As Frank Stella turns 80 next year, a world — who knows him as the peerless modern painter, innovator and pivotal influence to generations of artists after him — will come together with a world that may not know him, yet. But both will be amazed and knocked out visually, by some of the best-known, groundbreaking and boldest works by this seminal artist of the 20th century.
The Whitney Museum of American Art has bravely taken on and extensively strutted out the most major pieces by this fiercely individualist artist, as Stella stands out on his own — with still brash and explosive 2 and 3 dimensional work, giving the museum public a well-deserved and overdue retrospective. A 5-year production in the making, with over 95 works of art, from 26 different series, spanning 6 decades, giving back serious attention to one of the contenders of modern art, represented in this expansive retrospective that just opened October 30th.
As the center of Abstract Expressionism was occurring in NYC in the 1940s with Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, leading a direction in experimenting with spontaneity, action-painting and rebellious anti-figurative representations of art, Frank Stella would later, in the 1950s, step out of this movement and start another (along with Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly and Robert Rauschenberg). What you see on these walls are pioneering and radical transitions, from the very early period of Stella’s work, minimalist, with his Black Paintings and Black, Cooper and Aluminum series, with parallel stripes and darkness, and emerging layers, as the eye adjusts to a new approach — namely East Broadway (1958) and later a signature piece from the Irregular Polygon series, Harran II (1967), that abandon the confinement of frames but break out into linear, protractor-like, intersecting lines and curves, all with wonderful bright Day-Glo colors of Pop-Art. And then there are huge dimensional paintings/sculptures — shaped canvases, Gobba, zoppa e collotorto (1985). Oil, urethane enamel, fluorescent alkyd and mixed materials that ushered in a whole muscular blast of color and form — protruding out into the space of the viewer. The list of ingredients is part chemistry lab and part junkyard. Stella is introducing non-painterly ingredients of aluminum, plastics, wood from piping, metal from car doors, fiberglass siding, broken glass — all mixed with urethane enamel, lacquer, fluorescent alkyd, acrylic — inorganic and organic — et al, creating an explosion with all these materials, that introduces a 3-dimensional effect that dazzles — as it juts out to you, off the canvas, no longer contained as a flat surface.
Stella’s prolific production, also evidenced in his depth of approximately 26 series of 2 and 3 dimensional styles, evolving over his on-going career, speaks to his creativity, ideas and contribution. Facing this challenge, Adam Weinberg — the Alice Pratt Brown Director of the Whitney and Scott Rothkopf — the Whitney’s Deputy Director for Programs and Chief Curator, had to address how to properly represent such a vast but important range of this seminal artist’s work. At the press preview, on October 28th, Mr. Weinberg posed a question, almost as a challenge, “Why hasn’t someone done a retrospective on Frank Stella?”… “It is a massive body of work… at least 4 generations of artists have entered Frank’s work along with 6 decades of commitment.”
In response , the Whitney’s exceptionally talented team succeeded, with vital contributions recognizable from all. The management of gallery size, attention to exhibit detail and impeccable hanging of the very smallest early minimalist paintings, to the very large multi-dimensional protruding collage pieces of 10 feet by 10 feet, are testament to the museum putting to fantastic use the size and space of their new super-sized gallery exhibit area (the Whitney just re-opened its doors this past May of 2015, fronting a newly modernist building with glass and grey aluminum design, architecturally enormous with 220,000 square feet, and a 422 million dollar investment).
Stella’s world takes us on his historical trip of modern art making — from his early influence from a master teacher, Hans Hoffman, who would influence a whole school of Abstract Expressionism in NYC in 1950s, to Stella’s intense drive throughout studio art classes at Princeton University, and his arrival upon a blossoming art scene in NYC in 1958, surrounded by a hotbed of painters, artists, performers, writers and musicians. Abstract Expressionist’s artwork was still the center of attention in galleries in Greenwich Village and Soho. But Stella did not falter and remained in over-drive, first starting a studio out of an old jewelry shop on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, in the bull’s eye of creative action. His fierce personal and professional determination and individualism would see him make his mark.
Stella, from the very beginning, as stated in the Whitney press release, “began a profound engagement with art making”, from minimalism pieces, multilayered, that force contrast to the eye, to geometrical polygon visualizations that leave the boxed frame canvas behind, to mixed media 3 dimensional projection assemblages that reaches out to you, and onto current work, incorporating entanglements of sculptured bent tubing, stainless steel and aluminum with fiber, that provoke and poke you with their physical size. Here is one man’s incredible collection of artistic statements spanning 6 decades. As reflected by the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Chief Curator Scott Rothkopf, “this is an artist who is not or has never been on auto-pilot.”
Come see a full appreciation of this seminal modern artist’s legacy in the grandeur and open space that the Whitney Museum of American Art offers you to fully appreciate the magnitude, range and power of Stella’s work. As one of the most influential modern artists of our time who, as re-emphasized by Rothkopf, “avoided at all costs, an easy or elegant solution” to his work or direction in art — it will not leave you in neutral.
Come find and explore these provocative paintings and take on the artist’s own words, “There are two problems in painting: One is to find out what painting is and the other is to find out how to make a painting. The first is learning something and the second is making something.”
Don’t miss this chance to see the birth and breadth of this seminal modern artist’s work. ∎
Frank Stella: A Retrospective
(October 30, 2015 — February 7, 2016)
Whitney Museum of American Art
99 Gansevoort St
New York, NY 10014