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frank stella

2 june 2016

The first thing you notice about Frank Stella: A retrospective after removing the catalog from the slipcase is that you really need the slipcase. The book is a large-format but lightweight thing, essentially a paperback bound in boards: but the boards are cut away to follow the contours of one of Frank Stella's typical bas-relief images. As a result the boards don't do a very good job of holding the book together. There may be a metaphor there for the artist initially ceding control over his work to elements of chance and the vagaries of materials (and afterwards binding the results together under tight control), but that's a stretch; and it's only partially a workable metaphor for Frank Stella's art anyway.

Michael Auping's catalog of the Stella retrospective organized by the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and the Whitney Museum of American Art begins with an essay, by Adam D. Weinberg, on Stella's early artistic experience. Stella went from a high school (Phillips Academy) that had a first-rate art program to a university (Princeton) that didn't have a an art program at all. Weinberg says that Stella was merely trying to get away from the Boston area and didn't think much about undergraduate training in art. He was a wrestler and a strong, intellectually curious history student; his father was a doctor and Stella thought for a while that he might become a lawyer. There is probably something to be said for avoiding narrow early training if you're a prodigy; perhaps especially if you're a prodigy. Stella, bringing a strong background in abstract painting from Andover, studied with the few painters active at Princeton even though they were very unlike him. In Weinberg's analysis, they offered acceptance more than indoctrination. Stella went from prodigy to maverick and has stayed there for sixty years.

Curator Auping's essay in Frank Stella takes on the daunting task of summarizing all the major trends of the artist's 60-year career. Fresh from Princeton, Stella made his name with two kinds of austere geometrical paintings – one black, the other using aluminum and copper metallic commercial paints. Later Stella would use Benjamin Moore housepaints, alkyds, polymers, and custom chemical concoctions. Auping notes how Stella began to shape canvases in irregular ways and gradually move into sets of three-dimensional planes that moved steadily out from the wall on which these paintings hung. After creating his signature Protractor Paintings – the day-glo works from the late '60s and early '70s that most people (certainly me) associate first with his name, Stella moved to making constructions of cardboard, felt, wood, fiberglass, metal, and mixed media that include paints and inks but move distinctly out from the wall onto the surrounding floor space, hybrids of sculpture and painting.

It's at this point in the catalog (as well as in the actual retrospective in Ft. Worth) that one realizes that the painter has become a studio. Only rarely do the authors in Frank Stella acknowledge this development, which is typical of major modern artists (cf. 36, where Auping references assistants at work on Stella's smoke-ring images). Jordan Kantor, in an essay called "Frank Painting" which focuses on Stella's craftsmanship and creative persona, doesn't mention assistants at all. But one infers, from the prolific production of massive artworks using multiple technologies, that in Stella's middle age he became more the head designer and CEO of a shop bearing his brand name than the lonely craftsman stretching his own odd-shaped canvases – as much architect as artist, not that there's anything wrong with architecture. Images of his studio usually show Stella alone in a vast crowded workshop, though here and there one can find a picture of an assistant at work on a Stella construction. I remark on this simply to acknowledge part of the process of making art that has been around presumably since the Egyptians, but which stands in uneasy contrast to the notion of the Romantic individual maker. For Auping, Weinberg, and Kantor, no matter who's doing the physical work, Frank Stella is that maker.

The color plates that follow the text of Frank Stella are magificently produced, making smart use of fold-outs to try to convey the monumental scale of some of the big paintings in the exhibition (Damascus Gate and Das Erdbeben in Chili). My only complaint might be that the small intricate objects of Stella's recent Circus of Pure Feeling for Malevich, whimsical 3-D printed chromophobic contraptions, are shown en masse at a distance instead of in closeup.

I am not sure whether I enjoyed the Stella exhibition itself. I still like the Protractors best. They are pretty – "unbearably pretty," Auping quotes artist Lawrence Weiner as saying (28) – but far from kitschy: simply by achieving massive proportions, they win you over (and as Auping notes, painting in such proportions seemed even bigger 45 years ago, before Stella had influenced younger painters to think a lot bigger). But many of the other items, earlier and later, are deliberately cold and offputting. The Modern tucks away a huge aluminum sculpture called Raft of the Medusa (with only a conceptual connection to Géricault's painting) in its own alcove, where it sits unapproachable, a big shiny collection of debris. Maybe it was just the fatigue of a monster retrospective, but at many such pieces, I just nodded and moved on.

Auping, Michael. Frank Stella: A retrospective. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015.