Frank Stella’s Pilica II

Frank Stella, Pilica II, 1973. Mixed media assemblage on wood, 110 3/4 x 94 3/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1974.

In a recent Spotlight Tour about Frank Stella’s Pilica II (1973), I was conflicted between Stella’s minimalism and the desire to define what was in front of me. Like we do with clouds passing by, it is human nature to want to assign a specific label to abstract shapes occurring in both nature and art. Other viewers at the talk struggled to determine which artistic medium Pilica II fits into. Is it a sculpture? Bas-relief? Stella’s own description “mixed media assemblage on wood” seemed too vague to accept.

Stella’s talent lies in his ability to convey an emotion or idea without a concrete image, challenging us to appreciate solely his shapes, colors, and structure. It is interesting to me that although Stella’s work is flat and smooth, it is at the same time dynamic, layered, and depicts an element of movement. The scatter of unconventional shapes seems like a violent deconstruction of a structure once stable, especially with its clashing colors and materials. I recognize that stability is being annihilated in Pilica II through the creams, browns, and neutral colors, whereas I perceive violent qualities in the bold reds, blues, and blacks.

Though it is unclear at first glance what image Stella is trying to give his viewers, the work’s title and context offers some insight to this sense of bedlam. Pilica is a village in Poland, and the piece is a part of Stella’s 1970s Polish Village Series. This series was inspired by a book published in English in 1959, Wooden Synagogues, which features photographs of large synagogues destroyed during the Nazi occupation of Poland and Russia. While Stella does not offer his audience a tangible image, I believe the subject of Pilica II  lies in the emotional responses it is keyed to elicit: devastation, anger, and fear.

Rachel Milkovich, Marketing Intern

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