CAMBRIDGE--It was a very good year.
In 1958, Frank Stella turned 22 and graduated from Princeton. The art world, which had been so intoxicated for a decade with the heroic swipes and drips of Abstract Expressionism, was developing a bleary-eyed hangover. It was the morning after, and all the grandstanding, the authorial egotism, and the extravagant gestures of the long night before were beginning to seem, in the light of day, a little stale.
''Frank Stella 1958" at Harvard's Arthur M. Sackler Museum tears one page out of the great tome that is the history of modern art and illuminates a single moment with audacity and relish. This year in the paintings of a daring young artist captures his nascent vision coalescing from a cauldron of influences. The exhibition, organized by Harry Cooper, curator of modern art, and doctoral candidate Megan R. Luke, utilizes these early works of Stella's to chart his growth and to witness the pivotal moment when Abstract Expressionism gave way to Minimalism.
The show ends with two works from Stella's seminal ''Black Series," which led uber-critic Clement Greenberg to reconsider what constitutes a painting and paved the way for Stella's powerful 1960s aesthetic: He came to work in series, following carefully laid-out plans, creating works with repeating patterns painted in bands with crisp edges. Put together, these constituted a fervent retort to Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, and Willem de Kooning. Near-mechanical, formulaic serial production undermined long-cherished values of originality and authorship.
Up until the ''Black Series" paintings, none of the pieces in this show (there are 21 paintings, collages, and assemblages; he made 37 works that year) were made serially. Not all the works are great; some are even unfinished. It doesn't matter: By increments, they illustrate Stella's evolution and his struggles. Cooper and Luke have grouped them into natural pairs and trios, presaging the series work to come.
They are shockingly, wittily painterly, dribbling and misting and soaking over and into the canvas. ''Tundra," painted before Stella graduated from Princeton and decamped to New York, sets what looks like a barred window against a field of mottled silver gray that is clearly an homage to Mark Rothko. But look at that barred window: black bands against a beige ground. Already, stripes were at the center of Stella's imagination.
Two assemblages seem utterly out of character, but typical of their time. What 22-year-old artist wouldn't dabble in the forms of his elders? One untitled assemblage, dappled with paint and pasted over with strips of newspapers, clearly echoes the work of Robert Rauschenberg. Collages such as the red-and-pink-striped ''Them Apples" and an untitled partner that both mirrors and inverts elements of ''Them Apples" like an evil twin owe a debt to Jasper Johns.
Most of the paintings sport horizontal stripes; many feature a block or door shape in the middle, interrupting the flow of striation. These take off from Johns's ''Flag" (1954-55). Each has its own fascination: Bars that should correspond on either side of a box don't; squares with vertical ghosts above them appear to slide down the canvas.
The artist experimented with texture, light, and optical effects. Look at the pair ''Coney Island" and ''Grape Island" (Stella, who grew up in Malden, named the latter for the Boston Harbor Island). Both sport bands of yellow and red, with a square planted in the middle. In ''Coney Island," the colors are brightly primary, the matte paint evenly applied. The central block sits on one red bar, but tops out just beneath another one, giving it an unnerving feeling of displacement. ''Grape Island," in contrast, features glossy enamel paint, and the red is the color of dried blood; the box sits squarely anchored between two red bars.
Stella's paintings from 1958 grapple with a crucial argument of the 1960s that may confuse many: the distinction between a painting and an object. After all, a painting is an object, right? In art terms, no. The painting is the pigment on the surface of the canvas. It doesn't have three-dimensional value.
An ''object," in art-speak, is something we relate to physically -- like a sculpture. Minimalists, who reveled in planes and shape and volume, were giddy as schoolgirls about the sheer physical presence of objects.
Johns also confronted the dichotomy; his works had a boxy, material presence. In 1958, Stella was building massive canvases stretched on blocky pieces of wood. They don't merely hang on the wall; they project three inches off of it. Interestingly, Luke writes in her catalog essay, Stella's intent in projecting the image farther from the wall was to emphasize its surface. He may have become a Minimalist, but he has always been, first and foremost, a painter.
The stripe paintings led to striped monochromes, painted over other colors and shapes -- columns float just beneath the surface of ''Blue Horizon" and the yellow ''Astoria." Red and green peak between the bars of ''Blue Horizon." Even ''Delta," one of two works Stella has called his ''first" ''Black" painting, reveals an undercoat. Red, and to a lesser extent green, shine in the crevices between the bars of the chevron pattern, painted in alternating matte and glossy bars of black.
''Delta" still shows painterly, authorial traces of the artist's hand -- the pattern is uneven and imperfect. ''Morro Castle," his other first ''Black" painting, appears more systematized and symmetrical, with pale velvety pinstripes between the black bars of back-to-back, squared-off, concentric U's. It looks like a radical leap: lean, plotted out, nearly mechanical. But not quite, not yet -- the symmetry is an optical illusion; the outer pinstripes actually zigzag into one another, rather than reflect each other.
By the following year, Stella was making purely symmetrical works in perfect metallic tones on cut canvases, knocking the art world off its feet. While he might argue that nothing is completely original, the pressure cooker of 1958 had clarified Stella's vision into a fresh, distinctive, and new chapter in the history of painting.