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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Frank Stella

An artist admires his own work.
Frank Stella receiving the
National Medal of Arts 2009
One of the things that makes studying artists and their art challenging is when two equally well known artists share the same last name. One might expect this if the name was fairly common--Smith, Miller, Johnson, Wilson, Baker, or the like. But how do you keep straight in your mind two artists, separated by two generations, both of whom painted abstractly, both with the last name of Stella? I'm talking about, of course, Joseph Stella (1877-1946) and Frank Stella (1936, who, from all indications is still alive). Yesterday he turned 77. So far as anyone knows, they're not related. Joseph Stella is famous for his Brooklyn bridges while Frank Stella is famous for his non-representational minimalist stripes and geometric color fields. Fortunately, for the art appreciation student, their work bears only very slight similarities.
Harran II, 1967, Frank Stella
I've already written about Joseph Stella (03-18-11). Frank Stella is more difficult to deal with, both biographically as well as artistically. Biographically, there's absolutely nothing unusual, unique, or out of the ordinary a writer like myself can latch onto in search of a human interest handle. He was born in the small town of Malden, Mass., went to an Andover, Mass., prep school then to Princeton. In his early days in New York he claims to have been influenced by Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline. So, what else is new? Hundred's of other second-generation would-be painters of the New York School were too. Yet, Stella's work looks nothing like that of Pollock or Kline. The influence must have been intellectual rather than stylistic. Of course, any artist on the make knows you don't become rich and famous by imitating other artists who have become rich and famous. You achieve that status by veering off on your own, which was the course taken by Frank Stella.

Die Fahne Hocht, 1959,
Frank Stella
"Veering" may be too mild a word in Stella's case. "Lurch" might be more appropriate, his breakaway coming in 1959 with Die Fahne Hocht, (left, "The Flag on High") named for the anthem of the Nazi party. Any connection between the painting and its title is thin and convoluted at best--more likely a deliberate effort on Stella's part to be controversial. The painting is black, reminiscent of Kazimir Malevich's Black Square on White Ground. Stella's painting is a symmetrical arrangement of extremely subtle narrow stripes, akin to lines, of black raw canvas separating wider stripes of black enamel (the man was in love with masking tape). The image appears as subtle texture variances rather than color. Many have deemed this work as the long dormant sprouting of the minimalist seed planted by Malevich as far back as 1915.

Guifa la Luna I Ladri e le Guardi (Giufà, the moon, the thieves and the guards), 1984, Frank Stella--paint meets sculpture.
Though Stella chose to slight the use of color in his early works, during the psychedelic 1960s, as seen in his Harran II (above, center) he seems to have repented and embraced it feverishly, far in excess of anything either Pollock or Kline would have deemed appropriate. Yet the hard edged discipline and geometry remained the hallmark of his work until 1970s when he gravitated toward three-dimensional paintings in which canvas (and lots of other stuff) were mounted on plywood to fall under the unification of his brushwork. He sought to blur the lines between painting and sculpture (directly above). In more recent decades, Stella's images have harkened back somewhat toward the Abstract Expressionism he eschewed in his rebellious youth. In addition to his roots in painting and printmaking, Stella has discarded any pretense of wall-mounted paintings in favor of large scale sculptural works (with a dab or two of paint).

Catal Huyuk, 2008, Frank Stella--the father of "junk sculpture."

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