Frank Stella is an abstract painter, mixed-media sculptor, printmaker, and architectural designer who is associated with color field painting of the late 1950s and 1960s. He pioneered the creation of shaped paintings around 1960. Although this innovation was not unprecedented in modernist art (Pablo Picasso, Kurt Schwitters, and others made them earlier in the twentieth century), they became widespread in the 1960s and after largely because of Stella. He is best known for abstract imagery that is extremely linear, geometric, smooth surfaced, and symmetrical and for using canvases of complex geometric, organic, or irregular shapes that deviate sharply from traditional rectangular, oval, and circular painting surfaces. Stella's paintings merge the flatness of the painted abstracted imagery and the surface of the canvas so that they become one and the same. They fulfill some of the central intentions and tenets of modernist art, including completely nonrepresentational imagery, extreme flatness, the elimination of any special focus or emphasis within compositions, and the revelation of the self-evident qualities of artistic materials and techniques, such as paints applied with brushes or other implements to canvas.
Born and raised in Malden, Massachusetts, Stella became interested in art as a teenager while a student at Phillips Academy in Andover. He studied history and art at Princeton University, and upon graduating in 1958 moved to New York City to paint. Coming into artistic maturity in the late 1950s, Stella was very familiar with abstract expressionism, which had dominated American art for 15 years. At this time, he also became familiar and intrigued with the work of Jasper Johns. It was the combined result of these divergent styles and ideas, of pursuing flatness and literalness and eliminating personal, emotive expression while continuing to paint abstractly, that led to Stella's characteristic geometrically abstract painting, which he produced from the late 1950s until the 1970s.
Stella's first important paintings were his Black Paintings of 1958–1959, such as Die Fahne Hoch! and The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, in which long black lines of equal width separated by narrow unpainted strips of canvas are repeated sequentially across rectangular canvases, emphasizing the flat, two-dimensional surface of painting and achieving the total elimination of compositional emphasis and focus for absolute regularity, symmetry, and flatness. In the Aluminum Series of 1960, with paintings such as Avicenna, Stella used metallic paint to create rhythmic, sequential, flat images with bilateral symmetry that led him to cut the corners of the canvases to maintain this symmetry. This quickly led Stella to experiment further with more radically shaped picture surfaces in his Copper Series of 1960–1961, arranging large rectangular areas of sequential bands of metallic color in right-angled combinations of L's, T's, H's, X's, crosses, triangles, and the like, as in Ophir (1961) and Pagosa Springs (1962). By 1960, Stella was represented by the Leo Castelli Gallery, one of the most important galleries in the world at the time for modernist art, and his works were being included in major museum exhibitions internationally.
By the mid-1960s, Stella's paintings became more diverse and complex in their shapes and colors. In the Notched V Series of the mid-1960s, Stella arranged chevron shapes at various angles with their sides adjacent, and he began to combine large areas of different muted, often metallic hues. Empress of India (1965) consists of four chevrons, each one painted a somber brown. Stella also began to work with bright, vivid, saturated spectrum hues in complex geometric and circular shapes. He often used bright, vivid alkyd, epoxy, and acrylic paints in his Irregular Polygon Series of 1965–1967. In the Irregular Polygons, which include Conway I and Moultonville II (both 1966), shaped canvases were constructed with large, varied, and adjoining geometric shapes and painted with diverse, bright, saturated hues that fill large areas or outline broad geometric shapes. In his Protractor Series of 1967–1971, he used an even wider variety of hues, tones, and shades, often making them somewhat pale and translucent. This allowed greater variety and subtlety with color than he had ever achieved before. The Protractor Series repeatedly used three complex geometric shapes of canvases that he divided up in various ways with large protractor shapes that overlap, abut, and intersect, achieving a total of 93 works in the series. Some of them are as large as gallery walls, approaching 10 by 25 feet, and thus are the largest works of his career up to that time. Works such as Tahkt-i-Sulayman I (1967), Harran II (1967), and Agbatana III (1968) feature circles, semicircles, and other fragments of circles comprised of colorful protractor shapes arranged in complex ways and painted in diverse, vibrant, but carefully modified hues.
Around 1970, Stella began making many prints, often using them to explore themes from earlier paintings. He also started to create painted relief sculptures with metal, wood, and various found objects; and like his early paintings, these have often been conceived as groups and given intriguing titles, such as his Indian Birds Series of the 1980s. However, they are often gaudy and brash in their colors, rough and irritating in their textures, and asymmetrical and uneven in their arrangement of forms and creation of depth. Since the late 1980s, he has produced many architectural designs.
As a history major and Ivy League graduate, it is not surprising that Stella often gave his works complex, thought-provoking titles that relate to regions, cities, and towns all over the world; famous people; major historical events; and so on. Yet Stella has almost always dismissed claims that there is underlying social, political, philosophical, or spiritual meaning in his work. This makes his work typical of much abstract art of the 1960s but at odds with nearly all earlier abstraction, including abstract expressionism. Early in his career, Stella said, “my painting is based on the fact that only what can be seen there is there” and “all I want anyone to get out of my paintings, and all I ever get out of them, is the fact that you can see the whole idea without any confusion.”
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