The Fort Lauderdale Art Museum currently has a splendid exhibit of the works of
American artist, Frank Stella. It is the largest retrospective of his career. Stella was
born in Massachusetts in 1936 and attended Andover and Princeton U. He began
painting while in high school.
Sixteen rooms are devoted to the works in the show entitled "Experiment and
Change." Stella's style has changed much over the years. This is the beginning of
the show, and the large work on the left is from the "Moby Dick Series," but we will
leave that until later, and enter into Gallery 1.
Looking back at the entrance and gift shop. On the wall above is one of the
"Imaginary Cities" Series, and we will come back to that. The exhibit contains
almost 300 of Stella's works, more than three times the size of the Stella shows in
New York and San Francisco and Fort Worth three years ago.
"Perfect Day for Banana Fish" 1958. This is the earliest of Stella's works, from
his senior year at Princeton. He was trying to be like Pollock and Kline and the
great Abstract Expressionists of New York.
"Requiem for Johnny Stompanato." 1958. The influence of Jasper Johns and the
"Flag" paintings is very great. Like all of these painting, the name was added after
the work was completed and is not the "inspiration" for the work.
After graduation, Stella moved to New York to become a great artist and
associate with the others. New York was the world capital of art after WW II
and a very exciting place to be for a young artist. "Grape Island" 1958.
"Delta" 1958. But Stella was unhappy with his paintings; they were not really what
he wanted to paint. So he decided to strip his paintings of all extraneous elements and
reduce them to the basics - pigment on canvas. He did a number of "Black Paintings"
in 1958, in which black stripes are held apart by thin lines of unpainted canvas.
The next step was to give some structure to his paintings, and he did so in a number of
silver-colored works based on stripes and only verticals and horizonals. This is "Hollis
Frampton." But Stella was interested in the process of perception - how do viewers see
a painting and space and depth. The idea occurred to him to shape the canvas to the image
and not the image to the canvas.
"Creme de Pepsi I." The "Mitered Maze" Series appeared next. It was also based on
stripes and thin lines of unprimed canvas, but the stripes seem to lead to a central
vanishing point. But our perception is confused: there are no real squares here,
except for the outer form; there is no movement; and since all the stripes are the same width,
they don't really seem to recede.
"Creme de Pepsi II." 1963. Then Stella returned to color, continuing to use the
stripe format and the Mitered maze. The stripes are all perfectly flat and even in
color. Are we looking down into a funnel or the top of a pyramid?
The next stage was to free up the form and perception, and Stella began to use
copper paints for a warm, mechanical appearance. "Creede" is about 6 ft high;
the stripes are unpainted canvas, and each of the stripes is meticulously hand-
painted, but showing no signs of individual painting.
"Valparaiso Flesh and Green" 1963. The V form was the basis of his paintings
in 1963, and he used two, three, four, or six large Vs, six feet high, and shaped the
canvas to support the image. No longer is this an image on a rectangular surface.
Stella was interested in painting as an object in itself, not as a reproduction of
Galleries with these paintings, usually called "Minimalist."
"Dade" uses a modified V form and unpainted canvas for lines.
"Effingham IV" 1966. For several years, he then experimented with irregular
polygons and shaped the canvases to the images.
"Sunapee I" 1966 is eight feet high. As the irregular polygons became more
complex, he began to paint on fiberboard, which was easier to cut and shape.
"Sunapee II" 1966 was one of several dozen versions of this form in various
color combinations which he painted. Did blues and blacks look further away or
"deeper" than other colors? How does the eye perceive?
"deeper" than other colors? How does the eye perceive?
"Tuftonboro III" 1966 introduced the triangular shape into the composition. The
triangle cut into the rectangle, but was also absorbed by it. The triangle created
tension, but also release.
"Moultonboro III" 1966. Stella did more than 100 variations of this form,
moving the triangle into different positions to see the effect on our visual perception -
is the triangle in front of the square or behind it? Are the green stripes on top of
the black background or are they on the same plane? Is the white a window and
open or a color interacting with the others? Do you feel there is space here between
the front and back? And yet they are all simply geometric forms.
"WWRL" 1967 began the new series of Concentric Squares, no longer mitered but
fitting into perfect squares and perfect harmony. In Black and white or color, is the
center receding away from us? Is there space created out of pure color? No windows
and no landscape and no objects getting smaller to show distance.
"Basra Gate" 1968 is part of the Protractor Series.
"Basra Gate" 1968. The simple architectural-drawing aid, the protractor, became the
basis of many of his works for many years. This one is 12 feet long and makes use
of three bands of color. It was the first time Stella allowed a curved line in his work.
The ambiguity of perception continues: is the peach area light? an opening? Is the
dark green a frame or background? They can't be. They are all flat on the surface of
"Saskatoon" 1968. The introduction of the protractor, which his mother gave to him
as a present, opened enormous possibilities. Stella did an entire series of more than
twenty large canvases called "Saskatchewan." These arcs and partial circles seem to go
above and below other bands at the same time; they are transparent and yet they are solid.
"Saskatoon" 1968. The idea of transparency and several layers of image all
together fascinated Stella. Perception was again deceived.
"Viraqla Variation II" 1968. Stella now made more than 100 variations on this
circle and arc form; he named them after sites in Iraq, which had prehistoric circular
structures. Notice that the arcs do not coincide perfectly. It is 8 feet high.
"Viraqla Variation II" 1968 on left wall.
The museum's spaces and galleries are large and open and light.
In 1970, Stella, who loves racing cars and racing horses, decided to paint two very
large "racetrack paintings" with very large areas of flat color. This is "Deauville." It
is painted entirely by hand, in contrast to the frequent practice of artists at the time
to use mechanical means to paint images. You understand the complete image in one
glance; there is no need to look around and try to figure out what the painting "means."
"What you see is what you see" was his famous dictum.
"Agua Caliente" 1970 is the second of the "racetrack pictures." This is the first time
the two have been exhibited together. They are 45 feet long each.
Gallery with "Exotic Bird" and "Bafq / Persian Suite" and "Agua Caliente."
"Bafq" 1965 from the "Persian Suite." Stella likes to travel and frequently visits the
Middle East. He often uses titles related to his travels, but they are not meant to be
literal; the names were chosen after the paintings were completed.
In 1971 Stella was given a book with photos of Jewish synagogues which had been
destroyed by the Nazis as they marched to Moscow. He used the names of villages
for a series of new works, which became "pictorial sculptures." These three are called
"Sukowola 1, 2, and 3." They are made of fiberboard with two additional layers of thin
wood laid on top. The left piece is perfectly flat, although the colors suggest foreground
and background. In the middle piece, the top layer of wood has been cut into the form so
that there is a literal foreground and background. And in the form on the right, where you
can see the shadows clearly, the panels are angled and deep.
"Sukowola 1" 1973. This is perfectly flat, although the light and dark colors suggest
foreground and background and cause confusion of visual perception. Is the yellow
"closer" to you and the brown "further away?" It is all perfectly flat.
"Sukowola 2" 1973. Here you can see that the brown layer of wood has been cut with
indentations and lies on top of the cream and purple and turquoise. Yet, our eyes perceive
light colors to be foreground and dark colors background, the reverse of what we see here.
"Sukowola 3" 1973. Here the cut out sections are deep and tilted and the colors more
puzzling than ever - what seems closer? What seems further away?
Another year his mother gave him a "French Curve," a tool for architectural drawings.
He began to incorporate the complex curve, much more than a protractor, into his
paintings, and he entitled the series, "Exotic Birds." This is "Fawn-Breasted Bowerbird"
of 1976. This is not a drawing of a bird, but a title added after completion of the
"Kagu Exotic Bird" 1976, also based on the forms created by the French Curve.
In 1977 Stella used honeycomb aluminum for "Eskimo Curlew" of the "Exotic Bird" series.
The French curve is used three times and is cut out of the back, so that the pieces seem to
float on the surface. It is difficult to paint on aluminum, so at this time Stella used acids
to etch the aluminum surface and then special pigments to add color.
"Eskimo Curlew" 1977. A side view shows how the entire back is tilted, how segments of
the aluminum sheet have been cut, and the floating pieces of aluminum. Some critics now
said he was creating sculpture, but Stella insisted this was 3D painting.
The wall tags admit some "anomalies" in these works; aluminum had been
occasionally used before, and the subjects had been used before.
"Lapa I" 1975. Stella began working with corrugated aluminum or honeycomb aluminum.
He began to cut fragments out of the flat surface of the painting and reattach them at
various angles. He still called these "paintings," although others said he had now moved
into sculpture. These pieces are 3 dimensional, but they are attached to the wall like
"Lapa I" 1975. Side view. You can see here the complexity of the piece and the
various angles and depths of space.
"Leblon II" 1975 is another of these "pictorial sculptures."