Frank Stella re-mediates Moby-Dick

December 28, 2011

The numbers speak for themselves.   Begun in 1985, the Moby-Dick series is still ongoing, with one or more artworks corresponding to each of the 135 chapter titles, over 300 of them at this point.  They are mostly mixed-media installations – metal reliefs, prints, sculptures, and a mural – made of canvas, plywood, fiber, aluminum sheets, stainless steel, and other industrial scrap found in junk yards.

These abstract artworks are not “about” Moby Dick in any obvious way.  There is no direct correspondence between the thematics of the novel and these convex shapes, these concentric curves or angled lines.   And yet, as Roberta Smith writes in the New York Times: the voluminous shapes do “sweep and tumble, dive and breach,” suggesting the hydraulics of waves and the movement of currents, reminding us (as Melville has already done) that more than two thirds of the terrestrial globe is covered by oceans, and that oceans are always in motion, always interconnected.

Moby-Dick is “global,” and not only because of its references to Shakespeare, to the King James Bible.   Its worldliness is built into its aquatic ontology, a phenomenal field Frank Stella embraces.  And the far-flung dispersal of his artworks in turn anchors that phenomenal field to an institutional map that can only be a world map.  As Robert K. Wallace details in his essay “Circumnavigating the Globe with Frank Stella’s Moby-Dick,” to be on the trail of these very public artworks is to make one’s way to Australia and Japan, as well as to Zurich, Basel, Dresden, Luxembourg, Brussels.   It is to move away, to some extent, from metropolitan centers such as New York (though MOMA did have a full-scale retrospective in 1987), and travel to smaller museums in Naoshima, Kochi, and Kitakyushu, all of which happened to have acquired Frank Stella pieces.

Nor is this all.   Quite often, in the background of these works are geometric patterns inspired by Chinese latticework, Japanese wood-block prints, and Islamic decorative arts.  Stella was thinking about the ghazal form as he developed his “Near East Series” while working on Moby-Dick, and being intensely aware, at the same time, of the input of artisans, wage earners who labor with their hands, who make up the warp and woof of the world.  Melville would have approved.

About wcd2

Professor of English and American Studies
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