I’ve appreciated and admired Frank Stella’s abstract art for many years, but the de Young Museum’s exciting retrospective enriched my understanding of Stella as an artist and a man. A smaller continuation of an exhibition that premiered at New York’s Whitney Museum and showed at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, this is the first comprehensive United States show devoted to Stella since 1970. The well-chosen representative collection of only 50 large examples from the thousands of Stella’s works from the late 1950s to the present, including paintings, reliefs, sculptures and maquettes, helps one gain a fresh appreciation of a brilliant artist whose impact is so pervasive as to be occasionally taken for granted. It’s an amazing art experience.
A young Frank Stella exploded onto New York’s abstract art scene straight out of Princeton University in 1958. When he was only 23, four of his Black Series (1958-1960) paintings were included in the group exhibition, “Sixteen Americans” at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), and at the end of the exhibit, the museum bought one his paintings. But his instant fame never deterred him from challenging himself and veering in myriad paths, all while he took on the responsibility of expanding, promoting and explaining abstract art.
One of his uncomfortable Minimalist Black Series, “Die Fahne hoch!” (1959), (the title is from a Nazi Youth Organization anthem), consists of hand drawn parallel bands of black house paint separated by minute strips of unpainted canvas. Stella’s then revolutionary idea of art was that a painting is itself an object, as opposed to being a picture of another object, such as a vase or portrait.
This concept is evident in Stella’s Copper Series, particularly “Creede II” (1961). The title is from a small mining town he visited in Colorado. The piece was created using commercial copper metallic paint on a canvas shaped like an upside down capital “L,” and was done at a time when it was sacrosanct to use any canvas other than a rectangle or square. The painting begs the question: is the empty space actually an integral part of the image?
It was in the 1960s that Stella’s art burst into fabulous color and popular and commercial success. His intense yellow and red 1964 piece, “Marrakech,” part of his Moroccan Series, has an almost psychedelic impact on the viewer, as the colors seems to push forward out of the painting.
His color pieces grew in size and impact in the 1970s, with then novel and popular super-sized works in his Protractor Series, such as “Damascus Gate” (1970). It’s composed of geometric angles and shapes based on the ancient architecture in the Middle East. The title is from one of the gates to Jerusalem’s Old City.
In one of his many segues into a new and distinctive artistic direction, Stella turned his paintings into three-dimensional hanging sculptures with his Exotic Bird Series. In one of my favorites, “Eskimo Curlew” (1976), is based on the bird of the same name. Here the artist used found objects to create curves on a piece of aluminum reminiscent of a bird’s graceful flight.
One of the fascinating aspects of “Frank Stella: A Retrospective” is that it explains and explores how Stella’s intellect, travels and life experiences are mirrored in his work. Yes, his paintings are abstract, but we can see what motivates and influences his creativity. For example, when Stella took his sons to an aquarium and saw a Beluga whale, he re-read “Moby Dick” and created a three-dimensional series based on the book, including “The Whiteness of the Whale” (1987). Stella’s love of music influenced “K-144” (2013), named after a Scarlatti sonata, and part of his ongoing Scarlatti Kirkpatrick Series, which aligns the themes of music and art. Similar to the way in which David Hockney now employs avant-garde techniques in his art, “K-144” was composed using 3-D printing and computer-aided design.
To add icing to your delicious cake of a visit, don’t miss Stella’s monumental piece, “Das Erdbeben in Chili” (The Earthquake in Chile) (1999) which is found on the de Young’s main floor in the Wilsey Court. Stella hadn’t done a flat painting for 20 years, but was inspired by a book he read to create this “Guernica”- like power house. And to put the cherry on top of the icing, consider the audio tour. Both Frank Stella himself and the de Young’s erudite curator Timothy Burgard fascinatingly discuss the exhibition and add a new dimension (pun intended) to the great artist’s work.
By Emily S. Mendel
© Emily S. Mendel 2016 All Rights Reserved