A MAGICIAN RISKS diminishing the effect of a trick by letting the audience in on how it was done. Not so for an artist. At least not Frank Stella, whose work is currently on view at the Walker in a new show that charts the 30-year collaboration between the celebrated artist and master printmaker Kenneth Tyler, the centerpiece of which is a dissection of Stella's innovative printing process.
I'd call Frank Stella at Tyler Graphics a fabulous success, and although curator Siri Engberg is sometimes less than courageous in her arguments about the prints' conceptual aspects, she should be praised for putting together a dazzling collection of work in a smart, accessible format. Most of all, she should be praised for having the insight to focus not just on Stella's results, but also on his creative process. The show begins with an account of how Stella became interested in printmaking. Rooting around the studio for ideas, he stumbled upon a board that had been used as backing while cutting metal for one of his sculptures. He liked the patterns, which repeated many of the shapes in his sculpture, and on a whim he decided to swath the board with ink and make a print. Though perhaps not impressive in its own right, the experiment helped Stella realize that printing wasn't just an arcane carving or etching process developed in the middle ages as a substitute for painting. It was as inclusive as one wanted: from a tire track on the road, to an inked sculpture rolled onto paper, to Tammy Faye Bakker's face bumping into your new white T-shirt.
Tammy's mug never finds its way into Stella's work, but almost everything else does. Some of the more intriguing elements of his repertoire are construction fences, cast aluminum molds of forklift tracks, and computer-enhanced images of the artist's own contoured, high tech, cigar-smoke swirls. Other elements, like whirlpools and interlocking rings or enlarged, asteroid-shaped dots, originate from Stella's previous work or from the printing process itself, producing in the works an intriguing conceptual edge.
If the curator's efforts fall short, it is here, in her explanations of Stella's conceptualism. For example, Engberg notes that Stella became aware that he wanted to "make prints about printmaking," but she doesn't explain what this could mean for his overall program. It is curious that Stella would make prints at all when many of the same effects are possible in far easier and less expensive media like collage, which Stella uses for his studies. The viewer will have to decide whether the expressive possibilities of collage are drastically superseded by those of printmaking, as both are available for inspection in this show. I don't think they are, and so I am forced to conclude that the simple fact that these are prints figures largely in their meaning. The quick and decisive impact that characterizes printing certainly relates to a desire to eliminate, or at least fundamentally alter, the status of gesture in abstract art. It also, perhaps, enhances a sense of temporal and spatial unity in Stella's image. Both of these are topics of concern to the artist in previous work.
The energy of Stella's difficult bricolage is fueled not just by his conceptual ambitions, but also by his collaborator, Kenneth Tyler, who, along with his staff, printed Stella's creations. Tyler apparently could not say no to Stella's eccentric--and to a printmaker, perhaps even lunatic--ideas; this is printmaking as rock climbing, taken on not despite its difficulties, but because of them.
As the print Engberg chose for a case study shows, no level of complexity was out of the question: The printing plate for Juam includes several hundred individually milled and irregularly shaped aluminum pieces, each of which had to be inked separately with one of more than a hundred colors and then assembled jigsaw-style for the final (that is each final) print. The inking process for one of these requires a full day's work from a dozen or so printmakers. It is a tribute to the complexity of the printing plate that many visitors mistake it for Stella's chef d'oeuvre.
The irony, of course, is that the months of work end in an instantaneous thump, as 5,000 pounds come crashing down onto a thick sheet of handmade paper, squeezing the translucent ink and stamping Stella's image not so much on but into the fibers of the paper. Afterward, Tyler and an assistant carefully peel the paper from the sticky plate, and the image is revealed. The result is not just a print, but a print that asks us to rethink the status of the medium--and perhaps even the nature of abstract art.
Frank Stella at Tyler Graphics runs through Aug. 24; call 375-7577.