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June 18, 2024

“When you start looking at what you’re looking at, you can go anywhere,” the American artist Frank Stella was fond of saying. Stella took close looking to so many places over a career spanning seven decades. He remade Supremacist shapes into hard-edged abstractions in the early 1960s, before reinventing himself as a sculptor of frighteningly tactile and architectonic works that resisted easy categories of definition. He leaves behind a remarkable body of work that, in the words of the critic Peter Schjeldahl, “live on as a residual pressure, as tough as nails, in the minds of anyone who has cared or will care about art” of the past half-century.

Stella was born in Malden, Massachusetts, to first-generation Italian American parents; his father was a doctor who sent him to boarding school, Phillips Academy in Andover, before he took up a place at Princeton, where he majored in medieval history. Having never formally studied fine art, Stella, with his bookish demeanour, charming disposition and love of all things fast (cars, horses, squash), was always an outsider who insiders clamoured to invite in. He died as one of the best-loved and most-collected of the big beasts of American abstraction.

If the Abstract Expressionists had done their time labouring in the down-and-out downtown of five-cent canteen dinners in the Great Depression, Stella was part of a new generation of abstract artists, alongside Donald Judd and Carl Andre. (Stella was fond of an apocryphal story about Franz Kline, who responded to the question about what made a good artist: “You know, it’s easy, you take them off the stools here in bars and you lift the grate off the sewer out there and you throw ’em down the sewer and then put the grate on top… the one who crawls out first is the best artist.”) This new group were mostly university educated and knew what was what, but most importantly they had the good fortune (or the good sense) to become fashionable artists in a booming economy.

But it was not plain sailing from the off. Stella was clear about wanting to be a New York artist and, as he put it in his last interview, with the art historian Megan Kincaid in Gagosian Quarterly, he “wanted to try and see if I could support myself [because it was in New York that all the art] you were interested in or cared about was being made… and it was all New York artists, there just wasn’t any question about it.”

Having worked as a penniless house painter for a brief spell out of college, Stella did not take long to make his impact on the New York art scene. He was only 23 when he was shown as part of Dorothy C. Miller’s major 16 Americans exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 1959, alongside Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly and Louise Nevelson, each of whom became friends and compatriots in arms. Miller had visited Stella’s studio earlier that summer, and at that time he had already produced the first version of The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, to be part of an austere and monochrome series called The Black Paintings (1958-60). He made a second iteration specifically for the exhibition by altering the composition slightly but significantly. Stella worked freehand on the large-scale canvas to construct extraordinary geometric pinstripes formed from densely applied black enamel paint, each line the width of the house painter’s brush, to produce it.

Paintings about painting

In his early career, Stella made paintings about painting; despite their grandiose titles, these were works not about philosophy or literature (or not yet) but about the simple process of applying paint to canvas. As Andre put it in the catalogue accompanying the MoMA show: “Frank Stella is not interested in expression or sensitivity. He is interested in the necessities of painting… His stripes are the paths of brush on canvas. These paths lead only into painting.” Stella’s self-referential paintings were borne from trial and error, though; he was obsessive about what kind of paintings he wanted to make, never slapdash. “While I was working on [Delta (1958), the first Black Painting], something wasn’t working out and I painted it all out in black,” he later said, “[and so] the next day when I was looking at it, it seemed to have a kind of quality—being all black, although there were plenty of colour and stuff showing through from between the bands, but the sort of darkness, the blackness and the repetition of the bands seemed to work.” And work they did: The Black Paintings were an immediate success and solidified Stella’s status as a new master of abstraction, one that used mathematics and geometry instead of overflowing expression to achieve their effect.

Stella married the art historian and critic Barbara Rose in 1961 in London and they were the undisputed “it couple” of Minimalism until 1969, when they divorced. In 1965, Rose published the important “ABC Art” in Art in America, in which she set out the fundamental characteristics of Minimalist aesthetics, and the two were intellectual collaborators if not compatible partners. “[Stella had] no real wish to see my tears or hear my story”, Rose wrote privately in 1965, as the relationship went south. Stella later married Harriet E. McGurk, a paediatrician.

Throughout his career, Stella worked in groups of paintings and very rarely made single works that had no conceptual, formal or thematic relationship to another. He lived by his now celebrated axiomatic statement on the nature of his art, which became a defining Minimalist slogan: “What you see is what you see.” (There is a nice implicit shift from the expected truism “what you see is what you get”; there is no transaction in Stella’s world, just the pleasure of seeing, which is enough.)

During the 1960s and 70s, he worked through what he called “fairly formalised, programmatic kind[s] of colour”, which shifted slightly in patterning and composition. His Irregular Polygons (1965-66) are gigantic and asymmetrical canvases, made up of straightforwardly painted bands and hard-edged forms, and executed in a small range of flat colours. These are minimal yet bold and exciting paintings that did away with the centuries-long convention of the rectangular, easel-bound painting. The world is not organised into four sides and right angles, so why must painting be? The Protractor series (1967-71) was named after the common measuring instrument, and darted out at semi-circles, curved squares and harsh corners to delight in the relationship between line and colour, while the Concentric Squares and Mitered Mazes works (1972-73) manage to construct complex effects with simple compositions.

Driving ambition: a Ferrari Formula 1 car (pictured in 2009) dominated Stella’s studio in Rock Tavern, New York

MoMA recognition

Remarkably in 1970, just 11 years after Stella’s display in 16 Americans, MoMA honoured him with the first of two full-scale retrospectives (the second was in 1987). Stella had a knack for being in the right place at the right time. His hard-edged abstractions seemed to follow the then dominant teleology of painting as restlessly progressing towards flatness, which was endlessly promoted by MoMA’s Clement Greenberg-inspired curators into the 1970s. While Stella recognised the utility of going along with such grandiose yet cold claims on the history of art, it was the history of people and places that interested him the most. In that same year, Stella’s friend Richard Meier, the architect and designer who made prominent use of the colour white, gave him a copy of the 1959 book Wooden Synagogues by Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka, Jewish architecture experts who had been insurgents in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. The book depicted extraordinarily assembled fine timber buildings in interlocking formations that had been lost during the Second World War and the Holocaust; the photographs captivated Stella, as well as the fact that the destruction of the synagogues followed the co-ordinates of European centres of abstraction, from Berlin to Warsaw to Moscow. While Stella was born into a Catholic family, and not Jewish like Meier and the Piechotkas, he was so moved by the story of these lost places of worship that he set out to make The Polish Village Series (1971-73). The series comprised more than 100 abstract works inspired by the carpentry and design of the synagogues, each with unique canvas dimensions and named after a village (eg Lanckorona and Odelsk), which became one of his most celebrated accomplishments, not least because they so poignantly refer to the world of loss and anguish outside painting.

Stella often tasked himself with impossible, even Sisyphean projects. Once, when his son Michael was captivated by watching a whale in an aquarium, Michael begrudgingly told his father he did not have to make a work about Moby Dick. That only spurred him on. This series was a staggering undertaking, occupying Stella for 12 years between 1985 and 1997, as he made 226 works dedicated to each of the 135 chapters in the epic novel. The Grand Armada (IRS-6, 1X) (1989) is a grand painted aluminium relief that resembles the ferocious battle on the waves between Ishmael’s boat Pequod and its harpoons, and the determined whales who refuse to be caught. Stella gravitated to making large-scale sculptures like this––his “maximalists”, a pun on “minimalism” and critics’ endless desire for categorisation. They often looked like the sculptor David Smith had welded together bit parts of a landfill site and fused them in such a way that it seemed impossible that they stand freely on their own. Stella’s “maximalists” were notoriously difficult to display in museums, and often commissioned for public spaces.

In 2021, Stella made a monumental aluminium tribute to his friend Jasper Johns at 7 World Trade Center, New York City, entitled Jasper’s Split Star, which looks like an extra-terrestrial object that fell from the sky in a science-fiction dystopia. He often included oblique references in his sculptures, from stars to smoke rings and hotels, but always with a deft touch. Stella never stopped looking at what he was looking at; it will take more than one lifetime for the rest of us to fully appraise all the places he went.

Frank Philip Stella, born Malden, Massachusetts 21 May 1936; married 1961 Barbara Rose (died 2020; one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1969); partner of Shirley De Lemos Wyse (one daughter); married secondly Harriet E. McGurk (two sons); died New York City 4 May 2024

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