Frank Stella's Work Makes Its Way to the Modern

Analysis and Art

Always one to evaluate the purpose behind the paint or sculpture, Frank Stella has for six decades created abstract art that is uncompromising and intellectually rigorous. He has successfully deconstructed the mechanics of creating a piece of art and then amplified the viewers’ preconceived notions about abstraction.

In Stella’s book, Working Space, he says, “The aim of art is to create space – space that is not compromised by decoration or illustration, space in which the subjects of painting can live.”

Michael Auping, chief curator at the Modern, characterizes Stella’s work as dynamically physical. “I would argue that they are the most physical paintings made in the 20th century. It is the kind of painting that moves into space while creating illusions at the same time. Even the colors are aggressive, radiating out to the viewer.”

Frank Stella, Gran Cairo, 1962. Alkyd on canvas. 85 9/16 × 85 9/16 in. (217.3 × 217.3 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from the Friends of the Whitney Museum of American Art 63.34. © 2015 Frank Stella/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Digital Image © Whitney Museum, N.Y.

The 120 works in the exhibit include paintings, maquettes, sculptures, drawings and reliefs. Much of the work displayed is well known, but they are shown alongside rarely seen pieces that have come from around the world.

Each of Stella’s painting periods is represented, from his cool and impersonal Black Paintings and the vibrantly colored and complex Irregular Polygons to the Exotic Birds of the late 70s and the Cones and Pillar series Stella created from 1984-1987. His recent work includes a series of sculptures named for the chapters in Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick.

Auping organized the show chronologically with carefully placed interruptions in the narrative to show how certain themes extend through the entire career development. “Certain types of illusions and spatial projections can be seen from beginning to end, and we want people to notice that from the beginning of the show to the end,” Auping says. While Auping is primarily responsible for the show’s installation, he utilizes Stella’s input.

What might be most interesting about Stella’s work is the transformation from the focus on brushstroke and dimension to the use of color and repeated geometric shapes completely devoid of emotional content. He then progressed to large-scale freestanding sculptures incorporating wood and industrial materials and later moved to complex works in printmaking.

Over his 40-year career, Auping says this is the largest and most complex exhibition he has ever done. “At this moment, 14 giant trailer trucks are driving from New York to Fort Worth filled with Frank Stella’s work. It’s a massive show full of ideas.”

It can easily be argued that Stella’s fearlessness to experiment and his analytical approach to his art have made him among the most influential painters in the movement from Abstract Expressionism to Minimalism. Famously credited with once saying, “What you see is what you see,” Stella’s comment became an almost credo for the Minimalist movement.

Auping believes that Stella’s career is one of the longest and most discussed careers in the last half century. “The exhibition is a nearly 60-year assessment of his development, which has influenced four generations of artists.”

Stella still lives and works in New York.