintroduce a sense of space back into art. ‘The crisis of abstraction’, the artist claimed, ‘followed from its having become mired in the sense of its own materiality, the sense that the materials of a painting could and should dictate its nature. That’s not enough, and the belief that it is was killing painting’ (F. Stella, quoted by W. Rubin, Frank Stella: 1970-1987, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1987, p. 73). Abstract compositions such as Norisring were his solution and resulted in a prolonged body of work in which he sought to create a viable new space, one that could compensate for what had been eradicated by the medium-orientated painters.
In the present work, Stella constructs a multi-layered conglomeration of chromatic snaking forms. These planes begin along the upper edge as geometric blocks adorned with daubs of fiery red, golden yellow and cool blue. Cut into these blocks are amorphous shapes which begin to introduce the sense of space that Stella felt was lacking. As the eye travels down the composition, it follows a series of complex twists and turns as the interlocking planes of riotous colour weave together into an intoxicating composition. Nestled into the one of the elements in the lower right corner is Stella’s signature, F. Stella ’83, making this a rare example of work that the artist signed on the front.
Although Stella sought to advance his practice from the tenets of earlier generations of abstract painters, parallels have been drawn between his work and that of Jackson Pollock. Both shared an ability to produce complex and multilayered compositions without dissolving into visual congestion. Indeed, both Stella and Pollock were able to retain a remarkable clarity in their work, allowing them to build up numerous intricate painterly layers whilst retaining a remarkable degree of openness that allowed each successive layer to play its part in the composition as a whole.
Norisring also questions the arbitrary distinctions between painting and sculpture. As Anne Temkin writes, ‘The magnesium support was constructed in a factory according to Stella’s instructions, which called for extravagant, serpentine shapes such as arabesques, curlicues, and curvilinear forms resembling G clefs to be cut from sheets of metal. Welded and bolted together, these shapes create a dense jungle of interweaving, multilayered forms that tease the viewer’s perception of depth through subtle interplays of positive and negative space. Once the completed structure arrived in his studio, Stella used a wide range of materials and techniques to enliven the factory-fresh surfaces with exuberant, neonlike hues’ (A. Temkin (ed.), Twentieth Century Painting and Sculpture in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia 2000, p. 135).
This particular painting takes its name from the famous motor racing street circuit in Nuremberg. Stella had been a long standing fan of motor sport and it first began to appear in his work as early as 1960 when he named an abstract painting after a Spanish Ferrari driver who was killed in a high-speed race three years earlier. The high octane excitement and degree of risk involved in motor racing appealed to Stella, who recognised the aesthetic possibilities of the hairpin turns and twisting chicanes for his own metal reliefs. The artist began his Circuit series in 1980 and over the next few years produced a series of elaborate, painted constructions named after international racetracks.
William Rubin, the Director of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York between 1968 and 1988, organized a major exhibition of Stella’s work in 1987 and found much to celebrate, suggesting that works such as Norisring were among the artist’s most accomplished. ‘Stella’s endurance faces many challenges’, he wrote in the catalogue, ‘not least of which is the quality of his own past. In the interim, he has more than met that test. Indeed, though it smacks of comparing apples and oranges, I would consider that the best of the metal reliefs of recent years are superior to the finest paintings of the early sixties. 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. Certainly no painter has ever committed himself more completely in the quest to make it better’ (W. Rubin, Frank Stella: 1970-1987, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1987, p. 149).