Frank Stella was born May 12, 1934, in Malden, Massachusetts. From 1950 to 1954, he went to the Phillips Academy in Andover, where he studied painting with Patrick Morgan and also came to know Carl André. In 1954, Stella continued his studies at Princeton University, New Jersey. While he took up history, he also attended the open painting class of William C. Seitz. In 1958, he finished his studies and moved to New York. In the 1960s and »70s, travels abroad took him to South America and India, experiences that proved to be important for his serial works emerging in the years to follow. In 1982, Stella spent several months in Rome and, in the following year, was appointed Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University. At Harvard, he held six lectures entitled ›Working Space.‹
His move to New York in 1958 had led Stella to a city whose young art scene was ready to break with European traditions and was captured by an intense atmosphere of change. New developments took place in the context of Abstract Expressionism and the New York School, and among the artists that turned Greenwich Village into the artistic center of the time were Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, and Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt, and Mark Rothko.
Starting in 1958 in New York, after earlier works that still show his indebtedness to Jasper Johns« flag pictures, Stella developed the first of his many work series, theBlack Paintings. They emerged in the context of a movement of the New York School for which – beginning with Rauschenberg – the black picture took on a programmatic character. Like Reinhardt, Rothko, and Newman, Stella intensely focused on the non-color black and, until 1960, developed a monochrome series containing twenty-four pictures. The series draws on basic forms of pictorial composition and, »after Pollock« and directed against Op Art, dared to present a redefinition of the picture. In their non-hierarchical, even structure, in their geometrical »All-Over« and their two-dimensional effect, these non-representational black pictures marked a fundamental turning-point in painting. Until 1960, two types of Black Paintings emerged: the black pictures with stripes running parallel to the rim (rectilinear-pattern) and variations of this principle that show diagonal stripes (diamond-pattern). Stella described his artistic goal in 1959: » the balancing of the various parts of the painting with and against each other. The obvious answer was symmetry--make it the same all over. The question still remained, though, of how to do this in depth. A symmetrical image or configuration symmetrically places on an open ground is not balanced out in the illusionist space. The solution I arrived at, and there are probably quite a few, although I only know of one other, color density, forced illusionist space out of the painting at constant intervals by using a regulated pattern. The remaining problem was simply to find a method of paint application which followed and complemented the design solution. This was done by using the house painter’s technique and tools.« (Stella, in: Rosenblum 1971).
With the Aluminium Series, Stella took a further step. Starting in the 1960s, he bent the aluminum-colored, denser vertical stripes at the intersection of an imaginary diagonal and then also adapted the outer shape of the picture to this linear interior structure – the »shaped canvases« emerged. Stella continued this approach in theCopper Paintings that were to follow. Painted in 1960/61, they were kept in copper color in order to remove any spatial effect from the picture. As to the shapes chosen, Stella now did L-, T-, and U-shaped pictorial objects bordering on the relief. Through the unity of interior forms and the shape of the picture support they again turn away from traditional pictorial formats, stressing the object character of the picture through shape and color (Ouray, 1960/61).
The Concentric Squares which Stella did in the early 1960s were – like the following series Empress of India (1965) – developed on the basis of earlier, labyrinth-like or diagonally positioned color stripes (Moore Series). They too show far-reaching changes and were continued into the 1970s. In his Concentric Squares, Stella worked with unmodified basic colors as well as black-and-white mixtures, creating concentric shapes that are characterized by greater dynamics – similar to theRunning V series. Still, Stella hoped that in the strict formalism of these pictures the viewer would only recognize the following: »What you see is what you see« (1964) – Stella’s concrete credo.
The series keeps defining Stella’s work, characterizing his artistic experiments that are positioned between painting and object art. With irregular interior structures and pictorial formats and with complete triangular and square formats, the Irregular Polygons from 1966 – among them Conway I – moved away from the regularity of earlier parallel structures. Yet the two-dimensional character of the pictures remained a major concern of the artist. In the late 1960s, first lithographies emerged with the series Gemini (1967). Together with Merce Cunningham, Stella also did stage decorations.
The semicircular Protractor pictures of the late 1960s show new, rhythmical arrangements with a spectrum of colors that remind the viewer of color circles. His »main interest,« Stella argued, was to make what is generally called decorative painting, viable in a decidedly abstract idiom. Decorative, that is, in a positive sense – in the sense one may apply to Matisse» (Stella, in: Rubin 1970). In the following series, Stella also established links to the works of the Russian constructivists of the early 20th century. The Polish Village Series of the early 1970s, for example, show relief-like planes on different, sometimes angled supports made from hardboard covered with canvas, fabric, or felt. Through their titles (Rakow I, 1971), these more spatially oriented works referred to Polish towns whose wooden synagogues had been destroyed by the German army. This reference reminds of Stella’s earlier titles from the 1950s, where he adapted National Socialist slogans.
With the first Exotic Bird Series, done in 1976, Stella clearly moved away from his earlier focus on the two-dimensional. On the basis of curvilinear, that is, prefabricated measuring instruments with standardized stencils, he created new compositions by first making use of millimeter paper as plane. Models were then made that were based on these compositions and, finally, large aluminum objects emerged. In their asymmetry and their new function as support of gestural painting, they also prepared the Indian Bird Series that was to follow. This series was done during a journey to India, and its models were made from the metal of tin cans. Stella systematically kept developing these series through variations of form, changing structures, as well as a way painting that created further dynamics, into self-contained, spatially focused objects. This finally led to the fully sculptural aluminum reliefs, the stereometrical bodies of Cones and Pillars. The large-format series, consisting of 48 works whose titles draw on the Italian fairy tales of Italo Calvino (for example, Lo sciocco senza paura, 1987), contained fully sculptural, painted cones and cylinders that were joined together in interlocking compositions. Not only the painting in the shape of stripes appears like a citation and reminds of Stella’s earlier pictures. Stella also included graffiti-like elements. Deliberate recourse to earlier creative principles, for example, those of the Brazilian Series, can also be recognized in the Wave Series Stella has been working on since 1986.
Since 1990, Stella has also been engaged in architectural projects, among them the Groninger Museum, Netherlands. In 1991, he was involved in the planning of an exhibition hall in Dresden and, in 1992/93, he did the interior of the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto. In 2001, Stella’s monumental sculpture Prinz Friedrich von Homburg, Ein Schauspiel, 3X, was installed on the North-East side of the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.
After moving to New York, Stella participated in exhibitions in the U.S. as well as abroad, events that helped to make new art from the U.S. internationally known. An example of such an exhibition was »Three Young Americans« (Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, 1959). In 1961, Stella had his first solo exhibition at the Galerie Lawrence, Paris. Further solo exhibitions followed, for example, at the Pasadena Art Museum and the Seattle Art Museum (1968), at the National Museum of Art, Osaka, and at the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart (1988). The first large retrospective of his work took place at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1970). It then moved to the Hayward Gallery, London, and to the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Stella participated in the Documenta, Kassel, in 1968 and 1977, and in 1968, 1978, and 1980, his works were shown at the Venice Biennale. In 1982, Stella’s works were also shown as part of the exhibition »Zeitgeist« at the Martin Gropius Bau, Berlin. More recently, large exhibitions were organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, New York, and at the Haus der Kunst, Munich.
Frank Stella lives and works in New York.
Black Paintings, Robert Rauschenberg, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko, Frank Stella: Ausst.-Kat. Haus der Kunst, München, hg. v. Stephanie Rosenthal, München 2006
Verspohl, F.-J.; Müller, Ulrich u.a.: Die Schriften Frank Stellas, Jena 2001
Frank Stella: Ausst.-Kat. Haus der Kunst, München, hg. v. Hubertus Gaßner, München 1996
Pictor Laureatus. In Honour of Frank Stella. Frank Stella zu Ehren, hg. von A.M. Ehrmann-Schindelbeck, M. Platen, F.-J. Verspohl, Gera, Arnstadt 1996
Frank Stella 1970 — 1987: Ausst.-Kat. Museum of Modern Art, hg. v. W. Rubin, New York 1988
Frank Stella – Black paintings 1958 — 1960, Cones and pillars 1984 — 1987: Ausst.-Kat. Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, hg. v. Gudrun Inboden. Stuttgart 1988
Rubin, Lawrence: Frank Stella. Paintings 1958 to 1965. A catalogue raisonné. New York 1986