Frank Stella’s career has been so varied and unpredictable that summarizing it in a single exhibition would be a challenge to anyone. But an excellent attempt has been made in Frank Stella: A Retrospective. Currently on exhibit at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, it is the first comprehensive exhibition of the influential artist’s work in the United States since the 1987 retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art in New York. Works in many of the media Stella has worked in are included, including painting, sculpture, photography, and printmaking.
Born in Massachusetts in 1936, Stella studied history, art history, and painting at both Phillips Academy in Andover and Princeton University. On graduating in 1958, he moved to New York, where he attracted attention with the Black series of paintings (1958-60). His first one-person show took place in 1962 at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York. The Museum of Modern Art presented his first retrospective in 1970; another followed, as mentioned above, in 1987. “It’s not merely the length of his career, it is the intensity of his work and his ability to reinvent himself as an artist over and over again over six decades that make his contribution so important,” says Adam D. Weinberg, one of the current exhibition’s co-curators.
In the Black series, the bands of black, slightly outlined by strips of blank canvas, seem completely opposed to pictorialism, as well as direct or even metaphorical meaning. Stella more or less confirms this when he calls these works “a flat surface with paint on it.” They straddle both American Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism. From around the same time is East Broadway (1958), which evokes the space of lower Manhattan, where Stella lived at the time. Along with the doorway-like space, the painting’s yellow calls to mind New York taxicabs, and the black is like that of asphalt.
There is some illusion of depth, but strictly within bands of stark color, in works like the two-part Jasper’s Dilemma (1962), which actually offers the viewer a choice between austere black and white and brilliant color. The title and color schemes refer to a statement of Jasper Johns, who once said that the more he worked in color, the more he saw gray. Stella used a simple 2.5” painters brush and inexpensive commercial house paint in works like Marrakech (1964). These works have moved into pure abstraction.
In the 1960s, Stella started exploring all sorts of irregularly shaped canvases, combining color fields offset by painted bands, creating a sense of energetic flow and rhythm he called “spring-loaded.” Despite Stella’s own protestations, paintings like those of the Irregular Polygon series (1965-6), with their slight irregularities of color within fields, create a feeling of depth and movement between dimensions.
Shapes not only become more complex and irregular, but actually start emerging from the flat canvas, in the late 1960s and 1970s. Planes of color are offset and graded, giving both depth and dynamism, a three-dimensional quality. Around this time, he starts talking about “building,” rather than “painting,” his works. During his time in the early 1980s as Charles Eliot Norton Professor in Poetry at Harvard University, Stella said that “what painting wants more than anything else is working space – space to grow with and expand into, pictorial space that is capable of direction and movement, pictorial space that encourages unlimited orientation and extension. Painting does not want to be confined by boundaries of edge and surface.”
Overwhelming size combines with a stained glass window quality in Damascus Gate (Stretch Variation III) (1970), part of the Protractor series (1967-71). In Eskimo Curlew (1976) from the Exotic Bird Series (1976-80), shapes curl and fly above a painted aluminum surface. Forms go from moderately regular to wild and dynamic, and colors from constricted fields to wild and abstract, in pieces from the Circuit series (1980-4) like Talladega (1980). Named after the super speedway in that city, the work’s shapes, made of painted sheets of metal, imitate the curves of a race track.
Stella once stated that “Painting does not want to be confined by boundaries of edge and surface.” He has wanted to explore how paintings exist in space. Shapes start emerging dramatically in sheets of cut metal, extending many feet from the wall. Some regular shapes, like circles and cones and cylinders, are still present, but have exploded, so to speak. The physical presence and materials of these works influenced many younger painters in the 1980s.
However, Stella started to feel that abstraction, reliance on the materiality of painting, was an expressive dead end. In the 1980s, inspired by a trip to the New York Aquarium, Stella read Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. This led to a monumental series of three-dimensional works, one for each of the book’s 135 chapters. Combining found, cast, and fabricated parts as well as freestanding sculpture, these works are still largely abstract but have some narrative qualities, including references to whales, waves, and the color of the sea.
From the aluminum of the Moby Dick works, Stella has explored other materials, even embracing computers and 3D printers. The ongoing Scarlatti Kirkpatrick series (2006-present) is inspired by Ralph Kirkpatrick’s famous performances of the keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti. Musical shapes and playfully swirling forms evoke the interweaving polyphonic lines of Scarlatti’s music. K. 459 (2012), for instance, is all gray and clear plastic, wild and free yet with an industrial feeling as the regular shapes seem to unfurl.
The works of the Scarlatti Kirkpatrick series are quite large, at odds in a sense with the miniature quality of Scarlatti’s sonatas, yet in sync with the dynamic, virtuoso qualities of the music. Oddly enough, more evocative of the world of Scarlatti’s music for me is Circus of Pure Feeling for Malevich, 4 Square Circus, 16 parts (2009) – sixteen metallic forms displayed on four wooden tables. Stella certainly hasn’t lost a sense of whimsy in these lovely, curious, abstract works.
Also on display in the main foyer at the de Young is Stella’s Das Erdbeben in Chili (1999), a vast, colorful explosion of activity depicting, or evoking, the 1647 earthquake that destroyed Santiago, Chile. With a title borrowed from the violent, melodramatic novella by Heinrich von Kleist, the work is a cataclysm of abstract, geometric, organic, and architectural forms.
A joint exhibition presented by the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and the Whitney Museum of American Art, Frank Stella: A Retrospective is on exhibit through February 26, 2017 at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. Read more at the de Young Museum’s website.