Although Boston may now be host to the narrative of Frances Stark’s work, currently the subject of a 20-year retrospective at MIT’s List Visual Arts Center, it is her hometown of Los Angeles that has the opportunity to hearken a story of her own devising: an exhibition at the Hammer that is as devastatingly concise as a Lydia Davis story and as inspired in its collision of caricature and realism as Gogol. Invited by curator Allegra Pesenti to present works from the Grunwald Collection of prints, drawings, engravings, and photographs, Stark selected forty-six images that sample from over five centuries of artworks, from Mike Kelley to William Hogarth, Castiglione to Egon Schiele. Arranged in sequence around the perimeter of the Hammer’s nave-like gallery, they coax viewers into tracing a quicksilver fil rouge through the works. Formal affinities warp into existential epigraphs or become footnotes to romantic vignettes. For instance, a trio of engravings by the sixteenth-century German printmaker Hans Sebald Beham depict “Genius,” “Victory,” and “Melancholia,” like the three stages to a Gide-esque tale of getting what you thought you wanted, while in another montage, images of various couples read like scenes from Mamet’s sexual dramas. Narrative associations here eclipse stylistic discontinuities, collapsing the aesthetic or temporal distance between the works, and making Stark’s anachronic selection seem not a question of Baudelairian correspondences or Warburgian nachleben—both of which would be fashionable directions in our current context of “curatorial” artistic practices—but of tales and our predilection for imagining and reciting them wherever we can.
Though the exhibition text describes Stark’s compilation as a “visual essay on the sexes,” the result is too formally and conceptually occupied with the story arc to seem properly essayistic. If the depiction of the sexes occupies its center, it seems only insofar as the loves and losses, identifications and jealousies, puerile play and profound longings of a life story might center on sex and the sexes. Perhaps nowhere in this compact show does Stark reveal this life story as forcefully as in its final gasps: the concluding images, where a Degas etching and drypoint (On Stage, 1876)—in which the center ground (or stage) has been rubbed out, along with its star ballerina, leaving only an incandescent void—leads into a late drawing by Agnes Martin (Untitled from the Untitled Suite, 1998), whose quavering flatlines evoke a blank composition page, the end of a story as well as the ground for its beginning. The true mark of Stark’s mastery is that this conclusion seems simultaneously operatic and muffled, a quality due both to the artist’s fine sense for narrative timing and to the character of the works she selected. For apart from a few more obscure names, most of the artists represented in Stark’s selection play significant roles in the grand production of art history, where their production is rigidly scripted. Nevertheless, by organizing their works to evoke intimate tales of sex and love, Stark uncovers the curious existences of the images themselves, so close to how we might imagine our own lives: Drawn from a collection of some 45,000 works, the chosen ones appear to strive for connection and meaning among odd bedfellows, each image aspiring to tell a story about itself.