Get ready to be dazzled by Stellaworld. The dozens of eye-popping paintings and massive sculptures executed by Frank Stella, beginning in 1958, that fill the Whitney Museum’s capacious fifth floor and outdoor terrace are going to envelop you. As soon as you step off the elevator, you’ll be facing Das Erdbeben in Chili (The Earthquake in Chile), from 1999, a classic horror vacui in which complex geometric patterns collide and sputter across a canvas field that stretches for more than 40 feet; Pratfall, from 1974, hanging beside it, is an optical sensation. Both works set the pace for this career survey show, Stella’s third in New York, and the first mounted in 28 years.
Many of the 79-year-old artist’s golden oldies are featured in “Frank Stella: A Retrospective,” which was organized by the Whitney’s director, Adam Weinberg, and Michael Auping, the chief curator at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas, to which it will travel in April. You’ll find Stella’s austere “Black Paintings” (1958–60) the modishly colored “Irregular Polygons” (1965–66), “Exotic Birds” (1976–80) comprised of aluminum, metal tubing, and wire mesh, and the “Cones and Pillar” (1984–1987) series that spill several feet off the wall and, in at least one instance, are a blend of oil, urethane enamel, fluorescent alkyd, acrylic, and printing ink on etched magnesium and aluminum. More recent works range from a group of behemoths named for chapters in Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick to riveting sculptural assemblages of metal, plexiglass, and fiberglass that would establish anyone else as a singular new talent.
When Stella first exhibited his black stripe canvases in 1959 at the Museum of Modern Art, the recent Princeton graduate’s friend Carl Andre wrote in the exhibition’s catalogue, “Art excludes the unnecessary. Frank Stella has found it necessary to paint stripes. There is nothing else in his paintings… His stripes are the path of brush on canvas. These paths lead only into painting.” Five years later, Stella himself pithily declared, “What you see is what you see.” Some commentators suggested his art signaled the end of painting. That turned out not to be the case.
Instead, for almost 60 years, Stella has shown us what it means to make abstract art, to be uncompromising, to be intellectually rigorous, to not be afraid to take risks. His work never became dull, uninteresting, or banal. If anything, it can be faulted for its excessive razzmatazz.
Initially, Stella showed us what paint looks like straight from a can. Then he called our attention to the stretcher bars—the supports—that hold the surfaces of fine art in place by introducing shaped canvases. Methodically, he deconstructed what it takes to make a painting, and then he turned around and amplified everything we ever needed to know about the visual language of abstraction.
At the Whitney, you’ll find works made with colors manufactured by Benjamin Moore, complex geometric figures that aren’t taught in high-school math classes, and all sorts of textures and materials you never associated with painting. Stella has tilted planes, looped lines, sprinkled points of glitter, and created expansive volumes. He’s even fabricated a sculpture—Black Star (2014)—that is shiny on one side and matte on its other half. How important are the dimensions of a work of art? You’ll find the answer here. And then there’s “Working Space,” the name of a series of lectures he delivered at Harvard and later published as a book. As Stella put it in 1986, “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.” Or, as he also explained, “I look for organizational motifs in painting. Space is one.”
Rather than calling this survey show “Frank Stella: A Retrospective,” it could have been heralded as “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Abstraction.”
The artist has even been diligent about the titles of his paintings. They’re not intended to identify what he’s depicted. You shouldn’t use them the way you might read a libretto. Rather, they remind us about the zeitgeist. They’re about broader cultural issues. Often, they introduce multiple associations.
Take, for example, Die Fahne hoch! This black stripe painting from 1959 refers to the official marching song of the Nazis. It also was executed with house paints, the sort Adolph Hitler once used. The “Irregular Polygons” are less momentous but more personal, being named for lakes, rivers, and towns in New Hampshire where the artist and his father would go fishing. Then there are the “Polish Villages” (1971–73), which were designed and cut with the aid of computers. They’re named for wooden synagogues built in Poland during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries and destroyed during World War II; when the artist was recovering from knee surgery in the summer of 1970, architect Richard Meier gave him a book about these handcrafted shuls. The “Exotic Birds” call attention to bird watching, a hobby enjoyed by Stella’s wife. There are series named for South African mines, imaginary landscapes, and Bali (which refers to a book on Balinese culture by Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson). While his paintings are decidedly abstract, Stella’s titles cast a wider net, reminding us about the world at large.
As for the way the exhibition has been installed, it, too, is a work of art. It was brilliantly orchestrated by Stella. If you like things neat and tidy, this won’t be your cup of tea—it is not ordered chronologically. With one bold stroke, the artist circumvented what was going to be a huge problem. The paintings he executed early on, during the late 1950s and the 1960s, are so well known, so familiar, that they are practically impossible to look at freshly. Had the “Black Paintings,” the “Aluminum Paintings” (1960), the “Copper Paintings” (1960–61), and the Benjamin Moore series (1957–72) been hung together, one after another, you probably would have glanced at them quickly and moved on. Instead, the way the work has been mixed together forces you to slow down. You start to wonder why “Irregular Polygons” are next to “Moby Dicks” (1986–89), or why Chodorow II (1971) is on the same wall as Gobba, zoppa e collotorto (1985). Stella has treated the hang of almost 60 years of his paintings in a manner that’s reminiscent of the way the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia subverts conventions. In the end, you really look hard.
If Frank Stella has magisterially showed us how to make abstract paintings, he’s also eloquently shared with us how to keep going and get old gracefully.