Collections> Browse Frank Stella

Collections> Browse Frank Stella

Frank Stella
Holdings (357)
2 paintings, 2 sculptures, 332 edition prints/proofs, 15 preparatory materials for works on paper, 2 posters, 3 , 1 costume

Wikipedia About Frank Stella

Frank Stella (born May 12, 1936) is an Italian American painter and printmaker, significant in the art movements of minimalism and post-painterly abstraction. Full Wikipedia Article

essay Frank Stella, Walker Art Center Collections, 2005

Frank Stella emerged as part of a generation of American artists challenging the established style of postwar Abstract Expressionism. In his earliest work, he de-emphasized painterly gesture in favor of an exploration of materials and architecturally inspired, flat geometric forms. The Black Paintings, for which he first gained recognition—and notoriety—in the late 1950s, soon catapulted the young artist into the canon of modernist painting. When they were shown in New York at the Museum of Modern Art’s Sixteen Americans exhibition in 1959, the shaped stretchers and unmodulated, rectilinear black bands interspersed with “pinstripes” of raw canvas were received as a flippant affront to the heroics of the Abstract Expressionists. And it was: Stella’s Pollock-like use of house paint, applied to bare canvas on a mural scale, was no accident. While the New York School artists had embraced such notions as automatism and the impassioned immediacy of paint put to canvas, Stella’s work by contrast appeared cool, calculated, almost mathematical in its precision. His self-stated goal “to do something about relational painting, i.e., the balancing of the various parts of the painting with and against each other” with “symmetry—making it the same all over” and with attention to color density, which could force “illusionistic space out of the painting at constant intervals by using a regulated pattern.”1 These groundbreaking works are widely considered to have ushered in the 1960s movement of Minimalism.

Throughout his career, Stella has made paintings in series, arriving at a solution of “what to paint and how to paint it,” and exploring the possibilities of that particular problem in a number of variations before moving on to the next idea.2 By 1962, the artist had begun his fifth cycle of works, which he called the Concentric Squares and Mitered Mazes.3 Pictorially, these were more complex than any of the paintings that had come before. The majority share the same square format and the essential design of either a series of progressively larger squares radiating from the center of the canvas, or a “maze” made by adding diagonal lines drawn from the exterior corners of the painting to the center band.

Sketch Les Indes Galantes (1962)4 is from the latter group, and is painted in grisaille. It was originally intended to be one half of a diptych, a pendant to a colored version of the design, an idea that was abandoned.5 The painting has a strong optical quality, its high-contrast darks and lights creating a sense of movement, or “meander,” as Stella characterizes it. His idea was that the viewer’s eye “started from one edge of the canvas and ended up in the center … the traveling of the color and the progression of the color is what was really important” as was “the flatness of the terrain.”6 As he had with his Black Paintings, Stella again separated the bands of paint in the Concentric Squares and Mitered Mazes series by leaving bare strips between them. He has explained that key to this work was “the notion of painting on raw canvas,” and what most interested him was “the medium and its relationship to the canvas itself—to the surface it was working on.”7 Like his earlier works, Sketch Les Indes Galantes is made with house paint, which he found to be a practical and pedestrian complement to his design formula.

By the end of the 1960s, Stella had made seven more paintings series. The last of these was the Protractor series—made between 1967 and 1969, and mostly named after Near Eastern and Islamic cities with circular plans—which marked a culmination of his investigations into shape and surface pattern. The series introduced an increasingly complex color palette of pastels and fluorescents, as well as the first curves—varying patterns of half-circles—to be seen in his work. In every way, these paintings exploded the scale of Stella’s earlier series and were his most architectural. At twenty-five feet in length, Damascus Gate Stretch Variation (1968) is among the largest and most aggressively horizontal of these canvases. The complex interweaving of the semicircles shows Stella’s fascination with ornamentation in art and architecture,8 as well as his well-documented admiration for Henri Matisse. In 1970, he told curator William Rubin, “My main interest has been to make what is popularly called decorative painting truly viable in unequivocal abstract terms… . I would like to combine the abandon and indulgence of Matisse’s Dance with the overall strength and sheer formal inspiration of a picture like his Moroccans… . Maybe this is beyond abstract painting … but that’s where I’d like my painting to go.”9

The 1970s saw a dramatic transition in Stella’s work from a minimalist aesthetic to a more expressionistic one. He began to move beyond simple paint and canvas toward the creation of painted wall constructions in wood and various metals. His technique at this time became one of collage, and the building of a surface through form and heightened color. As the work became more structurally intricate, his imagery continued to gain in complexity, with each series borrowing elements from the one that preceded it. It was also at this time that he became increasingly involved with printmaking, a practice that would begin to influence his work in all media. His prints made since 1974 in collaboration with master printer Kenneth Tyler at the workshop Tyler Graphics Ltd. are housed as a complete archive at the Walker Art Center.10

By the late 1980s and early 1990s, the artist’s additive process had resulted in a practice that allowed full parity between painting, sculpture, and printmaking. Loomings 3X (1986), a sculptural wall relief, is part of a large program of works in a variety of media related to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Combining honeycomb aluminum (from his sculptures) that has been etched (like his printing plates), then painted on (like his earlier wall reliefs), the work is an amalgam of Stella’s techniques. Certain allusions to his earlier practice are also metaphoric: he sees the central ribbonlike form as a brushstroke, pushed from the picture plane.11 The maquette for this work was made by first creating a three-dimensional paper construction, a practice he had also been using by that point in his printmaking. His prints of the 1990s, many of them also based on the Moby Dick theme, were “built,” as Stella describes them, by making collages of discarded proofs, then dissecting and re-creating the collages as elaborate matrices of etched and shaped metal printing plates. These were then printed using multiple techniques in myriad colors—arguably some of the most complex printmaking ever conceived—to explosive effect.

As Stella’s work has become, as he calls it, increasingly “baroque,” his prints, paintings, and sculptural works have begun to share the same templates, many of which are drawn from his industrial collaborators: engravers, foundries, and other commercial fabricators. At first glance, his recent work conjures images of pure fantasy. The aggressive supermarket colors, dynamic shapes, and interstices of sculptural line form an energized abstraction quite unlike anything that has preceded it. Of his most recent paintings, he says, “The canvas, by the time I’m through, is gone. The paint takes over.”12 The title of one of his most recent series, Imaginary Places, further alludes to a kind of fantastical composition. But the pictorial origins of the recent work can be traced back to surprising derivations that are not only entirely consistent with Stella’s practice so far, but also a natural continuation of it, part of the cumulative vocabulary of imagery he has translated across all the media in which he works.

  1. These remarks were part of a now-famous address to art students at the Pratt Institute, New York, in 1960. Transcript of the lecture text reprinted in Brenda Richardson, Frank Stella: The Black Paintings, exh. cat. (Baltimore: Baltimore Museum of Art, 1970), 78.

  2. Ibid. “There are two problems in painting,” Stella said in his Pratt lecture. “One is to find out what painting is and the other is to find out how to make a painting. The first is learning something and the second is making something.”

  3. The series that preceded the Concentric Squares and Mitered Mazes were the Black Paintings (1959–1969), the Aluminum series (1960), the Copper series (1960–1961), and the Benjamin Moore series (1961).

  4. The title of this work refers to an opera-ballet, first performed in 1735, by composer Jean-Philippe Rameau. Stella has described the composition as “a Frenchman’s idea of the new world.” He was interested in the “ordered sense” of Rameau’s harpsichord music, and liked the way the painting’s high-contrast palette alluded to the instrument’s keyboard. Stella, interview with Martin Friedman, February 22, 1982 (transcript, Walker Art Center Archives).

  5. Whereas the paintings in his previous series had been monochrome, this series was the first in which Stella investigated a multicolored palette in some of the canvases, using either six colors (the primary colors and their secondaries) or painting the bands in varying values of gray.

  6. Quoted in Calvin Tomkins, “Profiles: The Space Around Real Things,” New Yorker 60, no. 30, September 10, 1984, 84.

  7. Stella, interview with the author, Mount Kisco, New York, July 9, 1996 (transcript, Walker Art Center Archives).

  8. Stella’s senior thesis at Princeton had been on the decorative tradition of Hiberno-Saxon manuscript illumination. He was also influenced by his travels, particularly a 1963 trip to Iran. In 1984 Stella recounted: “The trip was a very big experience for me… . There’s all that interlacing, or interweaving … things doubling back on themselves, like snakes swallowing their tails. This came out in the Protractor pictures.” Tomkins, 84.

  9. Quoted in William S. Rubin, Frank Stella, exh. cat. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1970), 149.

  10. For a full discussion of Stella’s printmaking development and his more than thirty-year collaboration with Kenneth Tyler, see Siri Engberg, Frank Stella at Tyler Graphics, exh. cat. (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1997).

  11. Stella, conversation with Martin Friedman, February 1987, in Martin Friedman, ed., Walker Art Center: Painting and Sculpture from the Collection (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center; New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1990), 501.

  12. Stella, interview with the author, 1996.

Engberg, Siri. “Frank Stella.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center

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