BY VAL CASTRONOVO
Frank Stella has never been easy to pin down. He has no signature style, but rather a running series of styles that build on each other or reach for something entirely new. The 79-year-old abstract artist, now the subject of a career retrospective at the Whitney’s new downtown digs, was restless and always pushing the boundaries of painting — moving from the rigid geometry of his famous minimalist “Black Paintings” of the late 1950s to the colorful, raucous, bursting-at-the-seams relief paintings and sculptures of more recent decades.
It has been a wild ride for sure, and Whitney Director Adam Weinberg and Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth Chief Curator Michael Auping have succeeded brilliantly in taming the beast and presenting a roughly chronological survey of one of America’s greatest living artists.
Nearly 100 paintings, prints, drawings, sculptures, reliefs and maquettes comprise the museum’s sprawling special exhibition, which spans six decades and the length of the fifth floor. The uninitiated will marvel at the radical simplicity and symmetry of the mid-century linear paintings and the off-the-wall (literally), super-charged, in-your-face complexity and asymmetry of the end-of-century painting-sculpture hybrids.
You half expect the latter, in all their brassiness, to get up and walk. Or lumber across the floor, given their colossal dimensions and all the jangly parts. Or swim. After all, one series, “Moby-Dick,” is a response to the 135 chapter titles of Melville’s classic tale. The extravagant reliefs from the series on display here (e.g., “The Whiteness of the Whale,” 1987) evoke crashing waves and fins while remaining absolutely true to the artist’s abstract roots.
Stella was famous for his terse declaration, “What you see is what you see.” What we see is an artist hell-bent on experimentation, reinvention and the process of making a painting — always adding to, subtracting from or tearing apart and starting over. He was forever itching to expand pictorial space, deriving inspiration from baroque painter Caravaggio, who radically pushed his forms up against the picture plane — moving outward from the canvas, versus receding inward, to create the illusion of depth and three-dimensionality. Stella responded with “St. Michael’s Counterguard” (1984) and “Gobba, zoppa e collotorto” (1985) — both on exhibit here — works that literally project outward into the viewer’s space.
As his exploration of abstraction evolved, he moved away from systematic depictions of geometric shapes and patterns—his trademark stripes, triangles and concentric diamonds — to paintings less reductive, incorporating decorative and representational elements that add energy, verve, volume and narrative (think “Moby-Dick” but also the “Polish Village” series, the latter with simulated planks that allude to wooden synagogues that were destroyed by the Nazis during World War II). As Weinberg quoted Stella at a recent preview: “I feel responsible to push abstraction beyond what anyone could imagine.”
The show is a gorgeous sampling from the artist’s vast oeuvre, which includes more than 50 series and thousands of individual works. Here we see selections from the “Aluminum and Copper” series, the “Concentric Square” series, the “Protractor” series, the “Exotic Bird” series and the “Irregular Polygon” series — for starters. Stella innovated and shaped canvases to accommodate his designs — the elegant “Empress of India” (1965) is a prime example — and famously riffed Jasper Johns’ American flags with those stripes.
Born in Malden, Massachusetts, in 1936, Stella attended Phillips Academy, Andover, where he became a wrestler and devoted student of abstract art. He graduated from Princeton University in 1958 and immediately moved to New York, where he became famous almost overnight when his “Black Paintings” were included in a show at the Museum of Modern Art, “Sixteen Americans,” the next year. He subsequently enjoyed two retrospectives of his work at MoMA, the most recent in 1987.
In an exhibit rife with large-scale works, there are at least two elephants in the room. “Damascus Gate (Stretch Variation III)” (1970), a 50-foot-wide painting from the popular “Protractor” series, is situated smack in the middle of the exhibit space, while “Raft of the Medusa (Part 1)” (1990), a hulking, aluminum-and-steel sculptural work inspired by 19th century French romantic Théodore Géricault’s painting about a shipwreck, is fittingly situated in a gallery overlooking the Hudson River. Stella, who helped install the show, gave “Damascus Gate” a central location so it could act as a sort of engine, animating the space around it with its vivid bands of color.
As Scott Rothkopf, the Whitney’s chief curator, noted at the preview, Stella is known for his “sense of adventure. He’s never been on autopilot.” And in his quest to push abstraction where it’s never been before, he has employed computer-aided design (CAD) software and 3-D printing to link his recent work “to its time.” In that spirit, he’s used readymade, Benjamin Moore commercial paints in the 1960s, disco-inspired colors in the late 1970s, and the language of graffiti and street art in the 1980s.
“Stella World,” as Weinberg dubbed the show, is on view through February 7.