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Frank Stella: Experiment and Change

By Denise Colson

On November 12, NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale opens an exhibition that spans Frank Stella’s 60-year career from the late 1950’s to the present. Curated by Bonnie Clearwater, the show, composed of approximately 300 paintings, relief sculpture and drawings offers insight into his trajectory from minimalism to ‘maximalism.’

Born in 1936 in Malden, Massachusetts, and based in New York, Frank Stella is one of the most important artists working today. He first studied art in high school at Phillips Academy in Andover, MA and continued painting at Princeton University where he graduated with a degree in history. Following his graduation in 1958, he moved to New York and achieved fame before the age of 25. His Black Stripe Paintings (1959), comprised of a regulated sequence of stripes painted in enamel with the broad strokes of a house painters brush, debuted in the “Sixteen Americans” exhibition at Museum of Modern Art in the same year. In 1962, Stella’s first solo exhibition was presented by the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York. His first retrospective was presented by the Museum of Modern Art in 1970, and he was honored with a second retrospective by the institution in 1987. His work has subsequently been the subject of retrospective exhibitions throughout the United States, Europe, and Japan, including the touring exhibition “Frank Stella: A Retrospective,” which originated at Whitney Museum of American Art in 2015. Among his numerous honors, he received the National Medal of the Arts in 2009 and the Lifetime Achievement Award in Contemporary Sculpture in 2011.

Frank Stella, Lettre sur les sourds et muets II, 1974, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 141” x 141” x 4.” Private Collection, NY. © 2017 Frank Stella. Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Christopher Burke. All images are courtesy of NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale.

Frank Stella, Lettre sur les sourds et muets II, 1974, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 141” x 141” x 4.” Private Collection, NY. © 2017 Frank Stella. Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Christopher Burke. All images are courtesy of NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale.

“Experiment and Change” juxtaposes works from various periods of Stella’s career, revealing his aesthetic development and focusing on his “Working Archive,” which contains material never exhibited before, such as notes, sketches and maquettes that shed light on his growth as an artist. Stella’s diverse interests include art history, architecture, use of new materials and computer-aided modeling for rapid prototyping. His preparatory studies show the ideas in his work that led to a notion about the enlargement of pictorial space.

Frank Stella, Diavolozoppo (#2, 4x), 1984, MM on canvas, etched Mg, AI and fiberglass. Private Collection, NY © 2017 Frank Stella. Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Steven Sloman.

Frank Stella, Diavolozoppo (#2, 4x), 1984, MM on canvas, etched Mg, AI and fiberglass. Private Collection, NY © 2017 Frank Stella. Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Steven Sloman.

The exhibition includes penciled color sequences for the larger concentric square paintings (1973), flat foam-core cut-outs leading to the emergence of a more generous “working space” and 3D printed models from the 1990’s through the present outlining the use of digital technology.

Stella emerged as part of a generation of American artists driven and challenged by Abstract Expressionism. This exhibition elaborates on the research Clearwater began for a previous exhibition, “Frank Stella at 2000: Changing the Rules,” an in-depth exploration of the artist’s bold paintings, sculpture and architectural models from the 1990’s.

Frank Stella, Sunapee II, 1966, alkyd and epoxy paint on canvas. Private Collection, NY. © 2017 Frank Stella. Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Jason Wyche.

Frank Stella, Sunapee II, 1966, alkyd and epoxy paint on canvas. Private Collection, NY. © 2017 Frank Stella. Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Jason Wyche.

Clearwater notes, “An initial spark of his artistic aspirations was the experience of seeing Rogier van der Weyden’s early Netherlandish Crucifixion Diptych (c. 1460) at the Philadelphia Museum of Art while an undergraduate at Princeton University. Stella said that the sheer visual impact of van der Weyden’s diptych appeared as a ready-made definition of art. Rogier’s painting became a goal for him to hope to live up to. Given the characterization of this moment, I realized the necessity to remap his career to show how this painting, rather than the rules of formalist modernism, propelled his progress.”

Clearwater further states, “We can see the influence of van der Weyden in the large number of diptych-like paintings divided into two equal parts. A typical double concentric painting, Paradoxe sur le comediene, (1974), and a mitered maze work such as Fortin de las Flores support this view. These paintings might also encourage us to speculate how Stella’s attraction to the use of shallow pictorial space and bright fluorescent pigments helped him to approach his goal, the absolute beauty of the Netherlandish masterpiece.”

Frank Stella, Hiraqla Variation II, 1968. Magna on canvas, 120” x 240” x 4.” Private Collection, NY. © 2017 Frank Stella. Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Jason Wyche.

Frank Stella, Hiraqla Variation II, 1968. Magna on canvas, 120” x 240” x 4.” Private Collection, NY. © 2017 Frank Stella. Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Jason Wyche.

One of the exhibition’s highlights is Deauville (1970) a 45-foot long canvas shaped like a thoroughbred racetrack. As an aficionado of racing of all kinds, Stella often imagines himself running across the canvas. For him, Deauville was the starting point for the exhibition design at NSU Art Museum. The shape of the elongated oblong painting complements the 83,000-square foot museum’s curved galleries designed by leading modernist architect Edward Larrabee Barnes. Architecture has played an important role into Stella’s work throughout his career. The Irregular Polygons (1965-66) broke with the conventional rectangular format of easel painting, as did the early 1960’s notched aluminum paintings. This departure was suggested by a view of European mural painting, which noted the irregularity of the perimeter. The interruption of the imagery by windows, doorways and other architectural features generated irregular edging which in turn generated irregular and complicated surfaces. This notion coupled with illustrations from intersecting Kazimir Malevich’s planar geometry helped to establish the shaped canvas as a format in its own right, one which Stella continues to exploit.

Frank Stella, K.144, 2013, ABS RPT with stainless steel. Collection Martin Z. Margulies. © 2017 Frank Stella. Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Jason Wyche.

Frank Stella, K.144, 2013, ABS RPT with stainless steel. Collection Martin Z. Margulies. © 2017 Frank Stella. Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Jason Wyche.

In the exhibition, Deauville is shown adjacent to several Irregular Polygons and a large double concentric square Parodoxe sur le comediene (1974), and works from the Polish Village series (1971-74), which represent Stella’s first constructed relief paintings, his attempt to build a painting and then paint it. Among these works we find a full-scale sketch, a 12-foot cartoon for Suchowola, and a Polish Village relief, drawing attention to Stella’s leap from a flat, two-dimensional plane to the literal three-dimensional depth of these constructions.

Another project inspired by architectural space enlists Hooloomooloo paintings (early 1990’s) made for the Kawamura Museum in Japan. The entire series of these paintings are part of the exhibition, creating an almost continuous frieze on the second floor, starting on a long curved wall and ending high above the atrium. The irregular shapes of these paintings were determined by the architectural space of the Japanese museum. Removed from their intended location, their arched forms and cutout shapes appear arbitrary until the viewer imagines the resulting negative space as doors, windows and arches.

Frank Stella, Fortin de las Flores, 1966, synthetic polymer paint on canvas. NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale; gift of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Scofield. © 2017 Frank Stella. Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Frank Stella, Fortin de las Flores, 1966, synthetic polymer paint on canvas. NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale; gift of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Scofield. © 2017 Frank Stella. Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

“Stella believes that art offers at least the illusion of ultimate freedom. In the context of the art world, he appears fearless and indifferent to risk. Even works that initially looked like misfits to him (and others) now appear revelatory in light of his most recent pursuits,” explains Clearwater.

Frank Stella’s “Experiment and Change” is part of NSU Art Museum’s Regeneration Series, exhibitions designed to explore the wide-ranging impact of World War II on artists in Europe and the United States. It started in 2016 with “Anselm Kiefer from the Hall Collection.” Stella’s work is grounded in the post-war philosophical shift in which the individual was to master his/her own existence as popularized through the zeitgeist of existential philosophy, phenomenology and Gestalt psychology. When Stella stated in a 1964 radio interview, “What you see is what you see,” not only was he suggesting that his compositions were nothing more than their appearance, but he was also pointing out that his work dealt with the psychology of perception and could be rephrased as, “What you see is how you comprehend what you see.”

“Experiment and Change” is on view from November 12, 2017 through July 8, 2018. NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale is located at One East Las Olas Boulevard, Fort Lauderdale, FL. | Phone: 954 525 5500 | nsuartmuseum.org.

Denise Colson is an arts writer based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.