Frank Stella’s folding hat from Brazil

In the early 1990s, a special beach cap came into Frank Stella’s possession in Rio de Janeiro, and it had a characteristic that was significant regarding issues the artist was dealing with in his practice; issues rooted in the tradition of painting and oriented towards sculpture. However, the cap was, generally speaking, simply a flat piece of foam. Large parts of it had a number of spiral-shaped cuts which did not touch the centre of the spiral and its outer edges. Some segments of the foam had small cuts at the margins. Thus, the flat piece of material could be used as a sun shield for the eyes, by pulling it over one’s head. In order to be used as a beach cap, the spiral cuts allowed the necessary expansion of the flat surface into the three-dimensional space.

Frank Stella’s folding hat from Brazil

It is well known that Stella, already by the end of the 1950s when he was not much older than twenty, “pushed” the illusionism gradually off the two-dimensional image surface by way of his symmetrical band pictures. Subsequently, he concentrated on the idea of regarding the image as an object. He withdrew from a way of painting that served as a carrier for the expressive application of paint, a vehicle for evoking ideological worldviews, and he finally stated in 1964: “What you see is what you see”.

Frank Stella: Fez (2), 1964. Fluorescent alkyd on canvas, 195.6 x 195.6 cm. MoMA, New York

The painting-as-object was still one of Stella’s topics in the early 1990s. He created works that addressed the motif of the “wave”, thus the formation of water oscillating between tension and movement until it finally collapses or dies down. By using a photographic device, he also recorded the clouds of smoke that he was exhaling as a cigar smoker and subsequently manifested the shapes in 3D-computer graphics.

The Brazilian folding hat differs significantly from these two approaches, for it remains – despite its adaptability, turning from the flat surface into the three-dimensional – palpable as a physical object. From an art historical point of view, one might refer to Rodtschenko’s “Spatial Construction No. 10“ (see the respective literature on the artist). And in his own work, the Brazilian folding hat inspired Stella to move his practice further, from sculptural to rather architectural qualities. However, for me, the folding hat is also interesting as it constitutes an object with a specific history – discovered by Stella at Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro and utilized for his practice –  that adds a narrative and atmospheric element to the works created from the 1990s onwards. While the cigar-smoke works are connected with the artist and his (bad) habit and are thus in principle contradicting the myth of artists creating only what is already ingrained in their talent, ideological and cultural aspects were included in the folding hat from Brazil –  beyond formal elements. The reference to the hat evokes notions of otherness, perhaps even of exoticism, beyond the question whether these ideas could be verifiable, or if they had just existed in one’s imagination.

Frank Stella: The Broken Jug. A Comedy [D#3] (left handed version), 2007. Marine ply and pine, 475 x 515 x 360 cm.

However, Stella never excluded narrative or atmospheric approaches completely – before as well as after “What you see is what you see.“ At the beginning of his artistic career his works had titles that were inspired by Nazi-Germany, such as “work sets you free” (Arbeit macht frei) (1958) – which had been placed at the entrances to a number of Nazi concentration camps, or “Raise the Flag” (Die Fahne hoch!) (1959) the opening words of the “Horst Wessel Song” (used as the anthem of the Nazi Party from 1930 to 1945). One might regard these titles as a mere provocation, or, in case of “Raise the Flag” as a reference to Jasper Jones’ painting of the American flag, still, these titles add an unpleasant and uncanny taste to the works.

Frank Stella: Die Fahne hoch!, 1959. Enamel on canvas, 308.9 x 184.9 cm. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

From the 1980s the combination of abstraction and narration played an important role in Stella’s body of work, and he referred to Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” or the writings of Heinrich von Kleist. Associating narration with abstraction and the discussion of spatiality while taking traditional painting as a starting point, still appears to have great potential and relevance, and the tackling and discussion of this approach may still be worthwhile.

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