Stella, Frank Philip

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STELLA, Frank Philip

(b. 12 May 1936 in Malden, Massachusetts), artist whose austere, geometric paintings and articulate statements about his aesthetics established him as a leader of the 1960s art scene.

Stella was one of three children of first-generation Sicilian Americans, Constance Aida (Santonelli) Stella, a homemaker with a background in art, and Frank Stella, a gynecologist. In recognition of his lively intelligence, his parents sent him to the nearby Andover preparatory school, Phillips Academy, which he attended from 1950 to 1954. He received his first concentrated art study under the guidance of the abstract painter Patrick Morgan. In the fall of 1954 Stella entered Princeton University, receiving an A.B. degree in history in 1958. While there he studied with the renowned art historian William Seitz and artist in residence Stephen Greene, both of whom had a decisive effect on the artist's understanding of modernism. The summer after graduation, Stella moved to New York City, settling in a storefront studio on the Lower East Side, then in a loft on West Broadway. He worked as a house painter a few days a week, making just enough money to support himself while he painted as an artist.

By late 1958 Stella had embarked on his now famousBlack Paintings series (1958–January 1960), his response to the pictorial challenges presented by Jasper Johns's target and flag paintings, which he had seen earlier that year in January. He used commercial enamel paint in a design of thin black stripes separated by strips of unpainted canvas. Through his eradication of color and insistence on patterning and nonrelational symmetry, Stella sought to remove from his compositions any spatial references, explaining in a 1960 lecture at the Pratt Institute that "the solution I arrived at forces illusionistic space out of the painting at constant intervals by using a regulated pattern." He added, "The remaining problem was simply to find a method of paint application which followed and complemented the design solution," which for him was housepainter's techniques and tools. During the summer of 1959 Stella showed the paintings both to Leo Castelli, who asked him to join his gallery, and Dorothy Miller, who invited him to participate in her "Sixteen Americans" exhibition opening that December at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Because Stella's Black Paintings seemed so radically anti-expressionistic, they were among the most controversial works, and the resulting publicity helped catapult Stella to fame.

Stella's first one-person exhibition in New York, held at the Leo Castelli Gallery in September 1960, featured his next major series, his Aluminum paintings. He used commercial silver radiator paint, because, as Stella recalled, "you couldn't penetrate it, both literally and, I suppose, visually. It would appear slightly reflective and slightly hard and metallic." Again he adopted a pattern of thin stripes achieved by applying lines of metallic paint separated by strips of raw canvas left in reserve. But he gave the overall design of the stripes slight jogs that left empty areas at the canvas's edge. Stella decided to cut the empty areas out, resulting in his first shaped canvases. This pictorial solution was quickly adapted by a number of other artists throughout the decade and further explored by Stella in his next series, the Copper paintings, exhibited at Castelli's in 1962.

On 3 November 1961 Stella married Barbara Rose, with whom he had two children. Rose was developing a formidable reputation in her own right with her critical writings and became a renowned art historian and author. Their home was a kind of salon for a diverse group, including artists, gallery dealers, critics, academics, and even graduate students.

By the mid-1960s, Stella was a leading figure of the art scene, with work that touched upon its main artistic impulses, from minimalism and pop to post-painterly and hard-edged abstraction. His work had been included in ten museum group exhibitions in 1964 alone, including the Whitney Annual and the Venice Biennale, and he had already had over ten solo exhibitions both in the United States and Europe.

In February 1964 Stella and the minimalist sculptor Donald Judd attempted to explain their artistic goals in a broadcasted interview, edited for publication in 1966 by the critic Lucy R. Lippard, titled New Nihilism or New Art. Stella's statement about his work seemed to speak for the period: "My painting is based on the fact that only what can be seen there is there. It really is an object." He concluded, "All I want anyone to get out of my paintings … is the fact that you can see the whole idea without any confusion.… What you see is what you see."

Just at the moment when Stella was closest in intent to that of the minimalist artists, he began to incorporate color and rely less on symmetry in his work. In his Notched V series, begun in 1964, Stella painted stripes on canvases that were already wedge-or chevron-shaped. He then joined the canvas sections, each in a different color, so that the stripes were fused at the point of contact, forming a "V" pattern. Each shaped area became in essence a color field of stripes that appeared to vibrate. He moved immediately into his Irregular Polygons (fall 1965–summer 1967), the first paintings in which he used large geometric areas of color unbroken by stripes, although he left a strip of raw canvas as an outline around the forms to give visual breathing room. Stella maintained his goal of the elimination of pictorial illusionism, however, and the structure of the composition—the interpenetration of the irregularly shaped canvas sections—was still his primary aesthetic issue, with the interaction of the color fields being second in importance.

The Protractor series, begun in the summer of 1967 and completed in 1971, was Stella's final major series of the decade. They were his largest paintings to date, each work nearly wall-sized, and the most decorative in terms of color and design. When the paintings were first shown at Castelli's in December 1967, buyers lined up, even for future paintings, which they purchased on the basis of Stella's preliminary drawings. The title comes from the basic shape used in many of the ninety-three canvases, the half-circle or protractor. Stella established thirty-one different canvas formats, each of which he made into three paintings, eventually relying on his instinct for his selections of bright, flat colors, which he laid out in broad bands and geometric fields. Stella overlapped the color bands to deny the suggestion of pictorial illusion suggested by the color either advancing or receding into space. "My main interest," explained Stella about this series, "has been to make what is called decorative painting truly viable in unequivocal abstract terms." The artist made this statement as part of a series of conversations with William Rubin, the chief curator of the Museum of Modern Art, in preparation for his 1970 retrospective, a watershed in Stella's career.

In 1970 Stella stated to Rubin that he was "coming to the end of something," meaning not only the direction of abstraction in his own work but for the whole era as well. Confined to his bed after knee surgery, Stella began the drawings for his Polish Village series (completed in 1973), a new direction in his pictorial investigations. For the first time, Stella began to infuse real space into his paintings by constructing each one out of various materials collaged onto a stretcher, which was in later examples a wooden base. Now Stella incorporated aspects of sculpture and architecture in his work, testing how far he could push the boundaries between the arts and still produce paintings. Critics have described this and his later series as a turn from minimalist to maximalist painting, and Stella has certainly become expressionistic and spatially inventive in his later work, from his first all-metal Brazilian series (1974–1975) to his Cones and Pillars (1984–1986) and his Moby Dick series (1986–1992).

Stella's marriage to Rose ended in divorce in 1969, and in 1978 he married Harriet McGurk, with whom he had two children. Between marriages, Stella had a relationship with Shirley Wyse, and they had one daughter.

As an innovative painter and articulate theorizer on abstraction, Stella has been a powerful force in the art world, especially during the 1960s. The attitudes of the period towards materials, method of execution, pictorial solutions, and aesthetic experience were manifested in his work. Stella's desire for the viewer to understand his paintings in one shot emphasized the concreteness of the object, an idea that was crucial to minimalism, but he also sought to increase the sense of flatness in their design. Honored by Harvard University as the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry for the 1983–1984 academic year, Stella chose for the six-part lecture series to address issues of pictorial space in postmodern art. The lectures were published in 1986 as Working Space.

For Stella, space has remained at the heart of his artistic explorations. During the 1960s he eschewed illusionism, and in his later series, he incorporated actual space within his paintings, going beyond mere illusionism.

Stella's papers are in the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. The standard texts on the artist are the 1970 and 1987 exhibition catalogues for the Museum of Modern Art by William S. Rubin: Frank Stella and Frank Stella, 1970–1987. Useful discussions of Stella's aesthetics and philosophy for the 1960s are Michael Fried, Three American Painters: Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Frank Stella (1965), and Robert Rosenblum, Frank Stella (1971). For biographical and anecdotal information, see Sidney Guberman, Frank Stella: An Illustrated Biography (1995).

Leigh Bullard Weisblat