American Painter and Printmaker
Summary of Frank Stella
In 1959, Frank Stella gained early, immediate recognition with his series of coolly impersonal black striped paintings that turned the gestural brushwork and existential angst of Abstract Expressionism on its head. Focusing on the formal elements of art-making, Stella went on to create increasingly complicated work that seemed to follow a natural progression of dynamism, tactility, and scale: first, by expanding his initial monochrome palette to bright colors, and, later, moving painting into the third dimension through the incorporation of other, non-painterly elements onto the canvas. He ultimately went on to create large-scale freestanding sculptures, architectural structures, and the most complex work ever realized in the medium of printmaking. Stella's virtually relentless experimentation has made him a key figure in American modernism, helping give rise to such developments as Minimalism, Post-Painterly Abstraction, and Color Field Painting.
- A decisive departure from Abstract Expressionism, Stella's Black Paintings series consists of precisely delineated parallel black stripes produced by smoothly applied house paint. The striped pattern serves as a regulating system that, in Stella's words, forced "illusionistic space out of the painting at a constant rate." This device was intended to emphasize the flatness of the canvas and prompt the viewer's awareness of painting as a two-dimensional surface covered with paint - thereby overturning the notion of painting as window onto three-dimensional space that emerged in the Renaissance and dominated the medium for many centuries thereafter.
- Created according to a predetermined, circumscribed system imposed by the artist, the Black Paintings served as an important catalyst for Minimalist art of the 1960s. Similar to Stella's parallel stripes and smooth handling of paint, Minimalist artists created abstract works characterized by the use of repeated geometric, industrial-appearing shapes stripped of all thematic or emotional content.
- Stella was an early practitioner of nonrepresentational painting, rather than artwork alluding to underlying meanings, emotions, or narratives, and has remained one to this day. Working according to the principle of "line, plane, volume, and point, within space," Stella focuses on the basic elements of an artwork - color, shape, and composition. Over time, Stella succeeded in dismantling the devices of three-dimensional illusionism; his shaped canvases underscored the "object-like" nature of a painting, while his asymmetrical Irregular Polygons explored the tension between the arrangement of colors on the flat surface of the canvas as well as the optical effect of the advancing and receding forms.
- Baroque artists such as the early-17th-century Italian painter Caravaggio developed illusionistic "tricks" that convincingly suggested that their subjects emerged out of the canvas and into the space of the viewer. Several centuries later, Stella took such innovations one step further by literally extending painting into the third dimension in his painterly reliefs, which entered the viewer's space with their incorporation of protruding materials.
Biography of Frank Stella
Frank Stella was born the oldest of three children to first-generation Italian-American parents. In his sophomore year of high school at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, he began learning to paint from the abstractionist Patrick Morgan, who taught there. Stella continued taking art courses at Princeton University, while earning a degree in history. His Princeton professors, painter Stephen Greene and art historian William Seitz, introduced Stella to the New York art world by bringing him to exhibitions in the city, thereby shaping his earliest artistic aesthetic.
Important Art by Frank Stella
Belonging to the artist's groundbreaking series Black Paintings, The Marriage of Reason and Squalor is composed of black inverted parallel U-shapes containing stripes separated by thin lines of unpainted canvas. The repeated geometric pattern, in combination with the work's lack of figuration or expressive brushwork, prompts the viewer's recognition of it as a flat surface covered with paint, rather than a depiction of something else, upending the centuries-long concept of painting as window onto illusionistic three-dimensional space. The Black Paintings' stark simplicity, impersonal handling of the medium, and use of repeated geometric forms made them enormously influential on the emergence of Minimalism, whose practitioners likewise pursued the viewer's pure interaction with the art object. Along with three other of the Black Paintings, this work was included in the seminal MoMA exhibition Sixteen Americans. As if denying the painting's evocative title, Stella issued his famous maxim "What you see is what you see," in relation to this painting.
In his exploration of formal issues, Stella habitually worked in series, developing increasingly complicated variations on selected themes. In contrast to the monochrome Black Paintings, the Protractor series, to which Harran II belongs, deploys a vivid palette and composition consisting of rectangular shapes superimposed on curving and circular forms. As in The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, Harran II's stripes emphasize the flatness of the composition, reminding the viewer that a painting is merely canvas covered with paint. This concept is reinforced by the use of the shaped canvas, which, challenging the conventional rectangular format, further denies the painting's status as illusionistic window and enhances its "object-like" quality. Harran II - whose title comes from the name of an ancient city in Asia Minor - invites parallels with sculpture as well as architecture. Measuring a massive 10 x 20 feet, the work is architectural in scale, while its composition was based on the semicircular drafting tool for measuring and constructing angles.
The shaped canvas recurs in the works of Stella's Polish Village series, to which Michapol I belongs. Each composition is developed from color variations and interlocking geometric forms influenced in part by Russian Constructivism. Also inspired by Polish synagogues of the 17th through the 19th centuries, the works of the Polish Village series are large-scale collages, in which the artist pasted felt, paper, and wood onto the stretched canvas. Despite their sculptural qualities, Stella described the impulse behind Michapol I and the other works of the series as "pictorial."
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Frank Stella
- Frank Stella: American Abstract ArtistBy James Pearson
- Frank Stella: The Museum of Modern ArtOur PickBy William S. Rubin
- Three American Painters: Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Frank StellaOur PickBy Michael Fried
- Frank Stella: Irregular PolygonsOur PickBy Brian P. Kennedy
- Frank Stella: 1970-1987By William Rubin, Frank Stella
- Frank Stella 1958By Harry Cooper, Megan R. Luke
- The Prints of Frank Stella: A Catalogue RaisonneBy Frank Stella, Richard H. Axsom
- Frank Stella: Painting into ArchitectureOur PickBy Mr. Paul Goldberger
- Frank Stella: Working SpaceBy Frank Stella
- American Artists Must Fight for Resale RightsOur PickBy Frank Stella / The Art Newspaper / August 4, 2011
- Sightlines: Frank StellaOur PickWSJ. Magazine / March 15, 2010
- Abstraction Without BoundariesBy Donald Kuspit / Artnet / November 3, 2009
- Art in Review; Frank Stella: Polychrome Relief at Paul Kasmin GalleryBy Roberta Smith / The New York Times / October 30, 2009
- Beyond Paintbrush Boundaries: Imagining Structures in 3-DBy Roberta Smith / The New York Times / May 4, 2007
- BMW Art Car by Frank Stella "The Hard Edge"Our Pick
- Frank Stella on shaping the canvas, from SFMOMAOur Pick
- Frank Stella: Irregular Polygons at Toledo Museum of ArtFeaturing Museum Director Brian Kennedy
- Master Series: An Evening with Frank StellaWith TMA Director Brian Kennedy and Art Critic Tyler Green
- Stella on Art: A Conversation at Dartmouth
- Frank Stella discusses his work - 1972