The Stella Retrospective at the Whitney
Copyright Vladimir Kagan January 3, 2016
Let’s talk Frank Stella – my favorite artist.
Frank Stella is prolific, imaginative, a powerhouse. He neither stands still nor rests on his laurels. Other artists live and die with their signature handwriting; Stella reinvents himself and emerges more vivid with each rebirth. The Whitney Museum’s Retrospective, in their new home on Gansevoort Street in New York, is a comprehensive exhibit of the six decades of Stella’s work. beginning with his pre-black period, the Black Paintings and finally to his recent sculpture. This comprehensive show includes nearly one hundred pieces of his paintings, reliefs, sculpture, prints, drawings and Marquette’s. It is the first Stella retrospective since 1987 at the Museum of Modern Art and is the Whitney’s inaugural exhibit devoted to a living artist.
This its the Stella we all recognize - squares, lines, rainbows - black on black or vivid colors
Stella was born in 1936, in the small town of Malden, Massachusetts the son of Constance and Frank Stella. His father was a gynecological doctor and his mother dabbled in painting. She became a proficient landscape artist of the Sunday-school variety. Stella’s early inclinations were toward sports, not the arts. The closest he came to wielding a paintbrush was helping his father paint their house - house painting was his father’s hobby.
Young Stella was fortunate to go to Philips Academy in Andover, an elite boarding school not far from home. The school catered to an elite cadre of upper class, old-moneyed students. Socially, this was a new experience for Stella. While he was not an outstanding student, he was a good wrestler and a member of the school’s team. - The school is one of the few educational institutions with its own museum, The Addison Gallery of American Art. Under the influence of Bartlett Hayes Jr. the gallery’s director and Patrick Morgan, his studio art teacher, Stella developed a fascination with the concept of abstract art. Philips Academy was a life-changing experience for Frank.
After graduating from Philips, Stella chose Princeton University, geographically the furthest he could get away from home! At Princeton, he came under the influence of William Seitz, the respected art historian and Stephen Greene, who was an early exponent of abstract expressionism and taught painting at Princeton. Both stimulated Stella’s appetite for the arts. He was too young to have personally met some of the early modernists who shaped the post-war art scene; however, he greatly admired the works of Franz Klein, Hans Hofmann and Joseph Albers, all exponents of the German Bauhaus. Their art inspired him to experiment with his own expression. He did not emulate them - he followed his own muse.
No wall was ever too large for Stella to cover end to end
The rainbow series
While others dripped and sprawled huge blobs of paint on their canvas, Frank Stella was diligently painting straight lines – exquisite lines in monochromatic colors, using texture and enamel for contrast. A lesson subliminally learned helping his father paint their home. The rigid lines of the clapboards; the straight lines of the wooden façade found expression in his early works. After graduating from Princeton In 1958, Stella moved to Greenwich Village in New York. The Village was the epicenter of the thriving art world. It was in this bustling environment that he created his seminal ‘black paintings.’ When his work was included at the Museum of Modern Art’s 1959 ‘Sixteen Americans’, Stella, at 23 years, was the youngest artist in the show.
Stella moved from black into metallic, bronze and aluminum paint - exploring the subtle shimmer and contrast of hues affected by the changing light. By the 1960s. His paintings no longer followed the traditional square or rectangle of the canvas, his angular lines, as if drawn with a T square and triangle, delineated his canvas. Abandoning his monochrome foundation, he added color, first tentatively, later with bold intensity, using vibrant fluorescent hues. He next merged his bands of colors into geometric rainbows.
Stella kept his paint rich in color and smoothly applied to the canvas. Size was never a deterrent. Stella always thought big, Ideal for a museum walls where everyone could see the work.
Never stuck in a groove, by the 1980's Stella again radically changed. He abandoned geometrics for three-dimensional expressions. These huge paintings exploded out of their canvas, liberated from their background and leaping into your face and consciousness.
By the 1990's Stella expression took a radical turn once again as he abandoned canvas altogether! His latest creations are huge unearthly sculptures suspended in space or flying off the walls. Twisted metal, plastic, computer generated objects, some boldly painted, and others raw metal combined with found objects. This is limitless expression. Stella’s work is no longer produced in an artist’s studio. His sculptures are fabricated in a huge factory space using the latest automated machinery. It takes an ‘army’ to create these works: sophisticated machinery, computer technicians, welders, and dozens of craftsmen working under Stella’s astute eye.
If you follow the prescribed route for viewing this overwhelming show, you arrive at the museum’s picture windows with a panoramic view of the Hudson River. There, with a backdrop of a setting sun, was the surprising tabletop exhibit of wire-constructed Maquettes reminiscent in their delicacy and lightness of Alexander Calder and the Swiss artist Jean Tinquely. These fragile sculptures stood in stark contrast to the explosive works of Stella’s latest works.
Stella's miniatures are light, playful and delicate
Don’t miss this colossal exhibit. The exhibit will be on at the Whitney until February 7, 2016 and then moves to the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.
“Bravo Frank Stella! You still surprise and enthrall me after all these years.”