Known in his earliest notable years for the post-painterly geometry of sheer, flat black canvases, Frank Stella has reached heights of both aesthetic achievement and artistic notoriety that few painters in the modern era have approached. His accomplishments, though routine, have been widely varied, covering the span of more than 50 years. The youngest artist to have a retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art, Stella is among a small number of painters in the modernist tradition whose name is recognizable outside of the cloistered community of the fine art elite. He has been lauded by art critics, philosophers, and cultural figures, and his work has figured prominently in visions of the artistic power of the 20th Century by theorists such as Michael Fried (whose modernist manifesto “Art and Objecthood” placed Stella at the heart of modernism).
Stella was born in Massachusetts in 1936. He is still living and working in New York, both in and out of New York City (and in particular, Greenwich Villiage). In the decades since 1936, as Stella grew to a youthful maturity, he participated in some of the most important artistic movements of the 20th Century (and virtually all of the most notable movements in immediate post-war America). His work—his aesthetic philosophy and technical and stylistic range—has been associated with high modernism, abstract expressionism, minimalism, and an array of other important movements. Though he is associated with minimalism, however, it is important to note the distinction between his work and the minimal postmodern art of the decades after his rise to prominence—an artistic convention that Stella has never seemed comfortable in. Stella was influenced, early on, by abstract expressionists such as Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock, and as far as he has moved away from that vision of expressionism, he has never entirely abandoned its modernism.
Stella’s work has undergone a series of important transformations—aesthetically, stylistically, and technically. His earliest notable works are recognizable by their monochrome black palettes, their sheer surfaces, and their entire lack of depth. They are geometric in nature—clean, sharp, ideal, seeming not to be made of the same substance as the mongrel world of everyday objects. Some of his early paintings were made on shaped canvases—non rectangular, irregular canvases that allowed him to play more thoroughly with the forces of geometry.
But Stella didn’t stay put for long. His technical repertoire expanded as his aesthetic vision unfolded. His paintings, still sheer, took on a sense of dynamism. They began to move through the fields of color, and while still cool, still flat, they undeniably had an air of alacrity. These new paintings—colorful, wild—marked a departure for Stella.
Stella began to use depth, relief, and thickness in his work—moving steadily away from the cold sheerness of ideal geometry. By the 1980s, this movement had been fully realized, as his Melville-inspired works on Moby-dick revealed. He increasingly moved in the direction of collage and three-dimensionality, finally in the 1990s and beyond creating a series of sculptures, both as part of his Moby-dick project and not.
Among the many notable works in Stella’s career are his earliest high-profile pieces, the “Black Paintings” of 1959. Inspired by the flatness of painters such as Barnett Newman, these paintings are works of high minimalism. Each painting consists of a canvas covered nearly in total by sheer black house paint. The black paint is made to form stripes, separated by thin sections of unpainted canvas and arranged in geometrical shapes. The paintings are not merely an exercise in minimal aesthetic content, but are expressions of geometric purity. The lines of black seem to define and articulate the limits of the canvas, in fact extending ideally beyond the plane of the picture—a fact which, once fully realized by Stella, led to his use in the future of irregularly-shaped canvases.
Two decades later, another (but not the only other) notable series of works emerged in Stella’s catalogue. A project as mammoth as its subject, the “Moby-dick” series, beginning in the 1980s, consisted of both paintings and sculptures designed to respond in various ways to Melville’s lengthy and famously challenging treatise on the unfathomable depths. These works are technically diverse but unified by a sense of depth and dimensionality largely unseen in Stella’s early works. The use of collage in these works implies a sense of mongrel life that belies the clean geometry of his black paintings more than 20 years earlier. While still seemingly geometric in nature, these works seem not to oppose as much as to exceed to ordinary world of recognizable objects.
Frank Stella is still alive, even making an appearance on The Colbert Report. While he has not maintained the level of aesthetic ingenuity that he established in the early postwar years, he is still an important figure. His place in the history of art is by now indelible, and few (read: no) living artists are as well respected.
La prima spada e l'ultima scopa, 1983
synthetic polymer paint on aluminum honeycomb panels and acrylic panel
149 1/2 x 136 1/4 x 34 inches
metallic powder in polymer emulsion on canvas
96 x 109 7/8 inches