Minimalism and Meaning-Making: The Self-Referentialism of Frank Stella’s Black Paintings

Written by Erin Havens
Edited by Gabby Marcuzzie Herie

“No artist understood the far-reaching implications of abstraction better than Frank Stella. For Stella, Greenberg’s claims about self-referentiality and flatness of the painted surface as a circumscribed plane posed a problem to be systematically solved.”[i]

– Marc C. Taylor

“We believe that we can find the end, and that a painting can be finished. The Abstract Expressionists always felt the painting’s being finished was very problematical. We’d more readily say that our paintings were finished and say, well, it’s either a failure or it’s not, instead of saying, well, maybe it’s not really finished.[ii]

– Frank Stella

In 1959, Frank Stella unveiled his Black Paintings series at the Museum of Modern Art. Rejecting the tendencies du jour of Abstract Expressionism, Stella shocked and bewildered both critics and viewers with the bleak, repetitive systems of his Black Paintings. Catapulting him to notoriety, Stella’s Black Paintings effectively primed the stage for the Minimalist movement to emerge in the 1960s, and Stella’s influence would subsequently extend to the generation of postmodern painters in the decades following his early career.

Trading spontaneous expression for a mechanical affair, Stella’s calculated Black Paintings effectively derailed every heave, smack, and shove of Abstract Expressionism and redirected art practice toward intellectualism and the sublime.[iii] While the Abstract Expressionists, influenced by the Surrealists, sought to represent notions of the human experience — “not just dreams, or immediate perceptions, but also… anguish, hope, alienation, physical sensations, suffering, unconscious imagery, passion”[iv] — Stella sought to create a work that was completely detached from human experience and emotion. Clearly, Stella was directly at odds with the dominant and popular assertion of the Abstract Expressionists, who stressed that genuine art was an emotional and immediate product of expression from the creative individual.[v]

Figure 1 Frank Stella. The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, II. Enamel on canvas, 308.9 × 184.9 cm, 1959. The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY.

It is unsurprising, then, how the Black Paintings were met in 1959 with bewilderment from viewers and scorn from art critics.[vi] Robert Rosenblum, for example, suggested that the paintings were borne of an emptiness now devoid of “emotional fervor and visual complexity” containing only “impersonality, regularity, and evenness.”[vii] Another art critic, Deborah Solomon, even described the works as “anti-van Goghs” — clearly, visual references to bowls of fruit or “sun-dappled” harbors are nowhere to be found.[viii] Indeed, Stella’s creations are a notable departure from the free strokes of Abstract Expressionism, with the artist’s mechanical and repetitive systems comprised of straightforward and severe black stripes on each respective canvas. Where the Abstract Expressionist painters sought to draw and express with paint, Stella and the emergent Minimalists, in the words of Caroline Jones, “merely transfer the paint from container to surface, with as minimal interference as possible.”[ix]

Each of the Black Paintings consists of a right-angled, geometric series of white lines, reacting against a black canvas and always composing a rectangle. Unvarying and lacking in gesture, the two-inch-wide black sections were derived from the width of their stretchers.[x] The slivers of canvas left between the bands were also created out of structural necessity, and as David Hopkins describes, echo “the framing structures of the supports and [form] centrifugal or centripetal ‘ripples’.”[xi] Each painting, therefore, is a reflection of the canvas and as Stella insists, nothing more; the viewer is taunted with his now-famous maxim, “what you see is what you see.”[xii]

In fact, one would be hard-pressed to find any ambiguity in the artist’s intentions, as Stella frequently offered clarifications of his work. His first volume of writings was already in print at the time of the Black Paintings’ unveiling,[xiii] and a series of interviews was on the way. Stella was unabashed about his cerebral intentions for the Black Paintings, which were meant to reconsider and question the nature of art as the immediate and individual creative expression of the artist.  Ultimately, within the hypnotic, repetitive tabula rasa of his Black Paintings, Stella expresses an internal logic which is deduced, ironically, from the very nature of the artworks themselves as objects. As he famously declared: “My painting is based on the fact that only what can be seen there is there. It really is an object. . . All I want anyone to get out of my paintings, and all I ever get out of them, is the fact that you can see the whole idea without any confusion… What you see is what you see.”[xiv]

Surely, the artist is racing toward his goal of presenting his Black Paintings, such as The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, II (1959, fig. 1) and Die Fahne hoch! (1959, fig. 3), as self-contained, autonomous objects. However, it is impossible to reduce Stella’s work to a simplistic denial of meaning.

Figure 2 Hollis Frampton, The Secret World of Frank Stella [painting Getty Tomb, unpublished print], 1958–1962, printed 1991, gelatin silver print, Addison Gallery of Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts (gift of Marion Faller, Addison Art Drive, 1991).
Stella’s Black Paintings reacted to Clement Greenberg’s Modernist theories about the self-referentiality of the painting’s surface and its nature “as a circumscribed” plane.[xv] It can be argued that Stella’s black paintings intended to bring the critic’s ideology of formal self-containment to its ultimate “deadpan” conclusion.[xvi] Rather than a simplistic denial of meaning, Stella’s work should be considered a displacement of it.To draw on semiotics, with Stella’s Black Paintings, one finds a destabilization of the signifier or sign-vehicle, defined by Charles Sanders Pierce as “a mark, a token… [that] refer[s] to an object.”[xvii] There is also a destabilization of the entire sign, conceived by Saussure as the composite of the signified or interpretant, defined as the “thought… to which the sign gives rise”, and the signifier or sign-vehicle. The entire sign is likewise destabilized in these paintings: the sign was conceived by Saussure as the composite of the signified or interpretant, which in turn isdefined as the “thought… to which the sign gives rise,”[xviii]

Here, my claim is similar to that of poststructuralist Jean Baudrillard. The self-referencing nature of Stella’s work parallels Baudrillard’s theory of a devolution in which a circular relationship between sign and sign-vehicle becomes increasingly empty of meaning until the signifier ultimately becomes its own simulacrum, a “means of concealing the absence of reality.”[xix], [xx] An important distinction, however, is Stella’s insistence that meaning is not denied, but rather transferred to the surface of the object: what you see is what you see.

To explain this effect, I draw on French poststructuralist Louis Marin’s description of painting as an “open system of reading”[xxi] where, at its most basic level, “the trajectory of the viewer’s gaze” will detect new differences in pictorial articulation (or its visual composition as opposed to its verbal articulation) in each successive reading.[xxii] Marin’s system proposes that meaning is derived through a series of layers in which the viewer continually makes associations. According to Marin, a new dimension of painting is opened up at a secondary level of reading, on the basis of the primary, where pictorial elements become “associated with an unlimited potential of figures ‘in absentia’”[xxiii] which allows the viewer to enter a third dimension of pictorial codes or cultural space. However, the self-referentialism and autonomy of Stella’s work reject any association with figures “in absentia” and therefore, in reading the painting, the viewer finds a fracturing of Marin’s system beyond the second dimension of pictorial space. In other words, through the hypnotic lines of Stella’s Black Paintings, which meet in the center of every work, Stella inverts the semiotic process itself. The signifier is thus firmly attached to its meaning and to the signified as they collapse and become identical. This quality anticipated and later characterized Minimalism, a movement which has been traced to this very series of paintings.

Yet, following the works of linguist Louis Hjelmslev, Marin asserts that the meaning of a painting hinges upon the apparent gulf between painting-object and its verbal articulation.[xxiv] More simply, he believed that “the world of signifieds is nothing but the one of language” and that painting itself was not a language, but a makeup of pictorial codes. Meaning is bridged by “the indissociability of the visible and the namable as a source of meaning;”[xxv] in other words, meaning lies in the inseparability of what can be seen of the artwork and its verbal translation. Meaning, therefore, is constituted by an interpretative dimension within the contextual reality. Here, articulation is permitted, and the painting becomes a signifying whole. So, despite Stella’s insistence, the viewer may step outside the painting-object’s inverted autonomy and then place it within a contextual (cultural) system, where it will hold meaning outside of the physical object itself. The meaning remains dependent on the fundamental nature of the object, which is based on its self-referentialism.

Figure 3 Frank Stella. Die Fahne hoch!. Enamel on canvas, 308.9 × 184.9 cm, 1959. The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY.

Despite further insistence from Stella, contextual meaning is especially unavoidable given his paradoxical, cryptic titles. In the case of Die Fahne hoch!, for example, the title, which translates to “Hoist the Flag!,” is the opening line of Horst Wessel Lied, the marching anthem of the Nazi Party and which also doubles as a nod to Jasper Johns’ 1955 work, Flag.[xxvi] Indeed, the dark, utilitarian, and commanding nature of this painting and its title, coupled with the similar content and title of the entire Black Paintings series gives reason to argue that his paintings “encoded a fascination with fascistic forms of domination.”[xxvii]

However, given Stella’s residency in New York City and some very probable references within the titles to local jazz hangouts and a trans club in Harlem, his work is generally read as referencing mid-century New York’s so-called “seamier side.”[xxix] As art historian Brenda Richardson notes, “Stella loved jazz and went to nightclubs and bars for both music and socializing; the artist says the atmosphere of some of these clubs reminded him of the pre-Nazi, German cabaret scene with its particularly bizarre mentality.” Given these contextual realities, one finds reason to question Stella’s level of emotional investment in his pieces, which would be at odds with their stated purpose – that what you see is what you see.

In fact, as art historians such as Richardson, David Hopkins, and Robert Hobbs have each pointed out, the titles of each of the twenty-three paintings in Stella’s Black Paintings series can be interpreted as referencing the series’ namesake color. Richardson, for example, argued that “for Stella to call the titles ‘downbeat’ is clearly an understatement,” going on to note: “Death and especially suicide are prevalent references in the titles [of the Black Paintings]. The names of three paintings incorporate Nazi references. Four titles derive from major disasters. Several names come from song titles with unusually depressing subject matter. Several others are named for “black and deviate” nightclubs (in (William] Rubin’s words).”[xxx]

Figure 4 Hollis Frampton, The Secret World of Frank Stella, 1958–1962, printed 1984, black-and-white photograph, Walker Art Center, © Estate of Hollis Frampton.

Clearly, Stella’s titles aren’t arbitrary, and their references contrast his conceptual intentions. Hobbs, in acknowledging the effect of titles in the series as, more often than not, sources of misinterpretation, at least suggests Stella’s logic for doing so. Unlike the Abstract Expressionists, Stella rejected “nonobjective titles as ‘untitled’ together with numbers,” instead favouring “clearly distinct labels and names… for distinguishing individual works.” [xxxi] Hobbs goes on to mention how “[Stella] was not consistent in the choice of titles for his first group of works, since he named them for buildings as well as places in New York City with personal associations for him.[xxxii] Ultimately, Stella’s works are not neutral or transparent, but can rather be constitutive of something — however ambiguously — as they are placed within a viewer’s interpretation and its relative contextual reality of representation.

A bleak desperation is embedded throughout the Black Paintings: in their blackness, their titles, their attempted self-sufficiency, and the artist’s need to repeatedly, even desperately, insist upon the intended meaning of his works through interviews and published texts. Tension exists because, though the work is meant to be simple and flat, it will never reach the level of idealized transparency and autonomy that was envisioned as its ultimate intention. Perhaps non-intuitively, Stella’s Black Paintings depart from this goal as his work becomes increasingly desperate to achieve it, even regardless of how much Stella insists upon his own works’ autonomy and object-hood. We can relate Stella’s Black Paintings to Immanuel Kant’s familiar notion of “art for art’s sake:” in insisting upon the work’s self-referentiality, focus is transferred from the artwork, referring beyond itself, to the concept of itself. If true art is truly just about art, Stella’s self-referential Black Paintings are the ideal. Indeed, to understand the Black Paintings, it is necessary to interrogate the process of meaning-making in relation to paintings as objects in their complexity, in their self-reflexivity, and with their underpinning desire — “what you see is what you see.”



[i] Mark C. Taylor, “Paper Trails,” Confidence Games: Money and Markets in a World Without Redemption (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 41.

[ii] Frank Stella as quoted by David Galenson, “New York from Marin to Minimalism,” Painting Outside the Lines: Patterns of Creativity in Modern Art  (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), 135.

[iii] Deborah Solomon, “Frank Stella’s Expressionist Phase,” The New York Times Magazine, 2003, sec. 2.; Robert Hobbs, “Frank Stella, Then and Now,” Frank Stella: Recent Work, (Singapore: Singapore Tyler Print Institute, 2002), 26.

[iv] David W. Galenson, “New York from Marin to Minimalism,” Painting Outside the Lines: Patterns of Creativity in Modern Art  (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), 119.

[v] Taylor, “Paper Trails,” 41.

[vi] Adam Weinberg, “Audio Guide Stop for Frank Stella, Die Fahne Hoch!, 1959,” The Whitney Museum of American Art, n.d., Artists?play_id=488.; Jenna C. Moss, “Frank Stella: The Metallic Gallery,” The Color of Industry: Frank Stella, Donald Judd, and Andy Warhol (2007), CUREJ College Undergraduate Research Electronic Journal, College of Art and Science, University of Pennsylvania, http://repository., 11.

[vii] Moss, “Frank Stella: The Metallic Gallery,” 11.

[viii] Solomon, “Frank Stella’s Expressionist Phase,” sec. 2.

[ix] Caroline Jones, quoted in Moss, “Frank Stella: The Metallic Gallery,” 8.

[x] David Hopkins, “Modernism in Retreat: Minimalist Aesthetics and Beyond,” After Modern Art 1945-2000. Oxford History of Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 133.

[xi] Hopkins, “Modernism in Retreat,” 133.

[xii] For example, in Die Fahne’s hoch!’s object label, The Whitney Museum of American Art.

[xiii] Moss, “Frank Stella: The Metallic Gallery,” 11.

[xiv] Bruce Glaser, “Questions to Stella and Judd,” interview by Bruce Glaser,” Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, ed. Gregory Battcock, (University of California Press, 1966), < >, 6.

[xv] Taylor, “Paper Trails,” 41.

[xvi] Glaser, “Questions to Stella and Judd,” 6.

[xvii] James Hoopes, ed, Peirce on Signs: Writings on Semiotic by Charles Sanders Peirce (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 239.

[xviii] Hoopes, Peirce on Signs, 12.

[xix] Jean Baudrillard, “The Precession of Simulacra,” Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representations, Vol. 1 (New York: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1983).

[xx] According to Baudrillard, it is a system in which (in Saussurean terms) the signifier is a reflection of basic reality > the signifier is a masker and perverter of basic reality > the signifier is a masker of the absence of a basic reality > and finally, the signifier becomes its own pure simulacrum, with no relation to any reality.

[xxi] Louis Marin, quoted in Winfried Nöth, “Painting” in the Handbook of Semiotics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), sec 3.2.

[xxii] Winfried Noth, “Aesthetics,” in the Handbook of Semiotics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990, sec. 3.2.

[xxiii] Louis Marin, quoted in Noth, “Painting,” sec. 3.2 5.

[xxiv] Noth, “Painting,” sec. 3.2.

[xxv] Louis Marin, quoted in Noth, “Painting,” sec. 3.2.

[xxvi] Hopkins, “Modernism in Retreat,” 135.

[xxvii] Hopkins, “Modernism in Retreat,” 135.

[xxviii] Hopkins, “Modernism in Retreat,” 135.

[xxix] Hopkins, “Modernism in Retreat,” 135.

[xxx] Brenda Richardson, quoted in Robert Hobbs, “Frank Stella, Then and Now,” in Frank Stella: Recent Work (Singapore: Singapore Tyler Print Institute, 2002), 17.

[xxxi] Hobbs, “Frank Stella, Then and Now,” 17.

[xxxii] Hobbs, “Frank Stella, Then and Now,” 17.

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