Frank Stella

Frank Stella (born 1936), American painter, was one of the most dominant and influential figures in abstract painting during the 1960s through the 1990s.

Frank Stella was born in Malden, Massachusetts, on May 12, 1936. He attended the Phillips Academy in Andover (1950-1954), where he studied painting with Patrick Morgan. Stella graduated from Princeton University with a bachelor of arts degree in history in 1958. Because Princeton did not offer a degree in studio art, his development during these years was largely the result of self-teaching. However, he received important advice and encouragement from the painter Stephen Greene and the art historian William Seitz, both then teaching at Princeton.

Stella's first important group show was the Museum of Modern Art's "Sixteen Americans," held in 1959; this exhibition established him as one of the most radical young artists working in the United States. He instantly gained notoriety for his Black Paintings, a series of linear shapes and squares in various shades of black. A year later he had his first one-man show in New York City. Throughout the 1960s he exhibited regularly, and his work was included in numerous national and international group shows, the most important of which were the São Paulo Biennial and the Fogg Museum of Art's "Three American Painters," both held in 1965. His reputation and influence grew steadily, and in 1970 he was honored with a retrospective exhibition by the Museum of Modern Art.

From the time of his first one-man show, Stella's art revealed constant growth and change. Between 1958 and 1966 his primary concern was with shape—or, more precisely, with the relationship between the literal shape of a particular painting and the depicted shapes on the surface of the painting. Throughout most of this period his imagery consisted of slender bands of color that followed the outline of the literal shape of the picture support. But the supports themselves were shaped in a variety of ways, ranging from squares and rectangles to trapezoids, hexagons, and even zigzags. In pursuing this concern, Stella single-handedly liberated painting from its traditional formats.

A major accomplishment of Stella's concern with shape was realized in 1966 in a series of paintings called the "Irregular Polygons." In these he abandoned the imagery of stripes, choosing instead to create literal and depicted shapes of a wholly abstract variety. One of the great achievements of the "Irregular Polygons" was that they rendered shape purely pictorial—that is, their shapes were felt to belong exclusively to the medium of painting.

Beginning in 1967 Stella worked on a group of paintings known as the "Protractor Series." Their imagery consisted of sweeping arcs of brilliant color. They marked a new direction in his work; he seemed to be aligning himself more with the coloristic exuberance of Henri Matisse than with the structural austerity of Pablo Picasso.

Stella's style has always been in an evolutionary format. Art critic Carol Diehl wrote in ARTnews that "Stella, unlike others of his stature, uses his fame as a platform from which he takes the risk of failing. Even at his worst, he's interesting, and each new turn provokes speculation as to what he'll do next."

In 1970, at the age of 33, the Museum of Modern Art in New York gave Stella a retrospective. That same year, Stella introduced the "Polish Village" series, artwork made up of paper, felt, and painted canvas pasted on a stretched canvas. The series lasted until about 1974, and included shapes of wood and homosote, turning the collage into low-relief works. In 1975, he started the "Brazilian" constructions, first made of honeycomb aluminum. These were angular and linear, with hot colors. He followed this with the "Exotic Birds," sculptures of both low and high relief from aluminum shapes that often had colors smeared on them. In 1977, he expanded to the "Indian Birds" series, in which the aluminum shapes jutted outward from curved sections of heavy steel mesh.

This series eventually gave way to the "Circuit" series of 1981. These shapes were even more intricately interlaced than previous works, and full of glitter. The next year, the "Shards" series was introduced, composed of left over pieces of metal from previous works on a squared-off aluminum sheet. This series featured sparkling zigzags and miscellaneous shapes. Wooden dowels, wire mesh and perforated strips of metal appeared in his next series, called "Playskool," which Stella produced from 1982-83. The next year, he unveiled "Cones and Pillars"—rows of stripes in varying widths, almost resembling schematics in massive volume.

In 1986, Stella wrote a book, Working Space, which was based on a series of lectures he did at Harvard University. The following year, he held retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, displaying his works from 1970 through 1987.

Stella was very active in producing new works during the 1990s. His art literally continued expanding, including murals 100 feet to a full block long. He also produced abstract sculptures made of cast-plaster, Styrofoam, stainless steel, brass, and fiberglass. In 1990, he exhibited a block-long mural in Los Angeles for the Gas Company Tower in downtown. In 1993, his works became part of the architectural structure of the new Prince of Wales Theatre in Toronto. The lobbies on three floors and two grand stairwells contained nine computer-generated murals from Stella, three of which were more than 60 feet long. The fluid, dreamy patterns on the dome of the theater were designed by photo-plotting cigar smoke rings blown by the artist. 3-D reliefs were cast on the side panels of the aisle seats, and painted a velvet red.

In 1995, Stella exhibited at the Knoedler Gallery in New York, and unveiled Loohooloo, a fiberglass mural 97 feet long that bulged out four feet in a smooth, pillow-like fashion. Every inch was covered with twisted grids, graphic designs, and graffiti-style markings. Stella called these combinations of wild colors and patterns "color density." That year, Stella also exhibited a series of 30-year-old sketchings he made in Spain in the early 1960s that disclosed how he worked out ideas about shaped canvases. The show was particularly intriguing because it revealed ideas that later would culminate in his eccentric architecture of the "Polish Series" from the early 1970s, and the metal relief "Brazilian" series of the mid to late 1970s.

In 1995, he exhibited six large stainless steel sculptures at the newly opened Gagosian Gallery, each named after a small town in the Hudson River Valley of New York. They invoked metaphors of both the landscape and industry of the area, suggesting smokestack-filled factories and rolling countryside. The largest was 8 feet tall and 18 feet in depth, named Bear Mountain.

At the Reina Sofia gallery in Madrid in 1996, Stella held another retrospective, displaying 45 works dating from 1958 up through 1994. Art critic George Stolz wrote in ARTnews that "ever since the 'Black Paintings,' nothing seems to have been discarded. Each successive variation, motif, or technique has been added to the sum of all that preceded it." He said the show testified that Stella "now might be considered America's greatest living baroque painter."

Further Reading on Frank Stella

The most brilliant essay on Stella was in the Fogg Art Museum's exhibition catalog by Michael Fried, Three American Painters (1965). Also see William Rubin's catalog for the Stella retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, Frank Stella (1970), especially rich in illustrations.