Over a 40-year career as a curator, I’ve interviewed hundreds of artists, each of them different and challenging in their own ways. However, “different” and “challenging” don’t begin to describe Frank Stella. Words like obsessed, relentlessly deductive, argumentative, self-critical, and “Malden, Massachusetts tough” (his birth place) come to mind; as do well-mannered, and well-educated (Andover and Princeton). As a result of a combination of fine art sophistication and blue-collar, bottom-line logic, you can never predict what kind of answer you are going to get to a question or what question you should ask next. At nearly 80 years of age, Stella still seems one step ahead of the game, remaining the hyper, complex personality and deconstructionist of abstraction that brought him to international attention in the late 1950s when he painted his famous Black paintings with house paint and a house painter’s brush.
The photographic series The Secret World of Frank Stella was a collaboration between Stella and his Phillips Academy classmate and long-time friend Hollis Frampton (photographer, conceptualist, filmmaker), parodying the cliché of behind-the-scenes photographs of famous artists (Picasso in particular), as well as famous paintings in art history. Stella is photographed as representing a myriad of identities: laboriously finishing one of his Black paintings; mischievously standing by a barber’s pole that mimics the lines in his Concentric paintings; or seated in a bulldozer at a construction site. To my mind, it is not only a reflection of Stella’s changing artistic personality, but a photographic analogy to his point-counterpoint approach to artmaking.
When it comes to the development and history of his own work, Stella’s mindset is naturally skeptical and self-critical, questioning the veracity of his motives and processes and their outcomes the way a lawyer would question a hostile witness. The evidence of this has been his constant need to make new paintings in response to previous ones. The result is a production of an enormous body of work—in terms of numbers and physical heft—over a 60-year career (by my count, at least 40 different series and subseries, with many variations within a series).
His career has been about working his way through problems—problems that he imposes both on the processes of painting and the presumptions of abstraction. Typically, he creates a system and works with it until it breaks down, and then he retrieves a new system from the debris, which may be why his interviews often seem like he is speaking from a desolate ground zero.
The following are excerpts from an ongoing series of interviews we began on October 10, 2009. Other statements and quotes by the artist are included in the catalogue Frank Stella: A Retrospective. For me, these thoughts allow us to see a number of the artist’s acclaimed series through his own eyes, which have a fascinating counterintuitive quality. But that is how I found Stella’s mind and art to be divided—between logic and counterintuition. I’ve chosen the excerpts based on the artist’s work from different decades.
Michael Auping: For my generation, the Black paintings are iconic. Their severe logic and starkness was so different than the painting that preceded you….
Frank Stella: They are not that radical. I mean, I suppose they looked different for their time, but I was basically trying to make my own form of Abstract Expressionism. Even though they were made with house paint, I thought they were painterly and expressive. You felt that they were made by someone’s hand. They were just painterly in a logical way. I was trying to be logical about what Abstract Expressionism did.
Auping: Isn’t logic a contradiction to Expressionism?
Stella: Well, I thought it was important to think about what I was going to paint before I painted it. Expressionism is a bit of a misnomer when it comes to painting. You can’t just be “expressive.” It just gets messy. You often over-painted or over-expressed your way into a bad painting. That’s one of the reasons I used house paint. Besides the fact that it was very cheap (inexpensive), it slowed you down a little. House paint is hard work. It’s very physical.
Auping: Those blunt, straight lines make Abstract Expressionism seem facile and airy.
Stella: Well, another thing about those lines is they are not that straight. People don’t look at them carefully. You can’t paint a straight line over that big of a surface of a stretched canvas. They get a little wobbly. People have always said they are very matter-of-fact, very deadpan, but there is illusionism in them created by that wobbliness. Also, the edges of those lines are more brushy and “expressive” than they may have looked at the time. Everything is relative. Believe it or not, I think of them as somewhat painterly. They are closer to Abstract Expressionism than many thought at the time.
Auping: I don’t see that much illusionism in the Black and Aluminum or the Copper paintings.
Stella: It’s there. Look harder.
1960s, Op Art
Auping: I do see illusionism in the 1960s Concentric Square paintings with their bright colors, and to me they almost seem like a refutation of the earlier [Black, Aluminum, and Copper] paintings.
Stella: Well, I didn’t think so. I was still painting lines and still using house paint, just a different kind. I guess it depended on where you thought the Black and Aluminum paintings were going. They were all about creating a tension, a push and pull. You need visual texture and tension to sustain the eye’s attention. The thick lines and the patterns of the Black paintings had that, and I wanted to take it further. And then I found a new paint that would punch things up. The color of the Concentric Square paintings boosts the illusionism. The eye is pulled in a lot of directions. The color is meant to be aggressive and kind of contentious, even misleading within the composition. The eye likes dissonance. It’s what keeps us looking. It makes us want to re-organize what we see. Great composition is not about balance, but about imbalance. Imbalance keeps you looking.
Auping: You were thought of as a pioneer of the Op Art movement that was so popular in the 60s.
Stella: I certainly wasn’t the originator or even a pioneer of it. Illusionism, even radical illusionism, has been around a long time. As far as Op art goes, I had a cup of coffee with it. That’s about it. I quickly found ways to be unpopular.
Auping: How would you describe the color in your paintings of the 60s when you used Benjamin Moore colors and even Day-Glo colors?
Stella: I’m not a colorist. I use color a lot, but it’s not about nuance and being complementary in the normal sense. To me color is physical, like everything else in painting.
Auping: The Polish Village paintings seem like they were almost not painted, more like they were built.
Stella: They were both. I like making things. I like having to work at painting. You have to work hard. Otherwise, it’s embarrassing to be an artist.
Auping: You’ve always been thought of as the last defender of abstraction, pure abstraction, but in the last couple of decades some of your paintings have referred to literature; Melville’s Moby-Dick, Italo Calvino’s folktales. Does that run contrary to the early tenets of abstraction and its goals of pure, non-referential form?
Stella: Abstraction has never been pure. That is something that painters know, but others have a hard time understanding. An abstract painting actually refers to a lot more things than a figurative painting, which is very specific. Abstract painting is very open, it’s specifically open, which means you can attach a lot more ideas to it.
Even if painting just refers to itself, it is referring to materials, and materials refer to the world. I used to use Benjamin Moore paint. It’s house paint, paint that is out in the world. Pollock used aluminum paint and Duco enamel. Those are references.
Auping: In the 90s, you worked with a lot of metal, and the work got more and more physical or more dimensional. At what point does painting become sculpture?
Stella: I don’t know. You tell me. To me it’s all painting. Call it three-dimensional painting or painterly sculpture if you want… Painting has been using minerals from the beginning. I’ve always liked painting with metal or metal-like materials. The Copper and Aluminum paintings were basically painted with liquid metal. I’ve never thought painting should be easy. [laughter] It’s harder to paint using metal. It’s heavy and thick, but I like its insistence as a physical material. I think of the poured metal pieces as very painterly. They’re like a magnified close-up of a painted surface by Pollock, Manet, or Rubens. I guess everything looks like painting to me.
2000 and Now
Auping: What kinds of things influence you today? I know you have embraced the computer, which is not a very painterly device.
Stella: The computer is a tool. It’s not an influence. I’ve had a lot of influences and strong ones. At a certain point in life, you realize that influences are periodic, and that there have been a lot more of them than you realized when you were younger…Believe it or not, Surrealism has been a pretty big influence.
Stella, Adam Weinberg (director of the Whitney Museum), and I installed the show Frank Stella: A Retrospective on the largest floor (18,000 square feet) of the Whitney’s new building, on view through February 2016. It holds over a half century of Stella’s art. It is not a strictly chronological hang, which creates some surprising juxtapositions; Frank’s battles with his own seriality will undoubtedly show through.
I lost a battle for the strict chronology I thought I wanted, but in the process I learned something very important about the essence of Frank’s art: It’s not about sequencing a “logical” narrative or playing to an audience that is comforted by that. He is working for and against himself, using counterintuition as fuel. The logic is embedded in a pattern of building-destroying-rebuilding. Sure, the early Black paintings that were the Holy Grail for Minimalism appear remarkably methodical, but in the context of the whole career they can also be seen as predicting other qualities. I think many people have been and will be surprised by this retrospective.
This monumental exhibition should dispel any secrets about Stella’s approach to abstraction. These are aggressive and physical “paintings,” both in their opticality and their interaction with the space of rooms. At nearly 80, Frank is still throwing it at us. Some viewers will revel in the visceralness of the presentation. Others will be angered by its over-the-top effect. As one young artist, not yet convinced, admitted, “I hope I can still piss people off when I’m 80.”