…Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off — then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can…
Our fieldwork sometimes removes us from the flow of news. We do not really try to keep up, or catch up, except on topics that particularly interest us. Whales are one of those topics. In an almost completely unrelated way, so is Moby Dick. We fish around when there is time, and on occasion it leads to a finding like this one: Frank Stella’s extended journey capturing Moby Dick, in tangible, visually acute abstraction. The Guardian‘s archives are among those fisheries we are fond of, and for an example why click the image above to go to an article reviewing the book Stella published some years ago about his Moby Dick series. When an artist shares his vision and perspective verbally, we appreciate it (since many artists seem reluctant to do this):
Stella describes his Moby Dick series as a kind of tribute to those Captain Ahabs, the abstract expressionists. “They’re still the generation I admire. This is paying my debt, or not so much paying my debt as expressing my admiration for the abstract expressionist generation that I grew up with and that I admired the most, and that I still admire.” Moby Dick, Ahab’s doomed pursuit of the mystical image of the great white whale, was a touchstone for the abstract expressionist painters. Jackson Pollock named at least one painting after the novel and intended to give its name to his classic early work Pasiphae, then switched to something from Greek myth because his patron Peggy Guggenheim didn’t like the Melville reference. Pollock’s sense of space is absolutely suggested by Melville, and the rolling, wild wave forms of Stella’s Moby Dick – inspired by observing beluga whales swimming in the New York aquarium – are very Pollock.
In the Moby Dick series, Stella sees himself challenging the deepest assumptions of modern art with a new understanding of what abstraction can do: “Abstraction in the 20th century is dependent on cubism, which is arranging planes in space, but the planes are arranged in a kind of stiff and geometric kind of way. Once the planes begin to bend and curve and deform then you get into what happens in Moby Dick – it’s a way of opening things up for abstraction.”
Abstractions can be, among other things, good reminders. In this case, Stella’s images and words about them provide the impetus: it seems high time to explore again.