When the American art critic Clement Greenberg (1909-1994) stated in 1959 that a good work of art could be captured in one glance, the artist Frank Stella (1936) came up with the ultimate elaboration of this ideal. He made a series Black paintings, which stood out for their simplicity and lack of drama: they were lines on black surfaces. Stella turned the art world upside down, was seen as the ultimate minimalist and summed up her work as “what you see is what you see”.
It’s an unusual sight these days: we now know that everyone has their own point of view – and if you look around you see that everything is colored, as K. Schippers wrote in the same period that Stella theorized about the neutrality of black . But what about the lack of drama? How universal is the lack of drama in a painting made up entirely of lines?
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Those who watch the Morocco series that Stella made in the mid-1960s will be inclined to confirm that the removal of drama increases the chance of something universal. Stella abstracted to the extreme: only colors remained. A city in Morocco – Stella captured her image of, among others, Marrakech, Fez, Meknès and Rabat – can actually be portrayed without any kind of drama. Take for example Marrakesh (1964), consisting of nothing more than fluorescent red and yellow lines working together toward the center. You see what you see, and there is something dramatic about a center – although in theory it is always possible to think about the drama of the center (that it should not be to the side, the center which is often deepest). about the pressured rising interest that always goes out to the center), but that’s not what Stella is about, it’s all interpretation. Stella became the master of abstract minimalism precisely because of the lack of need to hide drama in it.
That lack of drama does not increase the universality of a work is shown by the French-Moroccan artist Yto Barrada (1971), whose first solo exhibition in the Netherlands can now be seen in the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. She replied to Stella in 2020 with Four times Casablanca (Casablanca was the Moroccan city Stella had forgotten). On the first Casablanca canvas, she also works towards a turning point. Where Stella worked with industrial paints, Barrada chose natural products such as cotton and paints from plant extracts. The result is that the material brings drama: the lines are just not quite straight and the background is not an even gray either, as if the whole is an uneven road to the middle. Because the canvas looks less industrial than Stella’s, it is emphasized that it is not a neutral surface, but that there is a story attached to it.
Barrada gives Morocco back its drama with its use of material
Barrada – who also uses his films and photos to capture modern Morocco, and who founded the Cinémathèque de Tanger in 2006, the first art house and cultural center in North Africa – questions Stella’s abstraction. How is it possible that his work can be seen as the ultimate expression of abstract art, when these forms and structures have been present in Islamic art for centuries, she wonders. A good question, the answer to which is: lack of knowledge about cultures other than Western. According to Barrada himself, the answer is “cultural appropriation.”
Lack of empathy
Barrada’s background is therefore completely different from Stella’s – in her earlier work she did not look for abstraction, but she always wanted to show more than the image and make the viewer aware of what cannot be seen directly and the obvious.
In her photo project The strait (1998), for example, she investigated the Strait of Gibraltar. The narrow waterway is the border between Morocco and Europe, and in addition to being an escape route for many a grave. With the latest installation Tangier Island Wall (2022) Barrada will also show more than meets the eye: it is a project about an island off the US state of Virginia that is disappearing into the sea due to climate change.
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Lack of empathy and imagination has disastrous consequences, Barrada shows. It makes it interesting that she is doing something with the drama-free Stella, who depicted the country Barrada grew up in with colored stripes. With the natural material, Barrada not only gives Morocco back its drama, she also reinterprets Western art history. In this way, she elevates the originality of abstraction in visual art and in an effort she puts Stella’s work in a different light.
After Stella is the name of the series that Barrada created – meaning both ‘inspired by’ and ‘after’ Stella. Casablanca comes in similar stripes, but in gray and white, on other canvases she lets the colors fade. Remarkably, the center of the painting After Stella, Sunrise II, (2020) now actually at the bottom. In this work, Barrada also associates color – as she often does – with the passage of time: color represents aging and decay. And as befits any color, even fluorescent, they fade with age. It may well be that Barrada is only concerned with the passage of time, but consciously or not she also pales Stella in her reinterpretation of the story.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper on 10 November 2022