American Master: Frank Stella

Pari Dukovic

After rising to art superstardom in his 20’s with his rectilinear paintings, Frank Stella charted a solitary course through abstraction that saw him experiment with color, form, and even 3-D printing, critics be damned. Now 79, the laconic master prepares for the next phase of his career, and his biggest retrospective yet.

In 1966, several years after his stark, expansive “black paintings” stole the show in a group exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art titled “Sixteen Americans,” Frank Stella said of his work, “What you see is what you see.” People weren’t sure what to make of the Zen-like pronouncement, nor of the young Stella. Much has changed in Stella’s life and art since the ’60s—most notably a jump from spare 2-D abstraction to exuberant 3-D abstraction—but he still displays a knack for poignant truisms. Looking back on the paintings that launched his illustrious six-decade career, he says today, “They were straightforward—you either liked them or you didn’t.”

These understatements have the paradoxical—and perhaps desired—effect of inviting viewers to probe deeper. And the belie the enormous amount of distilled thought, and raw life force behind the artist’s work: Turns out the black-paintings series was born when Stella blacked out a multicolored canvas in a fit of frustration at how the piece was progressing. He was taken with the results.

What you see when Stella enters the Marianne Boesky Gallery on a bright June morning is a slowed but still spry man with unruly white hair and a loud Orvis fishing shirt, who could be easily mistaken for a gallery-going tourist. Stella, 79, seems invigorated as he embarks on a new phase of his career, dedicated equally to creation and retrospection. After a decade of sporadic representation, he has recently signed with two younger dealers, Boesky and Dominique Lévy, who are working in tandem to represent both his current output and his catalog.

Stella takes a seat in front of two of his recent pieces, small sculptures that feature curving metal parts fused with bursts of angular spray-painted plastic. Though he’s remained steadfast in his devotion to pure abstraction, these works look nothing like the serene geometric designs of his early career. “He’s so far ahead of everyone else—he’s not one to look back artistically,” says Boesky. As Stella’s longtime friend the painter Larry Poons puts it, “Do Beethoven’s first efforts sound like his last ones? Is Tolstoy’s first novel the same as the second?”

Stella’s first MoMA retrospective came when he was just 33, his second at 51. His third major U.S. retrospective, showcasing the full scope of his work to date, will take place at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s new building, in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. Some 100 works will fill the museum’s column-free fifth floor. “I would guess he is one of the most prolific artists of the generation,” says Adam Weinberg, the museum’s director and a curator of the show. Stella says he creates 20 to 30 pieces a year, on average.

Major loans from across the country have been procured for the exhibition, and Stella himself is one of the biggest lenders. He sees this show as a chance to introduce younger audiences to his oeuvre. “There are a lot of people who have been born since I started painting,” he says.

Stella was born in Malden, Massachusetts, to a gynecologist father and an amateur-painter mother who expected him to study law or something equally respectable. He attended Phillips Academy, at Andover, where he joined the wrestling team and lived with the future minimalist Carl Andre. It was at Princeton that Stella first encountered, among other pieces in his art history professor’s collection, the paintings of Jasper Johns, which had a profound influence on his own early work (think stripes). After college Stella moved to New York, where the abstract expressionists were still running the show. He got a space on the Lower East Side and set to work, painting houses on the side. He was introduced to the premier dealer of the era, Leo Castelli, and entered a brotherhood that included Johns, Andy Warhol, and Robert Rauschenberg.

Castelli treated his artists like family, Stella says, nurturing their talent and occasionally lending them money—a far cry from today’s corporate-minded megadealers. “I used to get a $75-a-month stipend in 1959; that went a long way in those days,” he recalls. “And it wasn’t until 1969 that I got back to zero and didn’t owe Leo anything. The advances were always more than what he earned.” He smiles as he remembers the awkward meeting of his two families. “My father used to come down to the gallery and try to tell Leo what to do,” he says. “He wanted me to be more organized, and Leo said, ‘Well, it’s not so bad. Artists are a little disorganized by nature.’”

After the black paintings, Stella began his slow progression from two dimensions to three. The “Protractor” series of the late 1960s saw him paint hard-edged rainbows of color on asymmetrically combined, broadly curved canvases, forever leaving behind the rectangular frame.

“A shaped canvas was, in a funny way, a big jump for me,” he says now. “You might say that was the beginning of the end,” he adds with a laugh. Stella is referring to the way he went on to outrage the same people who made him a star when his art turned, in their estimation, busy and baroque. One of his most withering reviews came in response to his 2007 show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which Roberta Smith of The New York Times described as being full of “decorative pleasantries.” The critique began with an even plainer dismissal: “Perhaps Frank Stella should have quit when he was ahead.”

A segment of the critical world hasn’t liked anything Stella has done since the mid-1970s, and he has mostly shrugged it off. He likes to quote the dealer Sidney Janis: “I don’t read criticism, I just measure it.” But if you press Stella, he acknowledges the value of the media response to his work. “The critics and the journalism help give people the opportunity to see a show,” he says. “I guess I’d feel bad if I gave a show and nobody came. The point of it is to be seen.”

By the 1990s he had left painting behind for good, building elaborate painted sculptures with cones, stars, and French-curve shapes. Some of the largest such pieces became staples of corporate-lobby art, gracing office buildings from New York to Singapore. In the past decade, he has also experimented with temporary architectural spaces.

To Stella, his path is entirely logical. “Our most conventional idea about art is from the Renaissance,” he says patiently, as if he’s gone over this terrain before. “Most people did a little bit of everything: painting, sculpture, and architecture. Just because you were a specialist in one thing didn’t mean you couldn’t try another. And the results were great.”

Stella’s contemporary Brice Marden, who himself has had a MoMA retrospective, says that Stella’s later work has been highly underrated. “He doesn’t self-categorize,” says Marden. “He goes off on these tangents, and he’s very independent. I find it admirable.” Plenty of people have suggested Stella go back to geometric paintings on canvas. “That’s the advice I’ve received more than any other in my career,” he says. Two factors have kept him from doing so. One is intellectual. “Since I’ve been there before, it’s kind of a funny idea to go back,” he says. “I’d need a compelling reason, other than painting a lot of concentric squares to get money.” The other is physical. “I’m old,” he says. “I don’t have the use of my body, my hands. Painting for me was always really physical.” Not that he has stopped creating. “I like to work,” he says. “I like to keep going.”

Stella still lives in the West Village loft he bought in 1967, and he has a studio in Newburgh, New York, where he constructs his current sculptures using rapid prototyping, a computer-enabled technique involving 3-D printing. It can be a chaotic scene, with heavy materials stacked everywhere and clouds of fiberglass dust that require technicians to wear masks. Stella travels there a few days a week. Some nights he stays over at a farm he owns, where he also raises Thoroughbred horses, a longtime passion. He’s been married to his second wife, the physician Harriet McGurk, since 1978, and has five children from three relationships.

He doesn’t display his work at home, preferring to hang canvases by fellow abstract painters Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski in his living room. He has, however, been buying back some of his paintings at auction. “In the last five years, I’ve bought three or four,” he says, including pieces from his “Polish Village” series of the 1970s (he’s noted a resurgence of interest in them of late) and a metal relief painting of the 1980s. “I liked them, and they were cheap,” he says. “I’m like everybody else; I am a bargain hunter.” Maybe he can pick up a Protractor painting while he’s at it? “I can’t afford them,” he says.

He sees the Whitney show as a chance for people to understand how steady his exploration of abstraction and spatial relations has been, despite directions that have confounded some. He has a particularly painterly way of describing that evolution: “I keep going in a straight line—it’s the world that keeps going up and down.”

Photo Credits: L: Malcolm Lubliner / Corbis R: © 2015 Frank Stella / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; © 2014 Frank Stella / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Arnold Newman / Getty Images