Frank Stella Life and Art Periods

"I like real art. It's difficult to define 'real' but it is the best word for describing what I like to get out of art and what the best art has. It has the ability to convince you that it's present - that it's there. You could say it's authentic... but real is actually a better word, broad as it may be."

FRANK STELLA SYNOPSIS

In 1959, Frank Stella gained early, immediate recognition with his series of coolly impersonal black striped paintings that turned the gestural brushwork and existential angst of Abstract Expressionism on its head. Focusing on the formal elements of art-making, Stella went on to create increasingly complicated work that seemed to follow a natural progression of dynamism, tactility, and scale: first, by expanding his initial monochrome palette to bright colors, and, later, moving painting into the third dimension through the incorporation of other, non-painterly elements onto the canvas. He ultimately went on to create large-scale freestanding sculptures, architectural structures, and the most complex work ever realized in the medium of printmaking. Stella's virtually relentless experimentation has made him a key figure in American modernism, helping give rise to such developments as Minimalism, Post-Painterly Abstraction, and Color Field painting.

FRANK STELLA KEY IDEAS

A decisive departure from Abstract Expressionism, Stella's Black Paintings series consists of precisely delineated parallel black stripes produced by smoothly applied house paint. The striped pattern serves as a regulating system that, in Stella's words, forced "illusionistic space out of the painting at a constant rate." This device was intended to emphasize the flatness of the canvas and prompt the viewer's awareness of painting as a two-dimensional surface covered with paint - thereby overturning the notion of painting as window onto three-dimensional space that emerged in the Renaissance and dominated the medium for many centuries thereafter.
Created according to a predetermined, circumscribed system imposed by the artist, the Black Paintings served as an important catalyst for Minimalist art of the 1960s. Similar to Stella's parallel stripes and smooth handling of paint, Minimalist artists created abstract works characterized by the use of repeated geometric, industrial-appearing shapes stripped of all thematic or emotional content.
Stella was an early practitioner of nonrepresentational painting, rather than artwork alluding to underlying meanings, emotions, or narratives, and has remained one to this day. Working according to the principle of "line, plane, volume, and point, within space," Stella focuses on the basic elements of an artwork - color, shape, and composition. Over time, Stella succeeded in dismantling the devices of three-dimensional illusionism; his shaped canvases underscored the "object-like" nature of a painting, while his asymmetrical Irregular Polygons explored the tension between the arrangement of colors on the flat surface of the canvas as well as the optical effect of the advancing and receding forms.
Baroque artists such as the early-seventeenth-century Italian painter Caravaggio developed illusionistic "tricks" that convincingly suggested that their subjects emerged out of the canvas and into the space of the viewer. Several centuries later, Stella took such innovations one step further by literally extending painting into the third dimension in his painterly reliefs, which entered the viewer's space with their incorporation of protruding materials.
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FRANK STELLA BIOGRAPHY

Childhood

Frank Stella was born the oldest of three children to first-generation Italian-American parents. In his sophomore year of high school at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, he began learning to paint from the abstractionist Patrick Morgan, who taught there. Stella continued taking art courses at Princeton University, while earning a degree in history. His Princeton professors, painter Stephen Greene and art historian William Seitz, introduced Stella to the New York art world by bringing him to exhibitions in the city, thereby shaping his earliest artistic aesthetic.

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Early Training

Frank Stella Painting Stripes

These trips to New York galleries exposed Stella to artists such as Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, and, most critical for Stella's subsequent development, Jasper Johns, whose geometric paintings of flags and targets inspired Stella's work during his Princeton years. After graduating, Stella moved to the Lower East Side of New York, where he set up a studio in a former jewelry store. Almost immediately, the young artist attracted significant amounts of attention from the art world. Deploying a monochromatic palette and flat application of paint, his early work signaled a break from the thick, gestural brushstrokes of the Abstract Expressionists. Stella famously called a painting "a flat surface with paint on it - nothing more," reflecting his view of art as an end in itself rather than a representation of emotional, intellectual, or physical states. With emphasis on form rather than content, his early paintings are often credited with launching Minimalism. For his first major series, the stark Black Paintings (1958-60), Stella covered canvases with black house paint, leaving unpainted pinstripes in repetitive, parallel patterns. At only 23 years old, he gained instant recognition for these groundbreaking works. The Museum of Modern Art included four in its 1959-60 exhibition Sixteen Americans, and purchased one for its permanent collection. That same year, famed gallery owner Leo Castelli began representing Stella.

Mature Period

From his Black Paintings, Stella moved onto the Aluminum Paintings (1960) and the Copper Paintings (1960-61), for which he created his own geometrically shaped canvases, challenging the traditional rectangular format. Much of his work at this time drew on the stripe motif first deployed in the Black Paintings, but he soon began to embrace complex circular motifs as well as a brighter palette, especially in the Irregular Polygon (1965-67) and Protractor (1967-71) series. During this period, Stella also began delving into printmaking, an aspect of his work he has passionately pursued throughout his career.

Frank Stella Biography

In 1970, Stella was the youngest artist to have a retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art, and then, receiving a second retrospective 17 years after - the first living artist to earn the latter distinction. Following this exhibition, Stella again explored new artistic avenues, this time incorporating collage and relief into his paintings - an extension of the layered bands of color in his previous works. For the Polish Village series (1970-73), he attached paper, felt, and wood to the canvas. And building on this trajectory, the later Indian Bird series (1977-79) featured an assemblage of painted aluminum forms protruding from the wall, reflecting his growing interest in three-dimensionality and dynamic textures. He continued pushing the idea, creating sculptural works marked by elaborate tangles of curves, spirals, and loops - pieces whose exuberance present a stunning contrast to the more somber Black Paintings that had first brought him into the public eye. Yet for Stella, even these highly sculptural works are still paintings; he asserts, "A sculpture is just a painting cut out and stood up somewhere."

Late Period

In the 1980s and 1990s, Stella expanded his three-dimensional paintings into increasingly explosive, vividly colored, and multifaceted pieces, while continuing his work in printmaking. His series based on Herman Melville's Moby-Dick includes works of many techniques, from metal reliefs to giant sculptures to mixed-media prints combining diverse processes such as woodblock printing, etching, and hand-coloring. After moving in the direction of freestanding bronze and steel sculptures, Stella's work then expanded to encompass architectural structures, illustrating his statement, "It's hard not to think about architecture when you've gone from painting to relief to sculpture." These works include an aluminum band shell in Miami (1999) and a monumental sculpture, Prinz Friedrich von Homburg, Ein Schauspiel, 3X (1998-2001), situated on the lawn of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Currently living and working in New York, Stella continues to create large-scale sculptures, as well as designs for potential architectural projects.

FRANK STELLA LEGACY

Frank Stella Photo

Stella is one of the greatest living artists whose impact is felt in the work of many contemporary American artists and styles. Although he never regarded himself as a Minimalist, Stella's Black Paintings secured their creator's place in art history by inspiring such artists as Carl Andre to create sculptural objects stripped of expressive content and marked by their industrial appearance and seemingly anonymous handling of repeated geometric forms. Stella's color variations, exploration of circular motifs, and shaped canvases influenced artists like Kenneth Noland and served as a catalyst for such developments as Color Field painting and Post-Painterly Abstraction.

Art critics and theorists took much from Stella's work as well. Clement Greenberg famously said, "Where the Old Masters created an illusion of space into which one could imagine walking, the illusion created by a Modernist is one into which one can look, can travel through, only with the eye." Greenberg derived his concepts of flatness, the integrity of the picture plane, and optical integrity from the work of Stella and other modernists of the time. Stella's ideas also inspired other major theorists of the period such as Carl Andre, Donald Judd, and Michael Fried.

Original content written by Rachel Gershman
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FRANK STELLA QUOTES

"What you see is what you see."

"A sculpture is just a painting cut out and stood up somewhere.''

"Making art is complicated because the categories are always changing. You just have to make your own art, and whatever categories it falls into will come later."

"I think that many gestures artists make, gestures that seem casual and improbable but surprisingly effective in making art, can be made available to architecture."

"Painting is a flat surface with paint on it."

Frank Stella

Frank Stella Influences

Interactive chart with Frank Stella's main influencers, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.

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Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock was the most well-known Abstract Expressionist and the key example of Action Painting. His work ranges from Jungian scenes of primitive rites to the purely abstract "drip paintings" of his later career.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Jackson Pollock
Barnett Newman
Barnett Newman
Barnett Newman was an Abstract Expressonist painter in New York who painted large-scale fields of solid color, interrupted by vertical lines or "zips." His sometimes narrow or boxy canvases, part painting and part sculpture, were influential for Minimalism.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Barnett Newman
Jasper Johns
Jasper Johns
Jasper Johns is an American artist who rose to prominence in the late 1950s for his multi-media constructions, dubbed by critics as Neo-Dada. Johns' work, including his world-famous targets and American flags series, were important predecessors to Pop art.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Jasper Johns
Hans Hofmann
Hans Hofmann
German-born American painter, art teacher and theorist. Hofmann matured as an artist in 1904-14 in Paris, where he met many of the greatest artists of that time. After he emigrated to America in the early 1930s, he enjoyed a prominent career as a teacher, powerfully influencing many Abstract Expressionists with his understanding of European modernism.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Hans Hofmann
Caravaggio
Caravaggio
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was an Italian Renaissance painter. Considered a master of chiaroscuro, his art was highly emotional in nature and content. Caravaggio was an influential figure within the Realism, Mannerism and Naturalism movements of the Renaissance. His work later informed the Baroque period of painting, as well as neo-realist artists like Rembrandt and Goya.

Modern Art Information Caravaggio
Clement Greenberg
Clement Greenberg
Clement Greenberg was one the leading American art critics during the twentieth century. Best known as the ideological counterpart to Harold Rosenberg, Greenberg was a formalist who coined the terms "American-type painting" and 'Post-painterly abstraction.' He was a staunch champion of pure abstraction, including the work of Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still and Hans Hofmann.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Clement Greenberg
Richard Meier
Richard Meier
Richard Meier is an American architect best known for his sleek, minimal and rationalist approach to design. Meier typically uses clean lines and uniform shades of white in his buildings, which call attention to the vastness of his constructions. Heavily influenced by the work of Le Corbusier, Meier's most famous works include the Getty Center in Los Angeles and the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art.

Modern Art Information Richard Meier
Philip Johnson
Philip Johnson
Philip Johnson was an American architect during the twentieth century. Along with Alfred H. Barr, Jr. and Henry-Russel Hitchcock, Johnson helped found the "International Style" of architecture, which stressed functionality over form. Johnson's buildings are considered by some the architectural equivalent of Minimalist art installations, in which the object relies on its surrounding environment for its artistic effect.

Modern Art Information Philip Johnson
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and '50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Abstract Expressionism
Minimalism
Minimalism
Minimalism emerged as a movement in New York in the 1960s, its leading figures creating objects which blurred the boundaries between painting and sculpture, and were characterized by unitary, geometric forms and industrial materials. Emphasizing cool anonymity over the passionate expression of the previous generation of painters, the Minimalists attempted to avoid metaphorical associations, symbolism, and suggestions of spiritual transcendence.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Minimalism
Color Field Painting
Color Field Painting
A tendency within Abstract Expressionism, distinct from gestural abstraction, color field painting was developed by Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still in the late 1940s, and developed further by Helen Frankenthaler and others. It is characterized by large fields of color and an absence of any figurative motifs, and often expresses a yearning for transcendence and the infinite.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Color Field Painting
Pop Art
Pop Art
British artists of the 1950s were the first to make popular culture the dominant subject of their art, and this idea became an international phenomenon in the 1960s. But the Pop art movement is most associated with New York, and artists such as Andy Warhol, who broke with the private concerns of the Abstract Expressionists, and turned to themes which touched on public life and mass society.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Pop Art
Frank Gehry
Frank Gehry
Frank Gehry is an American architect. He is best known for his asymmetrical, quasi-organic constructions, including the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. He is still considered among the more avant-garde, postmodern architects working today.

Modern Art Information Frank Gehry
Daniel Libeskind
Daniel Libeskind
Daniel Libeskind is an American architect and designer. He is best known for designing the Jewish Museum in Berlin, and for being chosen to design and oversee the construction of the new World Trade Center in New York. Libeskind's structures are known for their hard lines and asymmetrical geometric forms.

Modern Art Information Daniel Libeskind
Sol LeWitt
Sol LeWitt
Sol LeWitt was an American artist commonly associated with the Minimalist and Conceptual movements. He rose to prominence in the 1960s with the likes of Rauschenberg, Johns and Stella, and his work was included in the famous 1966 exhibit Primary Structures at the Jewish Museum. LeWitt's art often employed simple geometric forms and archetypal symbols, and he worked in a variety of media but was most interested in the idea behind the artwork.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Sol LeWitt
Dan Flavin
Dan Flavin
Dan Flavin was an American artist best known for his Minimalist constructions of color and light. Often using nothing more than a few dozen fluorescent bulbs for his work, Flavin was a crucial figure in the Minimalism of the 1960s and '70s. His light installations altered the physical exhibition space, and were designed as experiential art rather than visual art.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Dan Flavin
Donald Judd
Donald Judd
Donald Judd was an early and influential Minimalist artist who made large-scale geometric objects, often of industrial materials and serially arranged on the floor or wall. He helped found the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, where many key works of Minimalism are installed.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Donald Judd
Carl Andre
Carl Andre
Carl Andre is an American Minimalist whose prominence rose in the late 1960s with a series of large public artworks and sculpture. His linear sculpture was included in the famed 1966 Primary Structures group exhibition at the Jewish Museum.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Carl Andre
Post-Painterly Abstraction
Post-Painterly Abstraction
Post-painterly abstraction was a term developed by critic Clement Greenberg in 1964 to describe a diverse range of abstract painters who rejected the gestural styles of the Abstract Expressionists and favored instead what he called "openness or clarity." Painters as different as Ellsworth Kelly and Helen Frankenthaler were described by the term. Some employed geometric form, others veils of stained color.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Post-Painterly Abstraction
Franz Kline
Franz Kline
Franz Kline was an American abstract painter and one of the pioneers of Abstract Expressionism. His signature black-and-white abstractions were inspired by Japanese calligraphy, and inspired a later generation of artists who created Minimalism.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Franz Kline
Museum of Modern Art
Museum of Modern Art
The Museum has become the home for some of the greatest works of avant-garde painting, sculpture, film and multi-media art in the world. While MoMA remains true to its roots as a place where new styles of art can circulate, its permanent collection is widely considered the most impressive and diverse assortment of Modern art to ever exist, ranging from late-nineteenth-century van Goghs, Monets and Gauguins to works produced in the present day.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Museum of Modern Art
Leo Castelli
Leo Castelli
Leo Castelli was an American art collector and gallery owner. His Castelli Gallery in New York, which opened in 1957, held several groundbreaking shows that revealed to the art world works by artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Castelli's gallery was considered an early proving ground for Neo-Dada, Pop, and Minimalist art.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Leo Castelli
Kenneth Noland
Kenneth Noland
Kenneth Noland was an American painter who helped pioneer the Color-field painting movement in the 1960s. His most famous works consist of circular ripples of paint poured directly onto the canvas.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Kenneth Noland
The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, II
The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, II

Title: The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, II (1959)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Belonging to the artist's groundbreaking series Black Paintings, The Marriage of Reason and Squalor is composed of black inverted parallel U-shapes containing stripes separated by thin lines of unpainted canvas. The repeated geometric pattern, in combination with the work's lack of figuration or expressive brushwork, prompts the viewer's recognition of it as a flat surface covered with paint, rather than a depiction of something else, upending the centuries-long concept of painting as window onto illusionistic three-dimensional space. The Black Paintings' stark simplicity, impersonal handling of the medium, and use of repeated geometric forms made them enormously influential on the emergence of Minimalism, whose practitioners likewise pursued the viewer's pure interaction with the art object. Along with three other of the Black Paintings, this work was included in the seminal MoMA exhibition Sixteen Americans. As if denying the painting's evocative title, Stella issued his famous maxim "What you see is what you see," in relation to this painting.


Enamel on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Harran II
Harran II

Title: Harran II (1967)

Artwork Description & Analysis: In his exploration of formal issues, Stella habitually worked in series, developing increasingly complicated variations on selected themes. In contrast to the monochrome Black Paintings, the Protractor series, to which Harran II belongs, deploys a vivid palette and composition consisting of rectangular shapes superimposed on curving and circular forms. As in The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, Harran II's stripes emphasize the flatness of the composition, reminding the viewer that a painting is merely canvas covered with paint. This concept is reinforced by the use of the shaped canvas, which, challenging the conventional rectangular format, further denies the painting's status as illusionistic window and enhances its "object-like" quality. Harran II - whose title comes from the name of an ancient city in Asia Minor - invites parallels with sculpture as well as architecture. Measuring a massive 10 x 20 feet, the work is architectural in scale, while its composition was based on the semicircular drafting tool for measuring and constructing angles.


Polymer and fluorescent polymer paint on canvas - Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Michapol I
Michapol I

Title: Michapol I (1971)

Artwork Description & Analysis: The shaped canvas recurs in the works of Stella's Polish Village series, to which Michapol I belongs. Each composition is developed from color variations and interlocking geometric forms influenced in part by Russian Constructivism. Also inspired by Polish synagogues of the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, the works of the Polish Village series are large-scale collages, in which the artist pasted felt, paper, and wood onto the stretched canvas. Despite their sculptural qualities, Stella described the impulse behind Michapol I and the other works of the series as "pictorial."


Mixed media on canvas - The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

Shoubeegi
Shoubeegi

Title: Shoubeegi (1978)

Artwork Description & Analysis: The present piece is part of Stella's Indian Bird series, in which the artist further expanded the category of "painting." Stella deployed painted curlicue aluminum forms that jut out into the viewer's space - increasing the works' object-like nature and diminishing their appearance as paintings hanging on a wall. Stella's use of assembled parts and three-dimensional elements notwithstanding, he still regarded the Indian Bird series - at the time his most sculptural work - as consisting of paintings or painted reliefs. Seen by some at the time as "disco-like," the series' garishly colorful palette - produced by adhering particles of metal shaving or ground glass to a first layer of color, which were then painted or stained over - was also new to his oeuvre. Stella began the series during his 1977 stay in Ahmedabad, naming the individual works after birds found on the Indian subcontinent.


Enamel and glitter on metal - San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco

The Fountain
The Fountain

Title: The Fountain (1992)

Artwork Description & Analysis: In the Fountain, Stella further explores the boundaries between artistic media. Although mural-sized, the piece - measuring 7 x 23 feet - is not a painting, but a print. The Fountain is Stella's most extensive work on paper to date and his culminating achievement in the medium of printmaking - a vital aspect of Stella's work since the 1960 - utilizing seven processes and sixty-one different colors. The piece belongs to a large, diverse series Stella created between 1985 and 1997 based on Herman Melville's Moby Dick. As such, for Stella it constitutes an homage of sorts to Abstract Expressionism, a number of whose artists also created works inspired by Ahab's epic struggle with the whale. Fittingly, and in keeping with the nonrepresentational nature of Stella's work, The Fountain is abstract, reflecting Stella's goal of conveying both a sense of motion and the power of the story, rather than the specific narrative.


Print, relief, intaglio, stencil, collage and hand-coloring - National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Prinz Friedrich von Homburg, Ein Schauspiel, 3X
Prinz Friedrich von Homburg, Ein Schauspiel, 3X

Title: Prinz Friedrich von Homburg, Ein Schauspiel, 3X (1998-2001)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Given Stella's creation of numerous, at times large-scale, paintings with protruding three-dimensional elements, the production of freestanding sculptures or architectural structures might have seemed the next logical step for the artist. Prinz Friedrich von Homburg, Ein Schauspiel, 3X is just that - a massive composition whose spiraling forms and clusters continues the visual lexicon of the artist's painterly reliefs. Sitting outside the National Gallery of Art, it is one of Stella's first monumental works - weighing in just under ten tons and measuring an enormous 31 x 39 x 34 feet. The title comes from the name of a play by the eighteenth-century German playwright Heinrich von Kleist about love and war.


Stainless steel, aluminum, painted fiberglass and carbon fiber - National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Bibliography
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggests some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.