“GIVEN THE FINE ARTS, architecture, painting, and sculpture, I feel caught in the middle,” Frank Stella said recently. For anyone with a passing knowledge of the work he has made over the course of the past fifty years, the statement is hardly surprising; for anyone who has kept up in the past fifteen, neither is the comment that followed: “Now I can’t stop thinking about architecture.” The oddity comes with what Stella said next: “I can only blame the pursuit of abstraction.”

It may seem a little unfair, in order to decipher this last remark, to begin years ago and worlds away, with the “Black Paintings.” Has any other artist’s early work ever so thoroughly conditioned his subsequent reception? But Stella’s “pursuit” did commence circa 1958 with those allover bands of black derived from support and frame, each subsequent canvas delivering a fresh blow to the flat picture plane’s promise of spatial illusionism and, in turn, exemplifying the high modernism whose critical articulation coincided with their making. “What you see is what you see” telegraphed how tautologically his odyssey began: For him, abstract painting was its own justification, intrinsically worthy. To hear Stella now describe his architectural forays as another stop on a quixotically ongoing crusade toward abstraction sounds peculiar, and maybe a little self-indulgent. Architecture is perhaps the least autonomous of all media, demanding collaboration, viability, use, habitation—is it even possible to conceive of its practice in the absence of these things, as an activity valid in and of itself?

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