On a sunny morning in early September, 79-year-old artist Frank Stella stood on the loading dock of his studio in upstate New York. Across the street a gigantic crane was lifting a couple of hulking wooden crates off the back of a flatbed truck and, guided by two men in hard hats, gently setting them down in a clearing. “They’re about as good as it gets,” Stella said of the team, nodding with approval.
Stella continued to watch the action. Eventually the men got the crates—containing parts of a new work arriving from France, where they had been fabricated—on the ground. “If I was a Minimalist sculptor I’d be all done!” Stella quipped. There was a time when his new paintings were considered icons of Minimalism, but that was decades ago. Today his art is nothing of the sort. Arrayed nearby were more recent pieces, which are decidedly maximalist in design. Some were huge tangles of metal conjuring highway pileups or industrial accidents; one was a swirling star shape, with thin ribbons of metal slicing through space. They are defiantly unattractive, like so many of his newer pieces that have polarized critics. Looking at them, it was hard not to think that, after a protean, wildly successful career, Stella has lost his way, or perhaps willfully ventured off into the aesthetic wilderness.
“Alright, let’s get serious now,” Stella said, and then turned and shuffled into the studio.
On October 30 the Whitney Museum will inaugurate the third career-spanning solo museum show of Stella’s work to be held in New York. (His other two surveys in the city were at the Museum of Modern Art, in 1970 and 1987.) It is the Whitney’s first retrospective of a working artist in its widely lauded new Renzo Piano–designed home in the Meatpacking District.
Not many artists can boast a trifecta of New York museum exhibitions. Nevertheless, Stella seemed somewhat uninterested as he discussed the Whitney retrospective. He leaned back in a lawn chair inside his cavernous studio, which is filled with works he has made over the past few decades. “I’m working and showing all the time—and so are most artists,” he said at a clip, sucking on a burnt nub of a cigar. “The big museum shows are larger in the imagination of the public because that’s when they hear about you.” When he learns that a fellow artist is having a survey show, he said, his reaction is often, “Oh, I know his work like the back of my hand. What do I need to go to the retrospective for?”
But as curators have been telling Stella recently, few people know the full expanse of his work, which has evolved perhaps more dramatically than that of almost any contemporary artist, from spare, modestly sized abstract paintings to wild, cartwheeling painted-metal reliefs. “This is a man who has been absolutely fearless, somebody who does a body of work and when he feels that ideas are exhausted, he reinvents himself,” said Whitney director Adam Weinberg, who co-organized the show with Michael Auping, the chief curator of the Modern Art Museum of Forth Worth, where it will travel in April.
Stella’s mature output spans 60 years and—by Auping’s count—some 57 series and sub-series, and it has taken Auping six years to put the show together. “I kept asking myself: why hasn’t this been done before?” he told me by phone. “When I really got into looking at Frank’s whole career, and going out to the studio, I realized why it hadn’t been done before—because it is a massive body of work.”
The retrospective arrives at a time when many young artists have been embracing abstraction. “They tell me that,” Stella said. “I haven’t been knocked off my feet. Although, look, I’m basically sympathetic. I see a lot of things I like.” He paused for a second, lit a match, brought it up to the cigar, and puffed on it thoughtfully for a few moments. “It’s really hard to explain. You do get too old. It’s not that you lose your critical faculty or you lose your ability to like it and appreciate it, but you lose something in which you can’t—the future’s not available to you anymore, so you don’t know where it’s going.”
The son of a gynecologist father and a mother who painted in her spare time, Stella was born outside of Boston in 1936, attended the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, where he wrestled and played lacrosse (“It was pretty rough, yeah. I took a pounding.”), and then went to Princeton University, soaking up art along the way. Shortly after graduating, in 1958, he produced a series of black paintings that would become one of the landmarks of 20th-century art. Working freehand with black enamel and a housepainter’s brush, he laid down parallel bands of color—each separated by a hair’s breadth of white—on the canvas in geometric patterns. The resulting works were an alchemistic bridge between Minimalism and Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman’s reductive strain of Abstract Expressionism.
The “Black Paintings” caused a stir. Dorothy Miller, the trailblazing curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, wanted to put Stella in an exhibition, just as the legendary art dealer Leo Castelli was readying a solo show at his Upper East Side gallery. One story has Castelli dispatching Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg to Princeton to try to talk Stella out of doing the MoMA show so as not to blunt the force of his gallery debut.
“That is a complete, insane fabrication, okay?” Stella said. “It had nothing to do with anything.” The whole thing was a misunderstanding, he said. Stella thought that MoMA would present his work “up in the cafeteria, where they showed the young artists,” which, to him, didn’t seem worth doing. But soon Castelli learned that the artist was being invited to be in “16 Americans,” part of a closely watched series of showcases for emerging artists. The dealer told him to do it, and so, he told me, he did.
Stella could have made a whole career following where the “Black Paintings” led, especially once he shifted things up, working first with stripes of aluminum and copper paint on shaped canvases and then wholeheartedly embracing color. But his works grew larger and more exuberant, giving way by the mid-1970s to reliefs on metal that became increasingly sculptural with each passing year. Departing from any obvious trajectory for his work, these reliefs also bucked the prevailing trends, which tended toward the dematerialization of the art object.
Some vanguard critics levied brutal responses. The artist who had once seemed to be taking painting to its logical conclusion, vanquishing an outdated medium with expressionless color on canvas, was suddenly backtracking with a vengeance. In 1981 the writer, curator, and committed postmodernist Douglas Crimp wrote in the journal October, “[I]t was Stella’s earliest paintings which signaled to colleagues that the end of painting had finally come…[Now] each one reads as a tantrum, shrieking and sputtering that the end of painting has not come.” He concluded, “Stella’s recent works are, as Gerhard Richter said of painting, pure idiocy.”
Almost 35 years later, Stella, in his studio, shrugged when I mentioned those critiques. “I was brought up with the critics and with art history so that’s the only world I knew,” he said. “So, on again, off again, that didn’t much matter to me. That was their job, and I had my own job. I was pretty comfortable.”
Crimp and his allies aside, Stella was a commercial powerhouse throughout the 1970s and ’80s. He became part owner of a horse farm. He took up Cuban cigars when critic Clement Greenberg gave him a few of the late David Smith’s. “That was the first time I smoked a Cuban cigar—it was like, I suppose, what high-quality synthetic dope is now,” he told me.
By the 1990s Stella was, by any measure, still a success, but painting once again fell out of favor. When the gallerist Lawrence Rubin left Knoedler & Company acrimoniously in 1994, Stella departed too, and he was suddenly without a New York dealer. For the next two decades he bounced from gallery to gallery, working with everyone from Sperone Westwater to Larry Gagosian, always trying to find ways to fund his ever-more-ambitious work.
A few years ago Stella told Katya Kazakina in Bloomberg that getting financing from Gagosian was a rather tricky endeavor. “He’s kind of cheap, yeah,” Stella told me in his studio. “But, actually, I have nothing against Larry. He bought work from me, and he bought work that he still hasn’t sold, mega dealer that he may be.”
Stella recently signed up with two new dealers, Marianne Boesky and Dominique Lévy. “It’s really a question of money, as they say,” he said. “It’s hard to get advances nowadays, but Marianne was willing to go along with the program so that made a difference.”
Even for seasoned fans, and I count myself one of them, Stella’s recent work has not been easy to like. Much of it takes the form of swirly objects, rippled planes, and curving rods made out of metal or carbon fiber, their surfaces sprayed with auto-body paint, mounted on or leaned against walls. Stella sometimes bends smaller works into shape by hand. They look like deformed models of viruses, or perhaps early satellites.
“It may be that not everybody likes every body of work,” Weinberg said. “Nobody would. But that’s not the point.” He mentioned Stella being a wrestler, which is about “being a fighter, and never giving up, and constantly working through problems.”
“I think Frank thinks of painting as a series of moves,” Weinberg continued, “both in the larger sense of the whole career and internally within the works themselves.”
In Stella’s studio, when I visited, there was a meticulous re-creation of the doomed Exxon Valdez oil tanker and another of the Hindenburg zeppelin, which Stella had attached to a sculpture with curving rods. His largest works are fabricated by outside specialists. “What we do is basically model making,” he said, “so it’s nice to see what the other people do.” Asked about those ominous vehicles, Stella replied only, “I don’t know. Somehow disasters seem to come to mind.”
Sitting on one table was a 3-D-printed scale model for a soaring pavilion with a carbon-fiber roof. Such new works often start as digital scans, which Stella has assistants tweak on a computer. One piece grew out of a starburst-like seedpod that he picked up at the New York Botanical Garden. Others have been known to come from clippings from the children’s nature magazine Ranger Rick. It is hard to square this extroverted work, with its sci-fi expressionist look, with the just-the-facts paintings of Stella’s early career, but it shares with them a certain probing sensibility, a desire to cut up and morph space.
How does he know when an object or image will work as a scan? “Well, I don’t think it’s very tricky,” Stella said. “It’s basically about the geometries. So, there’s plane geometry, there’s solid geometry, and then there are more complex—there’s topology with complex surfaces and curved surfaces. That sounds like, well, that’s kind of boring: ‘It’s just about geometry.’ But on the other hand, nobody makes art that—you know, you have to have a geometry to make marks on.”
That put him in mind of Paleolithic cave paintings. “Actually, in Lascaux they had quite a complicated geometry, the surfaces,” he said. “It’s insanely complicated. It’s a cave, okay. It’s a big cave, and then it gets small, then it’s big. They’re working quite a bit on almost all the surfaces. It’s a little hard to see.
“I went once,” he continued. “They let me in the beginning part about 20 years ago.” He sighed. “And it was great.”
His wry, gruff mood, which had momentarily lifted, returned. I had been told that Stella kept in his collection pieces from throughout his career, but he brushed aside that idea. “That’s a fantasy,” he said. The only work he still has was sitting in his studio. “And I didn’t hold onto it,” he said. “It’s what I can’t sell.”
Andrew Russeth is co-excutive editor at ARTnews.
A version of this story originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 70 under the title “The Wrestler.”