frank stella

In the world of American art, Frank Stella remains one of the most significant living American artists because of his perennial insistence on emphasizing his artworks as objects unto themselves, rather than as representations of any specific subject matter.

In this way, Stella is truly one of the most modern of painters, going beyond the abstract expressionism that was becoming popular at the time he began working, into creative territory that until relatively recently was nearly uncharted in the United States.

Formal Beginnings

Stella was born in 1936 in Malden, Massachusetts to an upper-middle-class family. He attended Philips Andover, one of the most prestigious prep schools in the U.S., followed by undergraduate studies at Princeton University in New Jersey, where he associated with abstract painter Darby Bannard and future art critic Michael Fried. While attending Princeton, Stella regularly visited New York art galleries where he was able to see in person the works of the most famous abstract expressionists and other modern painters of his day. Upon graduation in 1958, he moved to New York City and soon began creating large-scale monochromatic works of abstract, minimalist art.

As William Rubin, a curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in the 1970s and 1980s, explained, Stella’s work fit in with a generation of painters who came after the abstract expressionists, but before or concurrent with the movement we identify today as Pop Art.

“The dominant direction since the heyday of abstract expressionism had not been abstract painting,” stated Rubin. “There were, however, a small group of painters that came along in the later 1950s and early 1960s that created an abstract painting of equal force and equal power to that of the best of abstract expressionism, but which is very different in character. Its posture is not romantic; its method is not improvisational. It’s a kind of more classical, more controlled art that, in a certain sense, reacted against the action-conception of abstract expressionism and against what by the late 1950s had come to be a great deal of very bad painting made in abstract expressionism’s name.”

An Innovative Style

Like his stylistic predecessor Barnett Newman, Stella consciously sought to emphasize the two-dimensionality of his artwork; he consciously wanted it to appear visually flat and lacking influences of European painting. Unlike the work of most abstract expressionists like Franz Kline or Jackson Pollack, many of Stella’s earliest pieces are clean and geometric. He belongs to an original school of painters who developed entire “systems” of painting — sets of rules and methods they followed meticulously when creating series of works. In Stella’s case, the rules were typically rigid and unbreakable, resulting in pieces that were aesthetically similar and establishing a style that spoke louder than any individual work. The lack of subject matter called attention to his creations and made them dissimilar from those of other modern painters at the time. This also had the effect of making his early work unpopular with many art critics. Said Stella about his output from this era:

All of the action would be on the surface; the idea was to keep the viewer from reading a painting. It seemed to me that you had to have some kind of way of addressing yourself to the viewer which wasn’t so much of an invitation as it was a presentation. In other words, I made something, and then it was available for people to look at. But it wasn’t an invitation for them to explore, and it wasn’t an invitation for them to read a record of what I had done exactly. In fact, I think one of the things you could say about my paintings, which I think is probably a good thing, [is that] it’s not immediately apparent how they’re done; you can say that it’s finely brushed or it’s sprayed or this, that and the other, but the first thing you do is see it, I think, and not see how it’s done. It’s not a particular record of anything; that may explain in some kind of way its unpopularity with the critics. When I say it makes it hard for the critics to write about, [I mean] there’s not that much for them to describe. First of all, it’s basically a simple situation visually, and the painting doesn’t do that much in conventional terms. [The critics] can’t explain to you how one part relates to another. Basically, what they’re after [with their criticism] is that it’s too easy for me, so, therefore, it couldn’t be any good.”

Major Recognition

Nonetheless, Stella’s work immediately caught the eye of avant-garde gallerists and museum curators. Before he was 25, Stella was included in two shows of notable new American artists, one at the Allen Art Museum at Oberlin College in 1959 and another at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1960. Later on in 1960, Stella began incorporating color into his pieces. He also started to experiment with canvases that weren’t rectangular; they took the form of polygons or shapes that were similar to the capital letters T, U, N and L. With the success of these works, Stella pushed this concept further and produced pieces that had holes in them or whose edges followed the forms of geometric shapes on the canvas.

“I began making little drawings and sketches. And in some of the sketches, I got involved with patterns that traveled. They would move and make a jog in them. And I had this kind of slightly shaped or notched format,” said Stella. “The more I looked at it, the more I liked it, and that’s the way I built the stretchers and painted the series. And that was the beginning, I guess, of shaping, for me at least. And I already had an idea for the kind of paint I wanted to use; I was interested in this metallic paint, particularly aluminum paint — something that would sort of seize the surface that would also probably be fairly repellent. I liked the idea of thinking about flatness and [the lack of] depth — that these would be very hard paintings to penetrate.”

Into 3D

As the 1960s progressed, Stella started to experiment with adding a third dimension to his work — not in terms of the paint, but in terms of the structure of his pieces. They began to resemble collages, with multiple layers pasted on top of one another and the frequent use of other materials like plywood and metal. In fact, beginning in 1973, Stella started to use aluminum for the framing and bases of all his works, and they began to look like sculptures more than traditional paintings. Stella also started to experiment with adding printmaking processes such as etching, screen printing and lithography to his work.

“I’ve always thought in terms of pictorial structure or organization. Later on, with the more eccentrically shaped pictures, color just became inevitable in a certain kind of way. If they weren’t multicolored, then they’d have to be monochromatic, and that would leave only a linear structure, and that’s not what those paintings were about; I mean, they weren’t conceived to be that way,” said Stella.

“[Critics] say there’s no suffering… there’s no feeling, there’s no questioning; I just keep doing it, and I don’t have troubled periods, I don’t have crises and anxiety and all of that that are documented on the canvas. There’s a tremendous assumption of artistic humility, which I didn’t seem to have — one, [I had] too much success, and also [I was] being essentially too smug about it in some kind of way. There’s nothing in descriptive terms for [critics] to say or to point out something that you the viewer might have missed if you were slightly untrained or not so used to looking at paintings.”

In 1970, the Museum of Modern Art held a retrospective of Stella, making him the youngest American artist to be accorded with such an honor. The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art had him create a logo for the museum’s centennial.

In the late 1970s, Stella began adding Day-Glo colors to his pieces as well as primitive, messy brushstrokes. His work began to take on a much more organic appearance. In 1978, Stella bought the Van Tassell and Kearney Horse Auction Mart building on 13th Street in New York City’s East Village, which he used as a painting studio until 2005. In 2012, this building was designated a city landmark.

Sculpture

During the 1980s, Stella began to create works that were a response to Herman Melville’s book Moby Dick. Many of these pieces featured architectural elements, such as columns, cones, arches and French curve-like shapes. Stella started using industrial tools and computers as well as assistants to expand small models of his works to a grand scale.

By the 1990s, Stella had graduated to making full-blown sculptures for public spaces and architectural projects. In 1993, he designed the decor for the Princess of Wales Theater in Toronto, which included a 10,000-square-foot mural. In 1997, he created a lobby and theater centerpiece project for the Moores Opera House at the University of Houston. The National Gallery of Art invited Stella to create a massive outdoor sculpture to sit outside its building in Washington, D.C. And in 2001, Stella conceived an aluminum bandshell for the city of Miami, which was built for the American Airlines Arena in the center of downtown and resembled a Brazilian folding hat.

As of 2018, Stella has had numerous major retrospectives of his paintings and sculptures shown in the United States, Europe and Japan. His work is in the collections of the National Gallery of Art, the Whitney Museum, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Portland Art Museum, the Hirshhorn Museum and the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas. He received a lifetime achievement award from the International Sculpture Center in Hamilton, New Jersey and was only the second artist after Auguste Rodin to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Jena in Germany. In 2009, President Obama awarded Stella the National Medal of Arts.

Reflections

Today, at the age of 82, Stella still lives and works in New York City and Newburgh, New York. Overall, he sees his work as quintessentially American. “The thing about Picasso being such a big figure — and particularly Picassoid cubism — was something that I just passed around,” says Stella. “I suppose largely owing to the example of Pollack. Both Pollack and [German-born American painter Hans] Hofmann seem to have… come to terms in some kind of concrete and accomplished way with what had happened with 20th-century modernism — with European painting. They established American painting as a kind of real thing for me… simply as something I had confidence in, something [in which] you didn’t have to go all the way back and worry about where I stood in relation to Matisse and Picasso; I could worry about where I stood in relation to Hofmann and Pollack.”

In the decades since his earliest shows, critics have come around to the notion that Stella is as groundbreaking and important a modern artist as any other that America has produced.

Epilogue

Major books about Frank Stella include Frank Stella: A Retrospective by Michael Auping (which incorporates an interview with Stella), published by Yale University Press in 2015; Frank Stella by Lucas Blalock, Kate Nesin and Andrianna Campbell, published by Phaidon in 2018; Frank Stella Unbound: Literature and Printmaking by Erica Cooke, Calvin Brown and Mitra Abbaspour, published by the Princeton University Art Museum in 2018; Frank Stella: Prints by Richard Axsom, published by the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation in 2016; Frank Stella: Paintings, 1958 to 1965 by Lawrence Rubin, published by Workman Publishing Company in 1986; Frank Stella 1970-1987 by William Stanley Rubin (a catalogue of Stella’s second retrospective show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art), published by Little, Brown in 1987; Frank Stella: Painting into Architecture by Paul Goldberger, published by the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2007; Frank Stella: Connections by Tom Hunt and Robert Hobbs, published by Hatje Cantz in 2012; Frank Stella 1958 by Megan Luke and Harry Cooper, published by Yale University Press in 2006; Frank Stella: An Illustrated Biography by Sidney Guberman (a personal friend of Stella’s for 40 years), published by Rizzoli in 1995; and Working Space (a look at the artist’s methods and perceptions) by Frank Stella himself, published by Harvard University Press in 1986.

A number of lectures, talks and interviews with Stella are viewable on YouTube. These include programs from Wisconsin Public Television, Art This Week, Anderson Ranch Arts Center, the Toledo Museum of Art, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation, the American Academy in Berlin, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art and Parsons School of Design. Stella also appears in the 2004 documentary What is Minimalism? The American Perspective 1958-1968 directed by Michael Blackwood, along with artists Donald Judd, Brice Marsden, Sol Lewitt, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Irwin, Carl Andre, Robert Morris, Tony Smith and Robert Ryman. The documentary is available to watch on Amazon Prime Video.

A 750-piece puzzle of Stella’s 1970 artwork Firuzabad is available on Amazon, as is eco-friendly fabric for textile projects printed in a circular pattern taken from a classic Stella “Protractor Series” painting. Amazon also sells framed prints of Stella’s circular painting Sinjerli Variation I and wooden plaques with a laser-engraved quote of Stella’s about architecture — “Architecture can’t fully represent the chaos and turmoil that are part of the human personality, but you need to put some of that turmoil into the architecture, or it isn’t real.”